You’d be forgiven, I think, if you briefly thought of Hero Academy upon first playing Solarian Tactics. Not that the two games are all that similar; they’re not, for reasons we’ll cover in a moment. But, both are about small-scale, squad-based combat. Both have charming little characters with big ol’ bobblehead noggins. And, most importantly, both are concerned with the economy of movement. Solarian Tactics is, largely, just about getting that one guy to that one space at exactly the right time—generally as soon as possible. And it’s on this final point where our aforementioned example shines, and Solarian Tactics fails.
To its credit, Solarian Tactics at least presents you with one of the motliest of motley strategy RPG crews I’ve seen. To wit: one (1) sarcastic sword-wielding rogue, one (1) cheeky gun-toting lady, one (1) stoic shield-bearing warrior, one (1) psychic little girl, and one (1) tribal resistance fighter. That’s all the cliché bases covered, yeah?
Our heroes are kitted out with all sorts of genetic modifications which boost their abilities – bonuses and powers which you’ll improve with cash between fights, though the upgrades are by and large tame statistic boosts which add little in the way of new mechanics. They’re upgrades you’ll need, however, if you want to defeat the army of evil genetic mutants arrayed against you for… some reason. There’s a compelling argument to be made for games not needing story or plot, and that probably should have been the case with Solarian Tactics. Should have.
And while these characters are nifty, sufficiently different from each other, and just nice to look at, the fact is these kids don’t play well together. Yes, everyone has their role, and it’s blindingly obvious just what each character was intended for. Gun Lady is our ranged fighter. Keep her at the back. Shield Man is tough. Cram him in a choke point. Rebel Dude can grab enemies and heal himself. Let him pull aggro. Sword Fella gets combo kills, and Psychic Girl can push enemies back with her pulse attack.
The problem, then, is there’s just not much to do with these colorful characters beyond those basic descriptions. Their abilities don’t synergize well. The first time you realize Psychic Girl can hang behind Shield Man and do bonus damage to the enemies that he’s stunned is neat. The next hundred times, when you realize this is less a strategy than a necessity, are less so. Battles aren’t as much about thoughtful squad positioning as they are putting enough health bars between the enemy and that one character who’s clearly going to be useful this level.
Worse, for the most part your squad members don’t have any sort of special attacks or situational moves beyond their basic skill set (Shield Man can learn a dash move, but that’s about it). There’s little in the way of risk-reward, and no real tough choices—just necessary ones. Invariably, the game dumps you into yet another sparsely furnished future-office with a few stray tables and a massive cybermen hit squad looking for your ass. It’s at this point where thoughtful combat jumps out the window, and your thoughts drift, not to the ideal formation for your squad, but to overtly game-y things like leveling. I had to do some sizable retreads of past stages in order to grind for XP, and, like so many other moves I made in Solarian Tactics, this felt like the only move to make.
Solarian Tactics is game where numbers grind against each other in cramped war zones, and aside from the most basic, obvious ploys and movements, it’s the size of those numbers which determine the winner. Life or death battles feel rote, and life or death battles should never feel rote.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when Solarian Tactics clicks. Late in the game, once you have a full squad and some of the basic skill improvements, there are moments that really impart a sense of teamwork. Segments where the level design or the appearance of special enemy types really give every squad member job to do. Shield Man—block this lane. Gun Lady—AOE those bots over there. Sword Fella—kill that boss shooting at us. Rebel Dude and Psychic Girl—clear a path for him.
This is the game that Solarian Tactics wants to be. The game where you don’t just fight an opponent, don’t just defeat an opponent, but solve an opponent. The game where you, at your best, play with enemy troops like so many checkers, moving them about and undoing their feeble attacks, their strategy laid bare in front of you. This is the game that Solarian Tactics so desperately wants to be.
But it’s not that game.
2 out of 5
- iPhone edition: Solarian Tactics, $2.99