Satellite Reign, by 5 Lives Studios, is cyberpunk-themed tactical RPG with an intriguing vision of the future. Not the rain-slicked grimdark neon-lit future where a corporate surveillance state crushes dissent with an augmented fist, as that is a world we have seen before. Instead, it is the gameplay mechanics which hold a tantalizing potential, a hope for a better future, even if there are frustrating obstructions which keep it grounded.
That’s not to say it’s completely original. The title itself, “Satellite Reign”, is a slightly oblique reference to 1996’s Syndicate Wars, and reverently follows the DOS classic’s footsteps: The player looses a small team of elite augmented agents into the mean streets of an urban dystopia, commanding them in corporate warfare and sabotage while also managing finances and R&D. This is done through what are now standard RPG mechanics and cyberpunk tropes by sneaking around security drones, assigning skillpoints, casting energy-based abilities, implanting augmentations and all the other things that later became popular in System Shock and Deus Ex, just with 4x the number of killjoys in trenchcoats and an isometric perspective.
But especially given that Bullfrog Productions was shuttered in 2001, 5 Lives has done a great deed freeing Syndicate from the DOS era and into the 21st century. The maps are enormous urban jungles, with missions and enemy strongholds existing as contiguous locations within them, no load screens required. This makes the world of Satellite Reign an incredible tactical playground: Cyber-scanning the target by hiding a specialist in the crowds outside, splitting up your team across wide areas of the map to hack, attack from multiple directions or destroy power plants and ambush response teams as they physically move around the world. It sometimes feels like a real location, and as the corporation begins to lose it’s hold there is a sense of accomplishment.
While everything going according to plan is great, the game also accommodates for when you are improvising desperately after a plan went south. Actions like hacking and climbing have required skill levels (at which point they are guaranteed), but you can force any agent to roll a skill check on any action. This allows you to branch out from your characters’ specializations in a pinch or a panic, and having your hacker’s cheeto covered fingers slip on a zipline two stories up is always amusing, as are crispy fried amateur electricians. This almost pen-and-paper-like bit of spontaneously humorous RNG grants a welcome bit of levity to the otherwise very challenging gameplay. Everything is in real time and you can only slow time down with in game abilities, no pausing allowed. Juggling the interdependent actions of four independent agents sometimes across miles of city is a tall order.
And sadly, this is where the problems begin. The user interface is awful, with mismatched button and text sizes, poor feedback, and everything running off of a single menu tree which is always reached through the esc menu. Something feels wrong about having the mission briefings and map right next to the graphics options and save files.
Worse: Part of the reason that this game was worth reviewing months after release are the numerous technical issues, which after months of patches seem to be chronic. While the game has yet to crash, the framerate fluctuates wildly from the mid 40s to the high teens on my Core i5 and AMD 6870, and the modified RTS engine chugs like a steam engine during startup; loading from my dedicated game drive takes around 3 minutes. What’s worse, once it does load textures are muddy, animations and effects are stiff to the point of making combat inscrutable and unsatisfying, and various gameplay glitches roam free (the cover system for instance, is either buggy, poorly signposted, or both).
One could ignore these issues, games with less spectacular promise and setup have gotten by with worse. The problem is that all these niggles wear away the glamour of mechanical engagment, and exposes a more glaring issue: The game has zero story or worldbuilding, (apart from archetypes transplanted wholesale from Blade Runner or Snowcrash), and where your playable characters could have helped fill the gap, there are instead silent body-snatchers who change faces every time you upgrade their clones.
With Satellite Reign’s mechanics compromised by teething issues, and investment in the story and setting impossible, that lovely gem in the center, the unparalleled wholesomeness of the freeform open-world experience, is betrayed. While I can raid corporate fortresses all day in a million subtle ways, if the game engine fails me and there is no story, setting or character to feel a connection to, the experience is lost in time, like, tears, in rain. That being said, there is enormous promise here, and here’s to hoping 5 Lives learns from their mistakes and is able to do the streets of the corporate future more justice next time.
But for all it’s faults, Satellite Reign might still be worth exploring as a mechanical experience if you can handle some rough edges and make your own narrative. And if you are a fan of the original Syndicate games you’ll definitely be into it. Otherwise, I’d just keep an eye on the developers.
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