In the aftermath of a great war, Arcadia maintains a fragile peace, and the cracks only deepen with King Tirgan of Tropis lying on his deathbed. There are those who’d say he was poisoned and others who stand ready to take up arms against such accusations; whichever side you’re on, it’s here that our story of inter-familial conflict and the ties that bind begins.
At the centre of it all are Desmond and Vashti, lovers and soldiers in service of their country who wind up on opposing sides of a civil war. They are joined on their respective journeys by a host of loyal companions and a roster of recruitable units who will top up your troops as you switch back and forth between Des and Vash’s two intertwining tales. Arcadian Atlas’ heritage as a tactics title will be immediately obvious to fans of the genre; everything from the interface to the gorgeous battle sprites is an open love letter to Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics, but the similarities don’t end there.
Much like its grandparents, the bulk of Arcadian Atlas plays out through isolated, grid-based levels. You’ll place a small number of your custom-built units, then take turns moving them around and selecting their attacks. Positioning is important — come at your foe from the flank for an accuracy boost, but be careful not to group your units lest they be simultaneously pummelled by a falling enemy fireball! Gameplay is paint-by-numbers tactics, and though charming to begin with, a lack of meaningful evolution or comparably diverse options in unit composition and moment-to-moment strategy weighs the game down as it goes on. Allow me to explain what I mean.
Tactics games ordinarily play out in two major phases. First is the planning phase, where you’ll spend time building out your army by mixing and matching traits and skills from an array of customisable and cross-compatible class archetypes. You’ll arrange item loadouts and build-bolstering equipment to ensure that your force has enough flexibility to deal with any foe that confronts you on the battlefield. The second phase, of course, is the combat phase, where you’ll be able to see the seeds of your careful consideration bear fruit. Appraise your enemy, select the appropriate combination of units to counter them, and lead your squad to victory.
In Arcadian Atlas, these core components of tried-and-tested tactics gameplay have either been diluted or lost altogether. With only four archetypes available from the beginning, class choice is narrow and the two branching skill trees for each one are too short and too insubstantial to sink your teeth into. You can eventually promote each class into one of two “advanced classes”, though I found none of these to offer particularly game-changing options. Equipment progression suffers an even worse fate, with weapon and armour upgrades being an entirely linear affair. They boast no interesting augments or affixes, and you’ll find yourself visiting the outfitter after every mission to simply select the newest thing on the list. Consumable items have been scrapped altogether.
As a result of minimal options for meaningful planning, combat encounters are watered down and quickly become repetitive. Enemy variety is poor and aside from a handful of monster-types later in the game, you’ll spend much of your time coming up against human foes that match your own class archetypes. You are asked to choose and arrange your units on the grid at the beginning of each battle, though bizarrely without any visibility of your opponents, making your decisions here arbitrary. Class balance is questionable, with fights often ended by long-ranged bow-wielders before melee classes are even able to move into attack range. Furthermore, there’s no way to restore your ability resources mid-combat — at least not until late in the game — which means that the vast majority of encounters are simply a sprint to the finish line, with some being over in two or three turns, even on the hardest difficulty. An often shaky AI makes the game decidedly easier still; enemy warriors will sometimes use their turn to walk away from you for no apparent reason, or even stand in their own ally’s damaging effects.
These problems can largely be pinned on one primary perpetrator: the game is simply too short to be anything but shallow. Through a meek 15-or-so-hour runtime, the ever-deepening strategic systems required to truly enjoy a game like this are never given ample space to grow, and it’s not only the mechanics of Arcadian Atlas that suffer for it. Its story starts out intriguing but chases lofty themes and plot elements that are too large for its framework. Though much of the first half does a decent job of reeling you in, story beats eventually fall into incoherence, and the inconsistent writing bars you from investing in the game’s central characters. Still, there are flashes of greatness glinting beneath this murky surface — I only wish the writers had found the breathing space to scrub it up and explore things properly.
All that said, those flashes are set alight and truly allowed to soar when it comes to the game’s art direction and musical chops. Stunning sprites and environments make cut-scenes and combat a joy to look at and, much to the chagrin of my partner, I’ve been humming the game’s smooth jazz battle theme non-stop since I started playing. There’s nostalgia aplenty for veterans of the genre, with a visual design philosophy that leans hard into Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle, and the reverence towards those games is positively palpable in Arcadian Atlas.
With its debut outing, Twin Otter Studios has demonstrated its technical prowess in spades. Aside from minor gripes with unintuitive menus and controls — particularly on mouse and keyboard — the developer proves that it’s one to keep an eye on. Arcadian Atlas’ overall lacklustre presentation is, in all likelihood, an issue of too much ambition and not enough resources to see it through, and it leaves the game feeling like nought but a pale imitation of the titles that inspired it. If the striking art style appeals to your sentimentality, though, and the music makes it under your skin, you might just find enough in this game to see you through an otherwise mediocre journey. It’s the beauty beholden in the good parts that makes this review so painful to write, but I sincerely hope that Arcadian Atlas finds its audience — perhaps those freshly entering the world of tactics — and that Twin Otter Studios is given a second shot at success.
Arcadian Atlas (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
This homage to titans of the genre can be beautiful to behold, but it ultimately runs too short and too shallow to match the mightiness of its ancestors.