(Disclaimer – this is a review I wrote for VGChartz originally, hence the difference in formatting. I’m moving it to my own site for archiving sake. If I replay the game one day, I may re-write this for consistency reasons)
Yes – NA only (self-published)
It’s always nice to see a developer find their true calling. Arcade Distillery games tend to be distinguished by their striking art-styles but aren’t often as solid under the hood – I found both Mecho Tales and Plague Road to be spectacular duds when I played them on Vita last year, both offering more style than substance. I’m pleased to report that War Theatre delivers a much more enjoyable gameplay experience that also seems to suit Luc Bernard’s character designs far better than anything he’s worked on before – it’s not perfect, but it is a massive step in the right direction.
At its core, War Theatre is a turn-based tactical strategy game seemingly heavily influenced by Nintendo’s Advance Wars. You’ll move a squad of units around a map shown from an overhead perspective, capturing buildings and attacking enemies as you go – the main goal is to either kill their hero unit or capture their HQ, after which you’ll unlock the next map. Everything is by-the-book for the genre even down to the side-by-side 2D views of the battles – you’ll find no innovation here, but that’s not a bad thing.
Buildings come in two types – factories are used to build new units (and up your unit cap), while cities provide gold each turn which is your currency for purchasing things. The maps are littered with other types of terrain which can provide tactical advantages and disadvantages – for example you can move further on roads but your defence goes down, while forests help your defence at the expense of attack power. Positioning is key and can make the difference between the unit surviving an attack or not.
In terms of your army, you can choose to spend on a range of units including various infantry, ground vehicles and air support. There’s a rock-paper-scissors power balance going on where infantry overpower aircraft, who are effective against ground support who in turn can take out infantry. Certain maps will also introduce naval combat and these bring their own pros and cons, meaning you’ll always have to balance out having a full team with picking the most effective units.
You’ll also have a hero that is much more powerful than the rest of your army and will have access to special skills – for example Sister Robyn can spread strong healing around but can’t attack, while the Rat Mother can leave clouds of poison to block off choke points. Sadly, this is the only real variety you’ll get in terms of squads – the individual units don’t change depending on who your leader is which is a shame, although at least it ensures the battles are balanced at the expense of making them feel very samey after a few hours.
Also in the mix are quests and perks – the former are simply missions to complete while playing such as building x number of heavy units to be awarded a currency, which can then be used to buy advantages to take into battle such as reducing unit cost or increasing attack power. They’re an interesting proposition as they do provide incentive to keep pushing forward, but also feel mandatory and early on missions can be challenging purely because you haven’t really built up a bank of perks to use yet (especially if you quickly progress to the final mission for each character) – which could easily put you off in the first few hours.
My biggest issue with War Theatre is that it doesn’t really explain any of this – at least as far as I could see there was no tutorial to explain perks, quests or even basic combat. It’s easy enough to pick up the basics with a little trial and error but I was still struggling to figure out some things even after multiple hours playing – hero characters have a second number by them that I eventually figured out was their power for using specials, but this wasn’t obvious and it wouldn’t have taken much to include a little text to explain this early on.
The story is also a little scattered – it takes place in the land of Kasalli and you’ll play through multiple campaigns following the different hero units as they chase their various goals (Rat Mother is just trying to survive with her brood while Sister Robyn is trying to purify the land etc.). Problem is, there’s no real explanation beyond this – I understand it’s part of an expanded universe including in the developer’s other games, which kind of shows as it’s very piecemeal here.
Still, the atmosphere is excellent – a dark, grim post-apocalyptic world filled with mutated creatures and gigantic metallic monstrosities all fighting for survival. It helps that the soundtrack is stellar too (some really beautiful violin tracks mixed with electronic sounds that help set the tense mood) and the exaggerated character designs fit in perfectly – even the environments aren’t too busy, a big improvement over the messy and difficult to read screens of something like Plague Road.
Once you’re done with the campaigns (which will take you a good few hours) there’s a skirmish mode to mess around with (a fantastic addition that I always appreciate in strategy titles) plus multiplayer if you want to play with friends. It’s a good package – there’s plenty of rough edges that stop War Theatre being a true classic within the genre, but I had a lot of fun playing and it’s definitely a step up for Arcade Distillery, making me very interested to see what they do next.
A solid tactical strategy game that follows the genre rulebook to the letter, War Theatre might not do anything new and exciting but it definitely nails the basics well enough to make an enjoyable title. There’s some interesting world building here and very stylish graphics, but it’s the ‘just one more go’ gameplay that kept me hooked and ensures that this is one I’ll be coming back to in the future.