Review: Antihero31 Jan 2018 5
Released 04 Jan 2018
Antihero is a quick-playing two-player strategy game with a thematic backdrop of Victorian knavery. Its strengths call to mind everything it isn't, favourably. It is remarkably crunchy and tense throughout, reminiscent of the heavyweight, hour-long backbreaking strategy of Civ VI, Neptune's Pride or Solium Infernum. It is well-balanced and feels like it began life on the tabletop, yet the game isn't simply latest boardgame darling to be refashioned for digital.
Good games fill a void; great games carve out their own niches, as Antihero has, and it is a testament to its vision that it calls to mind so many disparate, unlike experiences. In the game, duelling master thieves fight for territory, recruits, resources and victory, ultimately. Antihero's whip-smart interface and accessibility make it an easy recommendation.
Gameplay centers around your master thief, who starts humbly as the lord of a single thieves' den and expands their range of influence by scouting and infiltrating the surrounding buildings. Thus each map is split into territory which begin as hidden and neutral, but is soon hotly contested. Urchins infiltrate scouted buildings, which then produce the game's resources or else other special effects. The game's two resources consist of coins (used for purchasing units) and lanterns (used for purchasing upgrades). Victory points can be earned by buying bribes with lanterns, filling bounty contracts by knocking out an npc, or through other map-specific means. The first player to get a set number of these points first wins. The game's tech tree is split into three branches: Skulduggery, Sneakery and Stabbery. Tech upgrades unlock new units and new actions for your master thief, making the player's shadowy empire more efficient and menacing at cost. Each turn, players can either purchase an upgrade or take charity, itself an infusion of coins or lanterns.
Antihero's matches start with the vast majority of the map shrouded in the fog of war, which must be unveiled by spending your master thief's scarce actions. Actions can also be spent attacking units or infiltrating & burgling buildings. The game has an information economy and a resource economy, and the player must split their efforts minding both. Once a building or map area is explored, it becomes permanently visible for the game's remainder. Until that point, each is a black box. The randomization of the building types and placement, along with the game's tech tree and fog of war make each game's decision points different. More so, they make sabotage and conflict uncertain and risky prospects, though leaving your opponent's schemes blindly unchecked is a recipe for disaster.
Expansion and engine-building must be balanced against the need to scout out and undermine the enemy's plans, as well as for the need to score victory points. The tension which some games reserve for their final act is present from the get-go in Antihero; every single turn and decision therein matter vitally. It has tempo and excitement, along with a decent amount of build variety. Almost like in card games, Antihero has rush, mid-tempo and control strategies, with each being situationally viable depending on the map, the opponent's tech selection, and the buildings controlled by each player.
Special consideration and praise to the game's flexible and plentiful game modes. Just as the strategies and moments inside the game are varied and highly replayable, Antihero itself comes in quite a few formats. The game itself is available on iOS, Android and PC, with account sync and cross-platform multiplayer. Multiplayer can be either live (with turn timers) or asynchronous, and single-player fanatics can enjoy the campaign as a soft introduction to the game's mechanics. Oh, and there's local multiplayer, either against AI or hotseat human opponents. Some of these options are more fleshed-out and satisfying than others, but on the whole it's rather heartening to see a premium mobile game with so much game on its bones.
Aesthetically speaking, the game's art and soundscape are snappy and gothic in a cheery, picturesque sort of way. Even the randomly generated names for the buildings speak to Antihero's melding of the cute and the macabre. Units mutter when they take action or struck a fatal blow and expire; character avatars are brimming with personality and panache. The readability (and pinch-to-zoom function) of the isometric perspective make the battlefield easily parsed. In short, the game is attractive because of its cohesive presentation and ease of use.
This review opened by invoking a lot of other names by way of comparison. If you'll bear but one more, know that Antihero combines the territoriality of Advance Wars with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it intensity (and variability) of Hearthstone despite having little technical resemblance to either. Its games will scarcely run longer than forty-five minutes unless both players intentionally dither, and while most would consider this a virtue, the relative brevity of the game could be read as superficial or off-putting by certain marathoner turn-based strategy fans. (To be fair to Antihero's critics, its high highs and flashpoints do not reach the lofts of games an order of magnitude longer).
Similarly, those who prefer more open or perfect information multiplayer games may be equally annoyed by the game's vision system or variable setup, but those mild elements are the only caveats. Antihero went through a multiyear development cycle to see its initial PC release last year, and its simple yet winning gameplay formula has yet to wear itself out. Hopefully an influx of new players and new faces will lead to a wider appreciation of its rascally charms.