These two games from Haiku Games are separate apps but essentially make up a single package. Solarian Tactics (Paid but fairly priced) is a Tactical RPG with a strong sense of story and identity, whilst Sol Heroes (Free) is essentially the same assets and characters expanded into a series of plotless bonus missions. It seems only right that they be reviewed together.
From a technical front, Solarian tactics was released into the iStore back in the days of 3g and runs smoothly across all current mobile devices, although it does lack full screen support for newer phones. Sol Heroes on the other hand was dropped into the market more recently and fills the screen on the iPhone 5c easily. Both run using the same engine, menu and graphics and offer the same standard of smooth bug-free gameplay that tells of a highly polished and professional production period. It should also be mentioned that neither title requires you to be online to play, both run on an iPad but in iPhone ratios requiring the zoom function to be used.
Graphically the games feature a cartoony 2D western animated style that side-steps the more prevalent Manga artwork that makes up the bulk of these titles, allowing them to stand out from the crowd. Static images are used to create character portraits and battle backgrounds, whilst animated sprites with a marginally Adobe Flash-inspired look to them are overlaid along with terrain to block movement. Everything has a clear-cut Science Fiction theme to it which is reflected in the designs for characters and the monsters they face, as well as in the cutscenes that bookend each battle. These play out in a traditional manner seen in many Tactical RPGs, with characters images overlaid onto backgrounds whilst dialogue plays out. These are for the most part short and character building, whilst serving to put some elements of the game into context. Nothing is badly drawn, although the menu and text boxes can appear slightly cartoony, largely because of their bulky design. The central cast are well designed and differ greatly from one-another to form a memorable team once the full group has been collected. Sol Heroes uses these assets with some alterations to the hero and slight tweaks to other characters in order to put a little difference between itself and its predecessor, but largely graphical elements remain unchanged.
Sound effects are passable, though many feel under-stated. Explosive rounds sound correct when fired but are muted and lack punch, whilst enemies disappear with a fading sound that isn’t as satisfying as it could be. There is a broad selection of effects used however and each character has his or her own signature sounds when attacking as do many monsters and bosses. Music falls into the narrow gap between passable and good, with some tracks feeling like looping filler between stages whilst others genuinely go a long way to set the tone for the scenario. Solarian Tactics uses a nice synth piece reminiscent of Blade Runner in tone for its title screen that pitches the game at its best and runs for a decent length before looping. Sol Heroes uses a shorter piece with more twinkly tones overlaid on a looping scale of notes that seems less grand. Menu sound effects for both are very good and are not intrusive onto gameplay, confirming player choices.
The plot of Sol Heroes is non-existent in that the game delivers a series of chapters made up of several different combat missions with the player only knowing that they should clear each one to progress forward. In this manner Sol Heroes serves as a gauntlet for those who have played the more ambitious Solarian Tactics before it. Tactics serves us up a tale based around a somewhat grim future setting where novice guardsman Wen and his partner Cici are guarding a genetics lab on a planet called Pinasi. Nomad-like rebels attack and the player is forced to repel them whilst playing through the games brief tutorial period. Their commanding officer then charges them with assaulting the rebel stronghold and from there the real story begins. As the pair continue through the story they unlock combat missions for replay, recruit characters to their team and eventually go on to take part in a conflict larger than the one they initially believed themselves to be fighting. The characters of Solarian Tactics are likable and although they fall into certain stereotypes (the green sword wielding protagonist and the older noble blooded soldier on his way out at the end of his career to name but two) they are given a good quality of dialogue throughout the game that elevates them into memorable faces. The story itself is told through cutscenes that are skippable but enjoyable to read and can be viewed again as needed, giving the game an accessibility rarely seen on mobile devices.
Gameplay is a simplified take on the tactical genre that won’t appeal to everybody but is extremely quick and satisfying on smaller screens. Battles take place on a 5 by 9 square grid onto which the player party and multiple enemies are placed along with movement blocking terrain at the start of each battle. Some terrain serves as cover from ranged attacks whilst other kinds only serves to alter the course of movement, so it pays to think ahead in this regard when handling weaker units. The whole thing runs on a simple ‘tab to select’ and move/attack within that character’s radius. Double taping a character skips their action for the turn and the flow of battle works in a ‘your turn, their turn’ way that neatly avoids a pile-up of enemies between your actions. Each character you control starts off relatively week and can be levelled for a strength and health bonus. The real way they become a force to be reckoned with is through spending gold amassed from victories to unlock new skills and permanent boosts to other stats (such as movement or attack ranges) in the Augment menu. These augments quickly give each character a distinctive function on the battlefield and once you have a team running efficiently they each fill holes in the character builds of those around them. One character who’s all about defence and stunning enemy units can bridge a gap, bottling the enemy soldiers in while a weaker ranged character can hammer at them from behind in safety. Another can pull enemies toward him, singling out a boss from a group of lesser enemies for your hero to lay into him with a sword. There’s no bonus for flanking in this title, neither is there elevated or destructible terrain to add other layers of interest to the battlefield. It’s purely a straight tactical battle in close quarters and at that it excels, though I won’t say I wouldn’t like to see more implemented. These gameplay options are available unchanged between both games, although Sol Heroes requires that you complete missions to unlock characters rather than progress through the story. It also adds a ‘life’ counter where you only get so many retries on a level before having to wait an extended period to continue play or pay a small sum to refill it. This only kicks in when you’re losing however, though it can be annoying. Solarian Tactics has cutscenes to add some drama but otherwise the two games play identically.
Overall these two apps feel like they should be one package. Perhaps a master-edition of Solarian Tactics which incorporates Sol Heroes as an additional non-story mode. With Heroes being free to download and play however it’s a moot point, although a update to full screen display for Tactics would go a long way to putting it back into the public eye. If you like your tactics games complicated then this isn’t the title for you, but if you enjoy fast paced and sometimes challenging combat with simple rules and a clear cut augmentation system anyone can understand straight off the mark then this is a title well worth checking out. Between the two Solarian Tactics fares better, and hopefully a sequel will be making its way out of Haiku Games at some point in the future that takes the framework of the original and builds a new story with new game systems on top of it.