Tactical RPGs really seem to be going in unusual directions these days. Even in a hidebound subgenre where most developers are content to knock off Final Fantasy Tactics over and over again, there are people trying to integrate new mechanics.
I last saw this with Live by the Sword: Tactics, which featured an unusual Adventure Mode with roguelike elements. Today's title takes that even farther, foregoing a conventional campaign for a pure roguelike experience.
The nature of the game is right there in the title. Crawl Tactics is certainly an odd name, but it's also an accurate description. This is, at heart, an endless TRPG dungeon crawl. As such, there's not much of a story here - delve into a dungeon, find a MacGuffin, the kind of thing you'd see on the first page of an instruction manual back in the day. But as I always say, the story in a TRPG takes a backseat to the mechanics and design, and here there are a few twists.
The player starts each run with a generic three-person party dropped into the wilderness. This begins the first phase of the game: Exploration. The player proceeds through a series of rooms on the way to the dungeon exit. A room may contain a fight, a shop, or some event, but the player can only see a few rooms ahead. Planning is key, as cleared rooms gradually fill with powerful monsters which make backtracking a dicey proposition. You may not be able to clear each floor, as much as you'd like to.
Between dungeons, the player is brought to a town to prepare for the next expedition. The town is very sparse at first - the player must build and upgrade buildings using a special currency found in the dungeon. These buildings will enable the player to partake in the usual RPG sidelines - buying potions and gear, unlocking new abilities for party members, and replacing the ones who've fallen (it is a roguelike, after all).
The overall design of the game isn't the only thing that's different - there are some quirks in the combat as well. The core mechanics aren't all that unusual. Crawl Tactics is turn-based, with the characters on each side taking their turns at the same time. Each character has a certain number of action points that can be used to move or act, with special abilities regulated by both cooldowns and a shared MP pool.
But weapons and magic aren't the only means of ending a fight. The fields are strewn with fixed weapons and traps that can be activated by either stepping on a switch or simply causing them damage. Traps can even activate each other, so a single move can set off a chain reaction that can rain devastation across half the battlefield. Add to that the fact that many enemies explode upon being defeated, and there are a lot of options that can allow a clever player to end a battle in a hurry.
That's even before getting into the environmental effects. Spell effects can have very different effects based on the terrain or (for outdoor areas) the weather. Cast a fire spell in the grasslands, and you can start a wildfire that will spread as long as there's tinder to burn. Fire is much less effective in water, but cast a lightning spell at a target in water and it can splash and hit adjacent targets as well. Understanding how different tiles are affected by different attacks and traps is key to avoiding getting cornered by your own brilliant plans.
Crawl Tactics is not a game for those who are new either to TRPGs or roguelike games. It is much more challenging than most of the comparable games I've looked at this year. Granted, if I put in another 15 to 20 hours so that I could figure out the ins and outs of the system, I probably wouldn't find it so hard. This is a game that is meant to be played many times, with a lot to learn and a lot to unlock.
For any fan of the subgenre who wants to try something a little bit different, Crawl Tactics gets a strong recommendation.
Crawl Tactics is available for PC via Steam. A key for the game was provided by the developer.
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