Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Grotesquely Obnoxious: Tactics

Grotesque Tactics: Evil Heroes, an independent game by Silent Dreams, bills itself as a "satirical RPG" that "pokes fun at" the well-worn tropes and cliches of popular strategy-RPGs and action-RPGs. When its description specifically mentioned Gothic as one of its targets for parody, I was all for a humorous tongue-in-cheek adventure that would make fun of my favorite game.

But it turns out that Grotesque Tactics isn't that much of a satire or a parody. Its jokes are worth a slight chuckle at first, but the amusement quickly wears off once you realize that its only way of satirizing the genre is to make you play obnoxiously exaggerated renditions of all of the wearisome aspects of the genre. It references a few games here and there, but only in oblique ways that don't relate to anything at all.

Besides that, the gameplay of Grotesque Tactics is pretty rough around the edges with bugs, glitches, random crashes, camera issues, targeting issues, interface issues, typos, and so forth. On top of that, for a game that's billed as a "tactics" game, there's not a lot of strategy or tactics involved. So putting "tactics" in the title may not be totally appropriate, but the experience certainly could be called "grotesque." More after the jump.

In Grotesque, you play as Drake, a military academy drop-out who failed the final exam of defeating a mushroom in combat. Depressed and ashamed of himself, he sets out to let himself be eaten by a mushroom. Before he can finish the deed, the Holy Avatar, a knight who refers to himself as His Semidivine Humble Self, convinces Drake to overcome his depression and join the fight against the Dark Church, an evil cult that just wiped out the entire military.

From here, you spend the rest of the game recruiting so-called "evil heroes" to join your party and battle against the Dark Church. You're supposed to be a rag-tag bunch of anti-heroes saving the day, but none of your party members could even be described as "evil heroes," so that's another aspect of the game's title that doesn't make any sense.

The gameplay functions like any strategy RPG. You fight on a grid, earn experience for defeating enemies, level-up, complete quests, and buy and sell loot to upgrade your equipment. But all of this proves to be a shallow experience. You can't allocate stat points or pick skills on level-up, it all happens automatically. And each character only gets two skills through the entire game, anyway. There are only a handful of items that each character can equip, and for the most part they're all found during quests which makes money fairly useless.

Puts me to sleep, too.

Combat plays like a rudimentary version of a tactics game. The battlefield is a grid system that your characters can move around on, depending on their movement stat. You move your characters next to an enemy and right-click to attack. And that's just about all there is to it. Your skills tend to be status-inducing affairs, like inflicting blindness, bleeding, poison, sleep, or depression, and a couple of characters have more interesting ones that affect the grids by putting up a wall of flames that deal damage to enemies, or a wall of vines that enemies can't pass. But otherwise the skills are just "deal extra damage and maybe a status effect" which isn't especially interesting.

The only slightly unique aspect to the combat is the "obsession meters." Each character has some kind of obsession that fills up their gauge and causes them to automatically do a special attack, usually after dealing a certain amount of damage or being hit a certain number of times. The twist with these special attacks is that they tend to affect all units around the character, or specifically target your own party members. 

The Holy Avatar, for example, starts telling stories of his heroic affairs, which puts all characters (friendly and hostile) around him to sleep. The goblin in your party runs away after being hit so many times, dropping a smoke bomb at his feet that blinds all nearby characters (friendly and hostile). If your healer takes too much damage, she turns and beats the crap out of one of your party members. Whenever your party members stand next to Holy Avatar, the three maidens get jealous and shoot them. The barbarian in your party will go berserk and randomly attack party members (instead of your target) during his turns. The vampire will periodically spend a turn drinking the blood of a party member instead of attacking an enemy.

I suppose there's room here for the obsessions to be strategic, but in practice they just turn out to be annoying. Each character has their own meter, and it's just tedious to keep track of them all, moving your characters around depending on who's about to go crazy. Especially when you have no control over some of them activating and you wind up devastating your own party. 

On top of these annoyances, the targeting system can be stupid at times. Sometimes you want to click a skill to see what targets are in range or what options are available to you, but if there's only one possible target available then the character automatically moves to the space and executes the skill, and you can't stop it. This results in characters waking up slept targets or getting swarmed by enemies or wasting the skill on a different enemy. 

Grotesque Tactics: Evil Heroes (click for full size)

In some areas the camera is totally unbearable. In a cave, for example, it randomly zooms in so close to the ground that it almost goes beneath the floor, and other times it raises up so high that you can't see anything at all. You pan it around the screen and it starts spazzing out between the two extremes. If you want to rotate the camera angle (by pressing Q or E), you also have to move the mouse in that direction otherwise the camera will get caught on your mouse pointer.

I also also frequently ran into occasions where my party would get stuck in combat mode with no enemies in sight. Sometimes I'd win a battle and still be stuck in combat mode, or there'd be enemies on the other side of a wall that I can't actually get to, and the battle grids come up, thus forcing me to move all 10 of my characters one at a time until I could get close enough to the enemies to kill them, which sometimes took 3 or 4 rounds of movement and then several more rounds of combat. So tedious and annoying.

In other situations, the game crashes or screws you over for no good reason. One time I was in a difficult battle with goblin mages that did heavy aoe damage to my party members. It's a long battle that has me fighting like a dozen enemies and moving across a battle field. Towards the end, one of my characters gets killed by my own party members' obsessions, so I reload to use a better strategy. Then another character dies near the end because the stupid targeting system had my healer heal the wrong person. Then I reload and do the battle a third time and the game crashes near the end of the battle.

I was so pissed that I was moved to profanity over having to do this stupid fight a fourth time. 

So the average gameplay ranges from completely terrible and obnoxious to lukewarm mediocrity, but how are the touted "satire" and "parody" elements? Well those are pretty weak too. All the game does is have you play through exaggerated versions of the already-annoying aspects of RPGs that it's supposed to be making fun of, while the main character comments on how annoying everything is. Like a reflection of my inner monologue as I play this game.

Think fetch quests are stupid and annoying? Well you'll be doing a million of them in GT. Get annoyed when you see recycled dungeons repopulated with new enemies? Well you'll be revisiting a lot of the exact same areas in GT. Do you get sick of always doing side-quest favors for every NPC before they'll tell you something you need for the main quest? Well you'll be doing favors galore in GT.

Grotesque Tactics: Evil Heroes. (click for full size)

There's one point where you get a quest to collect crystals from the Crystal Cave, fighting giant rabbits and working your way to the back to battle a boss. Later on you get a quest to visit the Cave of Crystals to defeat another boss, and your character mentions that the place looks exactly like the Crystal Cave, while Holy Avatar proclaims that it's obviously a completely different cave. It seems amusing at first for the game to so blatantly recycle the same dungeon, but then you sigh and grumble when you realize that the game actually expects you to play through the exact same dungeon again.

There's another part where an NPC wants you to do some quests for him before he can tell you the location of the Dark Church headquarters. He tells you to kill 6 rabbits, so you do. And then he tells you to kill the big boss rabbit and bring him its skull, so you do. Then he tells you to kill some NPC named Little Death, so you do. Then he almost sends you on an epic quest into another dimension to find a painter somewhere. All-the-while your character is getting more and more impatient and irritated with the NPC, which is exactly how I was feeling about the game.

Then, towards the end of the game, it needlessly pads itself with more absurd satire. You've discovered the location of the Dark Church headquarters and your party's talking about preparing for the final battle, and then a few mandatory side-quests pop up and delay you from completing the game, much to Drake's irritation. Once I'd finally beaten the final boss, I was happy to be done with the game, but then it sprung up an obligatory "bonus end-game quest" that sent me back to the cemetery that I'd already visited and had me fight the same final boss three more times.

On the whole, the game is a little amusing at first, but it gets annoying very quickly, because it's not especially witty and mostly just amounts to you playing a terrible depiction of terrible game mechanics. It's supposed to be an absurd satire of RPG tropes, but actually playing the absurd satire proves to be more of a chore than playing the games it's supposed to be parodying. 

Grotesque Tactics is saved from my hammer of rage simply because of its indie status. I don't expect perfection from indie games, so some of its problems are excusable, but that doesn't change the fact that the game is generally a tedious chore to complete. If you want a game that makes fun of fantasy RPGs, you'd do better to check out The Bard's Tale, or maybe even wait for Grotesque Tactics 2: Dungeons and Donuts, which will hopefully fix all of the problems of Evil Heroes and actually have a witty sense of humor to it. 

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