Aside from a single adventure game release in 1982 by Sierra, the unique world setting of Jim Henson’s film ‘The Dark Crystal’ has been curiously unexplored in video game form. Though it’s always been a cult classic, a recent resurgence in interest led by a series of young adult novels and comics cumulated in Netflix commissioning a prequel series subtitled ‘Age of Resistance’ that also came with its own Tactics RPG tie-in.
It should be noted that Sierra’s original game is still kept online and playable through the official Dark Crystal home page to this day and is well work a look for those who may have missed this hidden gem (available HERE), and it shares similar themes with the newly released title in that it essentially works as a light re-treading of the same narrative as its namesake. In the case of Tactics, this is the new series. Developed by En Masse Entertainment for simultaneous release across multiple platforms, they have a pre-existing partnership with Netflix after releasing the Season 3 Stranger Things game, and have previous work on Tera, an MMORPG.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. In-game graphics are beautifully rendered 3D models of characters and locations from the show, taking the meticulously crafted puppets and turning them into animatics on screen with great success. Renderings of environments, though structured on a grid based format, also reflect the distinctive look and feel of the carefully designed world that Henson and Froud worked so hard to create. Surrounding this are some truly horrible hand drawn cutscenes that play out as animatic stills in a comic book style and provide utter tonal clash with the rest of the game, and even the painterly style of the 2D world map you explore one waypoint at a time. These mar an otherwise attractive package, and serve to give the game a ‘made for mobile’ feel that belays the console release of the end product.
Making use of the show’s epic title theme makes loading up Age of Resistance Tactics feel weighty and grand. It’s a fantastic orchestral piece that shifts seamlessly from the main menu to the loading screen and into the world map that acts as the player’s hub, serving to smooth over the loading periods between missions. Though the game employs original music inside battles, this has been successfully written to tonally match both the feel of the show’s score and the environments in which each conflict takes place. A genuinely good job has been done here, and the sound effects do serve to heighten rather than distract from the experience. Though the score never rises to the same levels as the theme they’ve borrowed, the audio package is well balanced overall.
The narrative of this title plays as an extremely abridged version of the Netflix show’s multiple-episode saga, condensing whole episodes or batches of plot points into a single mission or narrative nod to speed up the actual conflict and dodge the political play of the early moments of the tale. Starting at a point in the take when three major protagonists meet in a dream and recount their experiences to date to Aughra, who charges them with rallying against the Skeksis. In addition to the main players from the show, several smaller side characters are also fleshed out into playable members of the party and through these the game starts to generate side quests that won’t bust open the narrative of the show. It walks a fine line between storytelling and window dressing, and at times the assumption is that you’ve already seen the source material, but as supplemental material the game does manage to produce a compelling experience.
Gameplay sees the player selecting a location from the expansive word map of Thra by selecting from one of the active nodes presented the them. Those that are glowing will be story forwarding missions whilst simply lit locations will be skirmishes in areas you’ve already cleared for grinding purposes. Not all locations will light back up and there are usually only a few valid options at any time, which does push the player toward continuing the journey or fighting a few skirmishes, which increase in difficulty, to grab currency or equipment before moving onward. From this hub the player can also access a store, which stocks an increasing amount of items that you unlock through play, and the party menu, which allows you to equip gear, select skills (three from a main job and two from a sub class) and alter job choices. There are three initial jobs that unlock six new ones when they have been mastered to a mid-point, and these in turn unlock three more master classes. Jobs can be levelled to 20, but be aware that only the main job set will level for each character, with the sub class acting as skills to choose from only. This makes leap-frogging classes by setting a new main and using the last one as backup the most viable option. Balance between these classes is excellent and every one is a viable option for play, with intricate skill sets at your command. Combat itself works in a very traditional Tactical RPG style, with player turn order decided by speed stats and displayed on a timeline at the top of the screen. Movement, attacking, waiting and five skills are displayed on a ring menu for each character who can both move and act (only in that order) in their turn. The direction of attack does not have a massive impact on the battle, making flanking a pointless exercise, but the game does mix things up with a number of win conditions and events mid-battle that alter the usual ‘kill everything to win’ flow of missions. Locations with instant kill pits of constantly moving plants, poisoned water, gusts of wind, rising tides and rolling boulders keep things interesting, and the mid-game’s addition of tiny creatures that turn allies into possessed enemies makes for some fraught battles against characters you’ve built into dangerous power-houses. The game isn’t difficult on its base setting, and a story mode is available to make it even easier, but this can be altered on the fly between battles to crank up the difficulty to provide more of a challenge and the option to double the speed of enemy turns (or hold R1 to do the same) is appreciated. Interestingly, movement is placed at the fore in terms of its usefulness and necessity. Moving but not acting grants a faster second turn to cover more ground with speed, and female Gelflings can all fly, which makes them super maneuverable. These don’t sound like much, but when a mission has multiple objectives or puzzle pieces to crack under a turn limit you’ll appreciate them a great deal. The game does give you more characters than perhaps you’ll use, which is both great for those who want to pick their favourites from the show but annoying for completionists as somebody will always be underlevelled as exp is not shared with inactive party members, and though we never struggled for currency the game curiously does not allow for the selling of weapons no longer wanted in your inventory.
Overall, whilst the title doesn’t do anything new or original with the concept of a Tactical RPG, and has nothing in terms of minigames or sub-systems to distract from the combat, it does manage to bring the setting to life in a manner that is pleasing to see and hear. Putting aside the ugly cutscene art, it accomplishes both a pleasurable gameplay loop (that can keep you playing ‘just one more battle’ for hours) and the want to go back and watch the film, see the show again, buy the books because it’s brought the world of Thra to life in a way that feels tangable. Selling for a low price compaired to most RPG releases (£15 rather than £45) it’s a game that is aware of its shortcomings and budgets accordingly. If you enjoy Tactical RPGS or have an interest in the Dark Crystal property, this is a game you will want to buy immediately, otherwise wait to see it in a sale.