When the latest incarnations of the Xcom franchise hit the consoles, many gamers were knocked back by the ingenuity and tactical bliss that PC gamers had for so long taken for granted. Many console gamers proclaimed that it was a sign that consoles could do tactics too. While Xcom could certainly be heralded as a benchmark, what should have been painfully obvious then was that its warm reception would open up the gates to many more of its ilk crossing over.
Some have been great like Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and some have been more middle of the road like Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics. OK, so why did we just start off telling you about Xcom and company? Well with a superficial glance it's quite easy to dismiss Element Space as just another Xcom clone, but once you get into it you can see, that while it borrows many elements from that series, it does try to do its own thing too.
Element Space is a top-down tactics-based game that draws on some RPG elements, and in some ways, it reminded us of more strategy focused role-playing games such as Baldur's Gate. The game takes place in our solar system, with a group of three characters (from a total of eight) heading into various battles that are intersected with dialogue trees and conversations that can increase or decrease your standing with various factions and other party members. The dialogue choices you make are based on four categories: humanism, bureaucracy, independence, and autocracy.
One thing we really liked is that there are no fancy aliens here. Instead, your team of heroes is fighting a hidden human threat, and all the other characters you meet are human. It was a refreshing change that Element Space didn't try to gloss it up with extra-terrestrials. The areas that you head to are inspired by places on Earth, for example, one of the first places you visit looks like 1700s Venice.
The characters you play as aren't the most interesting though, and the story seems to hint at some history between them, but it's not explained very well. While we really got into the main story, we sadly didn't connect as well with the heroes. Therefore, at times, it was tough to connect with the choices made as our investment in the dialogue and characters wasn't a given. We feel this may have been an issue with the writing; they may have had a clear idea about the backstory, but that didn't become apparent in the retelling.
There are three different difficulties to play on: Easy, Story and Hard. Once you start off you're thrust into an in-depth tutorial that is actually far less of an advert for the game and felt too contrived to the point we were ready to dismiss it as an Xcom clone. Thank goodness we ploughed on, but it's not the easiest of introductions.
So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. While we enjoyed the story, which we're not going to ruin here as this is the main selling point of the game, there were some parts we felt could have been brushed up.
On a positive point, we enjoyed the RPG element and the battles, at least most of the time. There are a range of character actions such as attack, move and overwatch. If people are behind soft cover, the chance of hitting the enemy is reduced and if you're in complete cover then your shots will just damage the cover. We enjoyed the fact that the battles were in contained areas and that you could destroy objects that would obstruct your shots.
The combat is totally straight out of the Xcom tactics playbook. We enjoyed it and the setup here functioned well. That said, the movement wasn't always easy in this console port (the PC version landed a year ago), and the control of the cursor to move your character in the turn-based combat didn't seem too precise on our DS4. Too many times we found ourselves moving the cursor to behind some cover, clicking on it to move the character, only to find that our hero was left in the open.
It was really annoying and it made us feel a little incompetent and all too often ruined the combat experience. Sadly, the benchmark that Xcom set means that we no longer have the patience for games that don't have a well-designed control system. We also need to say that the movement between combat wasn't exactly a highlight either, this thanks to a clunky system where often you couldn't even move the cursor far enough across the screen, as you end up making lots of moves that are frustratingly short of your desired outcome.
Graphically the game looks fine though. Again, it's the clean and well-designed Xcom style, and while there's nothing to sing about, it functions and looks good. The last little moan we have is that the equipping and loading out of your team was too simplistic, and doesn't extend beyond simply changing your weapon. Also on the simple side was the levelling up system, where you could increase your various character-specific abilities like a grappling hook for the captain, or hand to hand abilities. It's all just a little superficial.
All in all, this indie tactics title has a lot going for it. If you like RPGs with a tactical edge, then you might like the story-driven approach here. Element Space has an interesting narrative that would have been even better with more interesting characters, and visually it looks fine. That said, there were a few annoyances that took us time to get to grips with, and the movement of the cursor was a little bit annoying both during the combat and out of it.
We did have plenty of fun though and we would recommend it if you like isometric and top-down strategy games, especially those with RPG elements, and with many of us stuck at home at the moment, this could be a tactics title worth turning too. Stay safe.