Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics is a turn-based strategy RPG published by En Masse Entertainment and developed by BonusXP. By following the storyline of the recently released Netflix series, this game takes players back to the world of Thra. Players will be leading bands of Gelflings through rich strategy filled stages on their journey to release their lands from the yoke of the Skesis’ tyranny.
Over the last few years, it’s felt like the trend in turn-based strategy RPGs has been solidly in the “lose as few characters as possible” mindset. Games like Fire Emblem: Three Houses and XCOM are perhaps the most iconic of this style of game. This kind of game is known for punishing players for every character lost. While this creates a lot of tension during play, it can hamstring game design. Since the developer doesn’t want to create situations where the player must lose characters the situations on the field can become fairly limited. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics bucks this trend completely. With no penalty for losing characters developer, BonusXP frequently presents the player with situations that leaves them knowing someone isn’t getting off the map alive.
This freedom found me often using my characters more like a resource, and made for some interesting situations. Instead of being limited to clear the field of enemies, or defend this point missions, I found myself having to gather items and flip switches, among other tasks. This variety led to its own kind of tension. Especially as mission objectives weren’t revealed till my units were deployed leaving me wondering if my team would work out.
The story for Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics picks up with Aughra mind fasting with various Gelflings across Thra. Through this use of telepathic communication, Aughra brings herself up to speed on what has been transpiring around the planet. Since these memories represent the earlier moments in the series they are used to introduce the player to the various mechanics of the game. As each character’s memories are completed they join your mini army permanently. This creates a natural transition between the easier tutorial levels and the main bulk of the game.
When the player gets to the individual missions in Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics the game greets them with unique maps whose design greatly affects the strategy of the missions. This is because of two particular design choices. The first is the verticality present on most maps.
Maps often present lots of different levels of height to them. With a bonus granted to attacking or defending from the high ground, it’s always good to be the tallest combatant on the battlefield. Some areas can only be reached by special mobility powers that some characters can equip. Some classes can use special jumping abilities to get from place to place. And of course, if the character is a Gelfling female, she can always opt to spread her wings and fly.
The second way the level design influences the gameplay in Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics is through special terrain types. Everything from poisonous swamps to pits of gobblers is present in the game. With characters sporting many different abilities that can knock opponents around, it’s always important to bear in mind what’s behind you. While the maps, and how they are navigated, is a highlight of Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics it certainly isn’t the only wrinkle in gameplay. The game puts its unique spin on everything down to the most basic aspects of how a turn flows in the game.
The vast majority of turn-based strategy games run on the same style of action system. When it is a character’s turn they have two actions they can take. Most commonly this comes in the form of a movement action, which is paired with some form of attack or special action. These actions can generally be done in the Oder of the player’s choice. They can move and follow up with an attack, or the reverse. With Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics if you want to move your character you must do it before you take another action. This removes hit-and-run tactics from the equation completely. While I generally enjoy having those tactics available to me, it really forced me to think differently without them there.
Another feature that greatly changed up the flow of gameplay was the bonus for passing a character’s action. If a character passed one, or both, of their actions their next turn would arrive much sooner than it otherwise would have. With the turn order displayed at the top of the screen at all times, this feature allows for far greater coordination between your characters than is often available. Furthermore, it also encouraged players to really think about their actions. Is it worth having my most powerful character finish off the nearly dead opponent, or should I hold his action so he can act closer to when the bigger threat does?
While the various tactics that can be employed on the battlefield already lend Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics a lot of great depth, the intricacies of the leveling system serve to expand upon these options tenfold. When each character starts the game they belong to one of three starting classes. Whether a scout, soldier or mender, the classes provide their own role to fill on the battlefield. These early classes fill the roles you would expect from their titles but things get interesting very quickly. While each class gains access to a wide array of actions they can take, you can never equip more than three of these skills. At least from one class. When a character gets to level five they gain the ability to assign a secondary class. They gain two abilities from this class they can use immediately. With five abilities now available the player has a much larger range of combinations to choose from. But with every fun option given the player, another hard choice is presented.
While a character can have two classes assigned to them, only their primary class will level as the character does. This means that if you want a more powerful ability from your secondary class you’ll have to swap it to primary for however many battles it will take to unlock it. Now, I can hear what you are thinking. “Yeah, that sounds cool, but I’m not gonna want to swap my primary soldier to mender so he can get that great defense buff spell if it means I’m without him for a challenging mission.” And you’d be right. Except for Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics allows the player to fight side missions to train up characters and earn extra cash. And as these missions open up fairly early the player can start utilizing them as soon as they may need.
The last thing to point out about the class system in Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics is its tiers. Once a character has gained ten levels in a class they gain access to two additional classes. These classes present new and creative abilities that will further open up options on the battlefield. But again, you can only have two classes. So if you want to gain the skills of the thief class you’ll have to choose between holding onto scout, or whatever other class you had as your secondary. So many decisions, and each of them meaningful. The hallmark of a great strategy game.
While the Gelfling characters in the game, the bulk of your units for sure, level in the above fashion, there are some exceptions to leveling. The adorable fizgig, little furry oven mitt looking critters, don’t have multiple classes. They just unlock more and more skills for their class.
The other exception is the podlings. With a string of classes linked together on a wheel, the player unlocks them in a more systematic style. Though there is still a primary and secondary class present for lots of mix and match opportunities.
The last aspect of character improvement that needs mentioning is equipment. Either at the end of missions or through an item shop, the player can acquire new and better gear. While there are a few items that are genuinely interesting, by and large, each weapon improvement is simply a higher stat buff than the last. While this is mildly disappointing, given the depth the rest of the game gives the strategy, I’m willing to forgive some mundane item options.
While I enjoyed most of what Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics presented, it isn’t without its faults. The most glaring was in the overall presentation. Features like the item shop are designed without any personality. Rather than opening the menu and being greeted by even a still image of a cheery podling there is simply a scroll down menu with some sorting options. The land of Thra, especially after the Netflix series, is so full of personality and life. It would’ve been nice if the designers had leaned into it a bit more.
The other place the presentation leaves a lot to be desired is in its text. When accessing a character’s actions a radial wheel pops up showing the options available. When you highlight an option a moderate size graphic of a banner appears with text on it giving the ability’s description. Early on this presentation is adequate for fairly simple abilities. As you progress deeper however some of the descriptions become extremely wordy. Rather than increasing the size of the graphic, the developers chose to shrink the text. This left me squinting to see the fine print. And with the myriad of actions, one can take I really needed that mid-battle reminder of exactly what that new power does.
Further complicating the reading situation is the choice to highlight text when showing combat predictions. With the game allowing the player to see how much damage they’ll do if they hit, and the odds of a hit occurring, before an action is taken, it shows the text beneath the targeted character. This text is highlighted instead of being kept in the usual black text. Depending on the color in the background I often struggled to see the information.
The only time gameplay proved a stumbling block came when the Skesis known as The Chamberlain was present. This character possesses a bevy of range status effect abilities that will confuse, stun, or outrightly take control of your characters. And it often felt like there was very little I could do about it. These were the only maps that left me truly frustrated with the game. This was especially disappointing to me as The Chamberlain is perhaps the most iconic personality across both the movie and series. As the only Skesis with any distinct personality in the movie, he was easily the most memorable bad guy. Being disappointed to see him on the field was a real let down as I wanted to be eager to square off with one of my childhood villains.
Despite these hurdles, I enjoyed my time with Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. It provided lots of variety, both in map design as well as gameplay options, while providing a, mostly, fair challenge. It keeps mostly to the plot of the series, though there are embellishments along the way. If you are looking for a different approach to the turn-based strategy RPG genre this could be just what you are looking for.
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC on February 2.
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics
Despite these hurdles, I enjoyed my time with Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. It provided lots of variety, both in map design as well as gameplay options, while providing a, mostly, fair challenge.