Review: Templar Battleforce02 Dec 2015 0
One of the Trese Brothers’ first games was Templar Assault, a Space Hulk clone with a few new wrinkles. There’s no shame in that: Space Marines versus H.R. Giger was destined to become a game genre from the moment Aliens hit the big screen back in 1986. Games Workshop just gave us the definitive tabletop version by giving all the marines power armor (there’s no “I” in “mecha,” Ripley).
Narratively, Templar Battleforce is a sequel, set later in the history of the Star Traders universe, but this expansive and polished game is a xenomorph of a different ichor. The influence of Warhammer 40k and X-COM is still clear, but this game is a strategy-RPG at heart, more like The Trese Brothers’ last release, Heroes of Steel. More than anything else, Templar Battleforce reminded me of Atlus’ Super Robot Taisen games: there are oodles of fiddly bits to adjust and level up, but no tedious grinding, only a series of fixed battles with story told in-between. Some of the time you get to choose from a short list of deployment options, but there’s no overworld to wander, just a tech tree, unit management, and the next mission waiting for you.
That model suits the game’s story well and keeps the focus tactical. If you’ve played other Trese Brothers games, you know that they run light on story and lighter on characterization. Templar Battleforce is no exception, though the plotline (involving lost colony ships, xeno cults, and a stretched-thin military) is interesting enough that it would have benefitted from more development. Character development is nearly non-existent, but that serves game mechanics, as death is common and permanent at all of the higher difficulty levels.
The early levels of Templar Battleforce are the most reminiscent of Space Hulk, fighting Skitterlings and Brood Mothers in close quarters. Even so, it takes only a few turns for the differences to sink in. You don’t have to worry about facing, you don’t have to worry about weapons jamming… from less-powerful napalm attacks to more-durable soldiers, gameplay is more predictable and less punishing than it’s roots. You can still lose multiple soldiers in a single turn, but when it happens it feels more like a failure of knowledge or tactics than bad luck. Level design is varied and interesting from the start, as when you’re tasked with escorting a group of civilian survivors out of an infested ship, and the game makes it clear that one of them has essential information while the rest… well, the more that survive the more XP you get, so there's that.
This moderate approach helps maintain game balance as the game spreads its wings. New missions take the player planet side for canyon firefights and urban warfare even as the game’s Requisition and genetic memory systems really get going. Templars remember the battles of every ancestor in their lineage, and as they gain experience, they can sift through all those memories for what they need whenever they’re not under fire. Mechanically, this is represented by an unlimited ability to re-spec your soldiers’ stats and skills between missions, and that ability becomes central making good use of your team. The Requisition system is a baroque skill/research tree that unlocks new skills and gear, and each Requisition unlock is a call to re-examine your Templars and their Leviathans. If you enjoy this sort of micromanagement, you can spend just as long re-specing and outfitting your team between levels as you do in battle.
Your Scout can go from being a perfect shadow with maxed Stealth in one level to a glass-cannon sniper in another. In open terrain, you may want to give your Soldier an extended-range Long Leviathan Rifle and maximize your Gunnery skill, but for close-in fighting against xeno Goliaths, a high-damage, low-range Plasma Rifle and maxed Overwatch skill just might keep him alive. Likewise, you can fill your squad with a bunch of flamethrower-toting Hydra units, if you think that’s best for a given level, shore up your defenses with a rank of sword-and-shield bearing Paladins, or equip as many unique, class-specific relics as possible, even if it means fielding units who aren’t otherwise optimal for the level.
At about the point you’re settling into the expanding set of possibilities, maybe even becoming complacent, the plot takes a twist and suddenly instead of fighting xenos, you’re attacked by human rebels. Other story and gameplay shifts follow, but this one is pivotal. I was hit with a moment of unexpected pathos at this betrayal, and not just because protecting the colonists has been your goal up to this point. Lightly armored human soldiers are so much smaller and squishier than Leviathans. The game doesn’t do much to make the rebels sympathetic, but their very fragility makes the game world feel real, manifests the tenuous existence of the human colony you’re trying to hold together.
It’s also at this point that Templar Battleforce’s greatest weakness becomes apparent. The AI for this game is sufficient but uninspiring in a way that wasn’t obvious before. If you’ve doubled-down on melee defense, your Templars will go down in a hail of hex-shell and plasma fire, but your fragile, gun-toting human enemies behave too much like swarming, selfless xenos. There are moments when it’s convincing: rocket-fire erupting from a doorway, tearing though heavy armor. Unfortunately, there are also moments when it’s unintentionally comics: rebel soldiers marching one after the other into the same overwatch defense turn after turn, or a lone gunman breaking cover to walk right up to a Leviathan before opening fire.
SRPGs don’t generally have very strong or interesting AI, but Templar Battleforce is trying to be a deeply tactical SRPG, and the one-trick AI can break one’s sense of immersion even as it presents a rough-edged challenge. Even so, the varied maps, missions, foes, and extensive character customization keep things interesting throughout the extensive campaign. This game is a big step forward for Trese Brothers. If their next game incorporates a stronger computer opponent, it will be a top-drawer squad tactics game. If it adds more compelling character development, it will be a truly epic SRPG. If they can do both those things, it could truly be the best of both worlds.
Templar Battleforce was played on an iPad Mini (1st gen)