By Josh Speer / February 25th, 2020
|Title||The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics|
|Publisher||En Masse Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 4th, 2020|
|Platform||PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone 10+ – Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence|
In some ways, it’s very surprising that I was the one that ended up reviewing The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. After all, I am not super familiar with Henson’s original series, nor have I yet seen the new Netflix saga. What I am familiar with, however, are tactical RPGs, most notably the one that got me into the genre, Final Fantasy Tactics. After demoing The Dark Crystal: AoRT at PAX West, I immediately noticed the similarities between that game and FF Tactics. And I mean that as a compliment, not as a dig. It’s clear BonusXP took inspiration from that classic title, while still implementing their own unique style and features. The question then is this: even though I’m not a giant Dark Crystal fan, was I able to fully enjoy Age of Resistance Tactics?
The story for The Dark Crystal: AoRT is told through well animated comic book cutscenes that expand as you watch, with new images and dialogue appearing every few seconds. I appreciated this technique, since it gave the game a storybook vibe, and even reminded me a bit of The Hobbit (the cartoon, not Jackson’s epic saga). You watch from the viewpoint of an omniscient entity called the Aughra, who can apparently see the past, present and future. There’s a celestial event called the Darkening that is making wild creatures act violently, and during this the Skeksis are implementing some sinister plans. It’s all pretty ambitious in scope, but in execution I found the story a bit hard to follow. Not because it was necessarily poorly written, mind you, but because so many disparate threads are woven together without one sole hero to focus on. By the time I beat AoRT, I had about 15 characters in my party, and each and every one had relevant stories that didn’t necessarily contribute significantly to the greater whole. As such, it was hard to always feel emotionally connected to the tale, though there were some highlights nevertheless, such as when one character returns as an avatar of mind controlling Arathim, or when the Aughra sacrifices herself to save some Gelflings. I really did enjoy moments that occurred, and my primary issues were the lack of overall story coherence and how fast the animated cutscenes moved. Sometimes they transitioned so quickly I lost details, which also made it hard to take screenshots at opportune times.
Though the story left me somewhat perplexed, thankfully the combat was much tighter. You pick from a party of three to five for missions, and place them on the field of battle. Once placed, battle begins, and you go about achieving specific objectives. Often these involve defeating all your foes, but you’ll also need to sometimes move your party to a certain point on the map, hit levers, rescue prisoners, read sand glyphs and much more. There’s sufficient variety that I never got bored, though there are also some quirks of missions I found irritating. One map has something called Nurloc holes, from which giant worm creatures will continuously rise from until they’re stoppered by rocks or your teammates. There are others that involve rising tides which will instantly drown anybody unlucky enough to get caught underneath them. Or take the recurring boss the Chamberlain, who can just take over your teammates after he’s confused them. Another frustrating map had me fighting enslaved Podlings and a devious Skeksis scientist, who poisoned the ground and then suddenly upgraded himself when he was on the cusp of defeat, gaining a powerful chain lightning attack that almost wiped me out. These are only some of the more annoying examples, and besides these, I felt the missions were mostly fair for one reason: you have a wealth of customization options at your beck and call, and the combat itself is very intuitive.
Each character in the game can learn from various jobs, and you can even equip skills from both primary and secondary jobs. Any job can be qualified as either, but there’s some provisos. Jobs are determined by the race of the character, and though most are Gelflings, there’s others like Podlings. Gelflings have complex and interwoven job trees, and you initially have several Tier One jobs you can pick from. By leveling up to a certain point, you can go for Tier Two jobs, and then by leveling up a couple of those, you’ll gain access to the coveted Tier Three jobs. I liked this approach, though there was one complication. You only gain experience for whichever job you currently have set as primary, meaning it can take forever to level up your jobs and learn all your skills. It also means you’ll be shuffling between primary and secondary jobs to get them fully leveled and changing equipment accordingly. Also, only characters you use in battle gain experience, and once you have more than five party members, that makes it quite easy for most of them to get left behind and under-leveled. Once I realized this, I figured out which team I wanted to focus on, and ignored everybody else. Which is a shame, since it meant I didn’t get to utilize all the special clan abilities. These are passive boosts, such as characters of one clan being immune to poison or another gaining more advantage from equipment. There’s some good diversity there, but given that the structure of the game forces you to only use a few of your party members, I didn’t find clan abilities to be all that relevant.
That said, I did like the diversity of jobs that could be learned. You could go the more aggro route and make a Thief or Paladin, or go the arcane route and make a Mender or Bramble Sage. The Tier Three jobs are the most powerful, and have some devastating skills, though I found it curious none of these were a sufficiently tanky variety. Pretty much all three of the available Tier Three jobs were very physically fragile despite their strength, and could be taken down with a few solid hits. An example is the Grave Dancer class, which is able to inflict multiple statuses and gets some great passive skills, but can be wiped out if hit hard enough. This made me a fan of the races that didn’t have Tier Three jobs, such as Podlings. Instead of a branching job tree, they have a circular one, meaning you can only pick from a variety of Tier One jobs, though I admit that made leveling them up easier. By far my favorite of the Podlings was Hup, who you get early on. It’s hard not to love someone who screams huzzah and attacks foes with a wooden utensil, especially when he can become a monster summoner, able to call upon a friendly Nurloc to even the odds.
Once you have learned skills by leveling up, you can select which ones to take into combat. You are allowed to pick three primary and two secondary skills, and can select them from a handy action wheel. I found this pretty intuitive, and was battling without any confusion. I especially liked how you could always restart your character’s turn, making it so I never made any tactical errors that I couldn’t turn back the clock on. What I liked less was you could only navigate the command wheel with the joystick, and not the directional buttons. This was odd, since you can use the directional buttons in other menus in The Dark Crystal: AoRT. It’s a minor quibble, but I still found it noteworthy. Another more serious issue relates to the skills I mentioned earlier. Yes you can take five into battle at any time, but here’s the catch: passive skills take up the same slot as active ones, meaning you’ll often only have a couple of abilities and several passive at times. I really found this to be a misstep, and wish passive skills were relegated to their own slot. I would have much preferred being able to have five active skills and one passive than this format. Part of the reason I feel this way is how many two-part skills the game uses. You’ll often have to afflict a foe with a certain status such as Marking them or Spicing them before you can use another skill against them the next turn. That means you’d have to use one of your active slots for the affliction skill and the others for special attacks. To be fair, you will eventually get some passive abilities that help, such as one that inflicts Mark just when dealing regular damage, but many of these take a long time and tons of effort to acquire. I don’t like harping about these issues, since I really did enjoy the combat the most in the game, but I also feel it’s necessary to illustrate the inconsistent nature of the game.
I did find the combat streamlined and fun for the most part, other than some frustrating boss fights. I especially liked being able to move the camera around freely, spinning the focus and zooming when needed. Once the game introduces the Encounter missions, which are basically just free battles to grind for experience on, the whole experience got much better. The game does start slow, but it speeds up after that point. However, much like everything else, balance was a bit wonky in combat. I’d be leveled up and kicking ass one battle, then crushed on the next, even with higher tier jobs and equipment. This especially was the case in missions where I had to get to a certain point on the map, and more enemies would keep spawning after I defeated them. And the bosses I mentioned earlier, which are all Skeksis bastards, are all pains. The Chamberlain likes to confuse and bewitch your party members and empower his allies, the Hunter is ruthless and powerful, leaping about and slashing you to ribbons, and the others don’t get any easier. Worst of all, you never get the satisfaction of actually defeating the bosses fully til the very end of the game, since they always flee right before you’re able to take them out.
Visually, The Dark Crystal: AoRT looks like an attractive PS2 game. It’s far from ugly, but it’s also not super easy to tell one character from another on maps, other than the blue halo for allies and red for foes. Frankly most creatures of the same species look almost identical on the map. That said, the menus were functional and organized, and I really did like the comic book cutscenes peppered throughout the game. Musically, the game isn’t bad, and has a quasi Middle Eastern vibe to it, sounding like most fights took place in a bazaar from Aladdin or something similar. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of diversity to the music, and it kind of got relegated to the background most of the time. Overall though, the aesthetic design of the game was minimalistic but inoffensive.
I hate mentioning other quirks, but I also feel obligated to touch on issues I encountered. Thankfully none of these were bugs or glitches, but they were instead odd design choices. For one thing, it’s odd you cannot sell weapons, armor or trinkets, or even scrap them for parts. There’s also no disposable healing or attack items at all in the entire game. That means if you want to heal or revive someone, you can’t buy a Phoenix Down, and are entirely reliant on your magical healing. It’s also more than a bit awkward that some status effects don’t indicate their effect til they’re active, like Spiced for Cooks. Other statuses are entirely overpowered, such as Stun, which can be inflicted again and again, taking away all your turns in dire situations, yet Blind barely works, as 90 percent of the time blinded foes can not only hit you, but critical you. Also, despite liking the job system, I don’t feel there was enough differentiation between the jobs. And lastly, I really think the game would have been served better if there were only five or six total team members, letting you focus on leveling up one core group and not being forced to pick and choose which ones get experience.
Despite my complaints, I really did enjoy playing The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. As a fan of the genre, I found a lot to appreciate, despite my lack of familiarity with the source material. Though I can’t say this with certainty, since there’s no in-game timer, I estimate I spent about 22 hours playing through the game. Once you beat it, you unlock a New Game+, though I didn’t have enough time to test that out. Though it’s relatively linear, I felt I got my money’s worth for $19.99. If you’re a fan of tactics games, I’d say AoRT is worth the price of admission, even if I hope it gets some DLC to flesh things out and fix the quirks.
Review Copy Provided by Developer
BonusXPEn Masse EntertainmentFinal Fantasy TacticsSRPGtacticsThe Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics