Author’s note: Given that the reviewer only progressed as far as the third level of this game, readers are strongly urged to treat this article as a first impressions piece, as opposed to a full review.
When I was young, I hated brussel sprouts. There was some innate quality to them that I found deeply offensive. Oh sure, even at a young age I was acutely aware of how those wretchedly wrinkled little green balls were supposed to aid my still-growing body. But despite their satisfying crunch and their powerfully nourishing nature, I had given up on trying to draw any epicurean pleasure out of them. My heart and mind had drawn the line in the sand, and said no.
It is with this memory in mind and a conflicted heart that I write this "quasi-review-slash-first-impressions-piece" about Telepath Tactics, the latest game (6 years and $41,259 in the making) from Sinister Designs, a talented one-man development studio in Chicago. Like the brussel sprouts of my youth, it is evident that this game has many strong elements that would make it a worthy addition to a player's dietary regimen of strategy games.
It delivers an excellent tactical turn-based strategy experience, one that is highly dependent upon the player's cunning and skill rather than on the capriciousness of chance. It delivers a fresh and engaging story (as far as I've experienced), with an interesting and equally fresh cast of characters. Sadly, my experience was cut short by what I feel are deeply glaring issues with the game's fundamental design. These left me sapped of the will to continue to see the game to its end.
Telepath Tactics (TT) takes place in the universe of Telepath RPG: Servants of God – itself a retro throwback to older top-down RPG games in the same vein as Spiderweb Software's Avernum/Exile and Geneforge series. Many comparisons have been drawn between TT, the other two games in the Telepath universe, and classic tactical RPGs like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. However the best comparison that I can make, from my experience, is to the indie classic Frozen Synapse. Like Frozen Synapse, TT is a game that relies on hard-core tactics, where the greatest weapon available to the player is the one they start out with: their brain.
Battles are carried out on a top-down 2D pseudo-isometric view; units are allowed a certain amount of actions in game, which allow them to move (only along the X-Y axes),use special abilities/spells, and attack. Depending on the character and ability, units can carry out a wide variety of actions from healing, to long-range attacks, to buffs and debuffs. With experience and levels gained, units can gain psychokinetic abilities, allowing them to push or pull other units on the battlefield.
All of these elements come together in how the game makes use of positioning and proximity. Long-ranged units can attack from behind obstacles like trees, but experience a drop-off in damage dealt with increasing distance. Special abilities consume mana that is recharged when units remain inactive. Backstab attacks can do massive damage to even higher-level boss characters (so keep your characters turned the right way!). The push and pull abilities can give friendly units the extra nudge they need to get in range to attack – or can get enemy units to drown in rivers. Because of all of this, the shrewd placement of units and the clever use of their special abilities is key to survival.
It's just as important to know when to hold back as it is to know when to charge in. At times, combat almost feels like a tensely choreographed, chess-like dance, with characters vying for position to get in one more decisive backstab, or one more shot off with their crossbow.
The ability to master this dance will more often than not reward players with victory against what may seem like overwhelming odds. On the other hand, players caught unaware or unprepared may find themselves hopelessly outflanked, with their lead hero on fire and their healer being nothing but a lifeless corpse on the battlefield. It makes combat an often nail-biting experience, and nothing beats the satisfaction of using a well-timed and well-coordinated assault to bring down a powerful foe.
However, it also makes for gameplay that is brutally unforgiving. TT does not suffer fools gladly. Make a mistake – be it a wrong character chosen for a specific task, or one left undefended, and it might as well be game over. Sure, you can continue to fight, but losing even one critical unit like your healer may be enough to cost you the game, and once they die, they stay dead for the rest of the campaign. Choosing the "Easy" mode will allow your fallen units to return for the next battle – but with reduced maximum health. This feels like a punitive measure, adding insult to injury for players struggling to find an optimal strategy for a given level.
Such a roguelike system would be expected to allow players to load from a saved game and learn from their mistakes without having to go through the lengthy, unskippable dialogue sequences, or the arduous build up phase to a given battle. Sadly, TT does not. There is no in-mission save – though the faithful developer Craig Stern has told me that it is slated for a patch in the far future – so if the player screws up, they have to go and play through the entire mission, dialogue and all, over again. And again. And again.
I can't stress enough how quickly my enthusiasm wore thin because of these mechanics. A mistake made with a character on the third mission left me aching for a way to go back to a point before I'd made my fateful error. Alas, I had to either try to find a way to withdraw (and risk losing more of my party), or restart the entire mission, losing a good hour or so of planning and play time.
I admit it: I'm not the best gamer who ever lived, and I'm not exactly a strategic wunderkind, but in other tactics-heavy games (like Frozen Synapse), the player is given a wide berth to try different types of strategies, or explore different approaches to seemingly difficult combat situations.
In contrast, it feels like TT punishes the player twice for failing to find the optimal solution for a level: first, by making the player redo an entire level, and second by bringing back fallen characters only in a crippled state and with permanently reduced health. The starting cutscenes hint at a potentially engaging plot with themes of sacrifice and redemption, with a largely female cast of main characters that I've found all too-rare in contemporary gaming. However, my desire to see how the plot would unfold was overshadowed by the disheartening level of frustration I'd experienced from the third mission.
I love brussel sprouts now, especially with a pat of butter and a sprinkling of pepper and sea salt. I now feel like their sharp, bitter taste is an excellent compliment to how bitter I've become in my old age. In the same way, maybe I'll also one day come to better appreciate Telepath Tactics, in the way that many already do (and rightfully so, I would hasten to add). One day, I'm sure I'll better appreciate the game's outstanding presentation of tactics-based combat in a novel and original setting, as well as its steep roguelike difficulty.
Perhaps one day. But not today.
- Heavy emphasis on tactical gameplay
- Satisfying combat system with significant amount of strategic depth
- A unique, distinctive setting
- Interesting and distinctive characters (potentially)
- No in-mission save
- A difficulty level that could potentially be punishingly high for some players