Review: Space Grunts

By Tof Eklund 09 Feb 2016 0

Review: Space Grunts

Released 03 Feb 2016

Developer: Pascal Bestebroer
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Available from:
Google Play
App Store
Reviewed on: 1st Gen iPad Mini, NVIDIA Shield K1 & Alactel One

Pascal Bestebroer, the mind behind tiny indie studio OrangePixel is known for tight, finely-balanced action games that actually play well on a smartphone. His Metal Slug-inspired shooter Gunslugs is a better mobile experience than the official ports (and Dot Emu did a great job with those!), and Heroes of Loot is more of a spiritual successor to the original Gauntlet than any of the recent sequels, albeit without multiplayer co-op.

Nonetheless, OrangePixel games have been an odd fit for me, like listening to a mixtape created by an audiophile friend with different taste in music from my own. Like many Pocket Tactics readers, twitchy mobile games aren’t my jam. Interestingly enough, contemplative turn-based strategy isn’t Bestebroer’s thing, but he created one anyway, and designed Space Grunts to be a turn-based roguelike that feels like a dynamic shooter.

I have a fascination with games that attempt to extract the critical strategic elements from real-time games and present them in a turn-based format, like Sean O’Connor’s squadron space shooter Critical Mass (sadly Windows only) and fighting game distillation Yomi. As a “turn-based action game,” Space Grunts raises two distinct questions: first, can this game capture shooter mechanics in a turn-based format, and second, is the result a winning combination?

Space Grunts is a winner, have no doubt. With only three character classes, three basic weapons, no XP to gain or coin to collect and spend, the game may seem even simpler than Heroes of Loot at a glance, but that simplicity isn’t a concession to casual players, it’s a cutting edge so sharp that it makes a lot of modern roguelikes look hamfisted and dull.

The writing is brief, and full of Sci-Fi refernences, and brief.
First there are the weapons, each with a fundamentally different attack pattern: the handgun only hits a single target at limited range but has the most plentiful ammo, the plasma/railgun (I dunno, it’s a plasma railgun, okay?) pierces all targets in a straight line, and grenades deal splash damage, natch. There are random-drop permanent weapon upgrades out there, but their effects vary by class. The high-HP Strongarm also gets the most boom out his grenades, and the Techjunky is a railgun sharpshooter. The Captain seems underpowered at first, but with the highest item drop rate, he has the most growth potential.

Most of items in the game are single use, many with an effect that lasts for a limited number of shots or turns. Some of these are extremely powerful and showy, like the powerups and special attacks of ‘90s arcade games. Blowing away most of your slowly-accumulated shells to nuke an entire room with the Berserker Shot may be a tactical mistake, but it looks and feels awesome as the screen shakes and a thousand tiny explosions bloom.

Hot! Hot! Hot! I knew I should have worn my asbestos pans!
The eye-candy is executed flawlessly. Watching a fire spread to set off a chain- reaction of exploding barrels, ripping out part of a room’s walls, gibbing alien monstrosities and just-maybe revealing a hidden passage is the spectacle of a fraction of a second. There’s no waiting for excessive animations to complete, no slow-down on older devices, and spent shells and meaty chunks are mercifully cleared from the screen after a turn.

For all that, Space Grunts remains an eminently tactical game, a roguelike that could have been rendered in ASCII without compromising core gameplay or engagement… at least for me. Scooting back and forth, waiting for monsters and robotic defenses gone awry (don’t they always) to converge on explosive targets before taking that railgun shot – that’s what Space Grunts is about.

You can get pretty far in Space Grunts by clearing each room you find, but knowing when to run and how to avoid pyrrhic victories becomes essential by mid-game. Stealth is rewarded as well, as there is usually no intrinsic reward for killing (only a few enemy types drop items), and many enemies can be successfully evaded… at the risk of being surrounded if you make a mistake.

Skill shot. Okay, so maybe this one's more of a "frickin' obvious shot."
Space Grunts plays well on every platform I tried it on: Bestebroer has written about how Steam can be more profitable for indies than the App Store, and the mouse controls for PC are natural and feel fully-supported, unlike many mobile-to-desktop games. On a tablet, I sometimes wished for tap controls or a wireless controller, as the virtual d-pad in the game is adequate but uninspiring and the inventory and map buttons can be a bit of a reach (but they can be moved freely). The logic of the mobile version’s controls emerged when I tried Space Grunts on a phone, where everything is spaced out enough to minimize the risk of costly mistakes.

The Android version is slightly less polished than the iOS release: on my Shield tablet, the screen won’t auto-rotate, and I lost some of my progress when task-switching: the game is supposed to auto-save after each level, but when it was pushed out of memory by other apps, sometimes the most-recently completed level wasn’t saved. Everything else was spot on, and that’s saying a lot for a day one simultaneous release.

Grandmother, what sharp teeth you have!
Perhaps the highest praise I can heap on Space Grunts is that I expect it to be a permanent fixture on my low-spec Android phone. It’s quick-play friendly (Android autosave quibbles notwithstanding), remarkably deep in it’s tactics, and Bestebroer writes incredibly efficient code: the Android build is a vanishingly small 14mb and even the 31mb iOS version is going to be one of the smallest apps on your phone, and Space Grunts should be on your phone. It’s lean, tight, and focused in every way possible. Recommended for everybody but dimension-hopping monsters and highly-explosive barrels.

Perhaps the highest praise I can heap on Space Grunts is that I expect it to be a permanent fixture on my device.

Review: Space Grunts

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