There are some contradictions within the world of TRPGs. On the one hand, it is a subgenre that traces its lineage to Final Fantasy Tactics, a mechanically and narratively complex title. This has led some developers to try and make games far exceeding that one in complexity. On the other hand, the basic interfaces for such games make them a good fit for mobile and other casual markets, leading other developers to produce simpler experiences.
A simple game doesn't need to be a bad one. I've previously looked at Vanaris Tactics, which was clearly made with newcomers in mind. A better example might be Chroma Squad, Behold Studios' love letter to Power Rangers that really does a lot with a little.
Today's game, Live by the Sword: Tactics, is another of those simple titles. Simple though it may be, it features a few novel, underused mechanics that I would really love to see in more games.
The main campaign of Live by the Sword: Tactics follows two brothers on a mission to sweep the local woods clear of bandits. It seems that banditry has become a problem owing to the perceived weakness of the crown. The kingdom recently eked out a Pyrrhic victory against a belligerent neighbor, and the death of the old king has left the realm in the charge of a child. But opportunism isn't the only thing motivating the thieves, and the brothers soon find themselves entangled in a looming conspiracy.
It's a standard TRPG plot with a standard TRPG twist. But, as I've said before, no one plays these games primarily for the story.
The basic mechanics of Live by the Sword: Tactics are going to be familiar to anyone who's played a TRPG before. The game is turn-based, with abilities tied to cooldown timers rather than an MP system. There are, however, two differences that significantly change the way the game is played.
First, there is no experience system and the characters don't gain levels. Yes, you read that right. Now, I've pondered the concept of an RPG without levels for a while, and Live by the Sword: Tactics gave me a chance to test it out in the wild. It brings with it both upsides and downsides.
The player will eventually gather a party of seven characters, of whom five can be taken into any particular battle. I think the idea behind the lack of a leveling system is that the player can freely choose the characters that best fit the situation rather than those with the highest levels. For example, the archer is one of the most powerful offensive characters in the party, but only if she has the high ground. Without that, her limited range makes her vulnerable. So while I might use the archer most of the time, in areas with level terrain I can swap her out for a lesser-used melee fighter who's a better fit.
I have seen other TRPGs - from big names to tiny indies - that tried to introduce similar concepts, but because those games still featured conventional experience/level systems, they fell short. The specialist characters tend to have lower levels as a result of spending so much time on the back bench, so playing the game as intended necessitates hours of dreary grind. Excluding a leveling system means that Live by the Sword: Tactics neatly avoids that problem.
And I do know that the devs want you to switch characters due to the other twist: The player can respec any character for free between levels. Each character has an innate ability and six additional skills, of which four can be taken into combat at a time. While you'll typically use the same ones in most fights, you will always have the option to switch skills in and out to take advantage of character combos or to neutralize a powerful enemy. Between this and the character swapping, this allows for maximum flexibility.
There are downsides to this kind of design, however. The characters are static, so once the last party member is unlocked (which is only about a third of the way into the campaign), there's not much more to look forward to. Add to that the small number of enemy types in the campaign, and the later levels can get a bit tedious. Having the characters level-up as a party (something that Chroma Squad did, among a precious few other TRPGs) probably would have helped here.
The main campaign is very short - about 4-5 hours - but unlike most TRPGs, the campaign is not the heart of the Live by the Sword: Tactics experience. Rather, it serves as training, and to unlock features in the other modes.
There are three additional single-player modes (a level builder is planned, but wasn't available as of this review). The first - Skirmish - is a fairly basic quick play option and isn't worth talking about. The other two - Tactician and Adventure - are more interesting.
Tactician mode is the Live by the Sword: Tactics' challenge mode. It contains a series of special maps, each of which has some condition that has to be met. Most are time attack modes that task the player with defeating an enemy party in as few turns as possible, but others have unusual conditions. You may have to protect a VIP or defeat a single enemy with massively elevated stats. Completing the levels unlocks more difficult variants that have the party fighting uphill.
The most unusual mode is Adventure mode, a randomized challenge that adds a few new mechanics into the mix. Starting with three random characters (including standard campaign party members and some enemy-only classes), each with random skills, the player is tasked with fighting through a series of random encounters.
Adventure mode features a few roguelike elements. Winning battles earns treasure, which can be cashed in to recruit new party members, switch out skills or buy powerups. However, a wise player won't spend all of that money at once. Characters don't heal fully between fights and death is permanent, so leaving a little bit aside to recover HP or replace deceased party members is a sound idea.
The Adventure mode is clearly meant to be a major focus, with several planned updates in the months following the game's formal release. Said updates will also include a ranked multiplayer mode and a series of new characters.
As with Vanaris Tactics, Live by the Sword: Tactics is a title that's likely to appeal more to a new or intermediate TRPG player than to someone more seasoned. However, the secondary modes of Live by the Sword: Tactics give it a bit more substance than most, and its novel mechanics - while odd - are worth pursuing. I would like to see more games that follow the general design philosophy here.
Live by the Sword Tactics is available on PC via Steam as an Early Access title. The full release will also be available on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PS4/5, and PC via GOG.
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