With the success of games like XCOM: Enemy Unkown, tactical RPGs have been making a comeback of sorts. Usually characterized by unforgiving gameplay, they are generally seen as a return to a bygone age of hardcore games. Templar Battleforce, by the Trese Brothers, is a loving callback to one of the genre’s pre-digital forefathers, with power armor, vile aliens, and a complete lack of diplomacy.
The story begins, rather abruptly, when the convoy your Templars are guarding is attacked and the your ship is rammed and trapped by a xenos vessel. One thing this game really is good at is establishing context: your fight seems like a real contiguous struggle rather than a simple series of missions. Across missions you gain resources by capturing control points, from which you can buy new troops recruits and ordinance mid mission. In between missions you slowly buy out a tech tree in order to improve the range of upgrades available to your troops. It isn’t incredibly deep or advanced, but the economy and the schematics on the briefing screen come together to make the missions seem like a little bit more than a simple bug hunt.
Not to say the bug hunting isn’t engrossing in itself. The combat is a classic turn-based tactical system: Your default Templars get 5 movement points and 5 action points; you move them around and attack or use resource-based abilities, and then the foul xenos get their turn to spawn from the dark and do the same. While the aliens are remarkably vulnerable to bullets, power armor can seem like but an eggshell beneath their claws, forcing you to play conservatively. On top of that, you usually have an objective you need to reach, defend or activate, which forces you to push out and take risks. Sound at all familiar? (Hint: If you don’t recognize it you’re a HERETIC! *BLAM*!)
That’s right. Battleforce is an unabashed tribute of the grim darkness of Warhammer 40k, with “vile xenos”, transhuman warrior religion and so on. Specifically, the influential and venerable Space Hulk board game, and a sprinkling of the Deathwatch RPG; with the methodical grid-based movement and mission structure of the former and the PvE play and some of the upgrade and inventory systems from the latter. But thankfully, Battleforce is intent on building an identity of it’s own, there aren’t eye-rolling references and for all the resemblance to Space Marines the Templar have a noticeably different attitude and outlook (as well as female members) which makes for a refreshing change of tone for one who is invested in 40k.
The gameplay also departs from the above games in a few important ways, with significantly larger maps and the aforementioned economy system. Some “Ordinance” items are common-pool and deployed directly by the player rather than being bound to any of your Templars, and their “Leviathan” power armor overheats from exertion, requiring you to pace and evaluate all of your actions. There are defined character classes too, with scouts, engineers, beserkers and medics, but the equipment options give the player a large amount of flexibility within each class. Your options are doled out by an enormous tech tree, which holds all kinds of interesting goodies and surprises. Single use relic items and character customization also creates some of the connection to your party that is considered so important for this genre.
What is problematic, however, is that unlike the methodical and brutal 40k games Battleforce (on normal) starts out rather forgiving and easy, taking several missions to get to the point where your troops can’t just effortlessly tank all of the xenos damage. This is not a problem on it’s own, but it is a workaround for a more lasting issue. The interface and menus are very unpolished and weak, learning all the kinks takes quite a bit of patience which more difficult gameplay could stretch. Feedback is poor, action points aren’t clearly displayed, movement can require a lot of repeated clicking thanks to the pathfinding, and the way that ability use works (clicking the icon, then, without prompting, clicking on the target) is un-intuitive and finicky. This makes the game a little more of a hassle to play than it has to be, but it is no deal breaker.
Templar Battleforce is a really excellent example of the tactical RPG. It is not for everyone, as it is unforgiving and sometimes unintuitive, but it delivers what was promised; an engrossing struggle to purge the aliens, with a large amount of mechanical variety. If some of the problems disturb you, it is also worth noting that as of today, 4/23/2016, months after release, the developers are still patching the game on a weekly basis, working out balance problems and user experience issues. The game is yet improving. And if you are a Warhammer 40k fan, and squint slightly, this game might be the video game adaption of Space Hulk you’ve always wanted.
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