A new horror-themed strategy game mixes Into The Breach and XCOM to make one of the most original turn-based games of recent years.
XCOM is one of the best video games ever made and while it’s never had the mainstream breakthrough we hoped for it has been successful enough to inspire a mini-renaissance in turn-based strategy games, to the point where they’re now relatively fashionable and it’s real-time strategies that are considered old-fashioned and out of touch. That’s led to a steady trickle of new titles, culminating in Othercide – the most entertaining but least accessible strategy game we’ve played for a long while.
While most new turn-based strategies tend to be indie titles Othercide is the latest from A Plague Tale: Innocence publisher Focus Home Interactive, who between this and things like GreedFall and Vampyr are building themselves a great reputation for avant-garde, mid-budget AA games. We’re not sure how many of them sell (we’ve a feeling it’s things like Farm Simulator that really pay the bills) but they’re one of the few companies to straddle the middle ground between indie and big budget gaming and we’d like to see a lot more publishers taking that same path.
We don’t know if a game like Othercide is necessarily the place to start but a supernatural version of XCOM instantly had us interested, even if the mind-bogglingly complicated tutorial, that pops up minutes after starting the game, was almost enough to put even us off. Othercide isn’t easy to understand or to play but its willingness to be something more than just a clone makes it hard not to admire.
Othercide does ask a lot of its audience. Even ignoring the fact that it’s an extremely difficult turn-based strategy game with roguelike elements, the purely black and white (and red) colour scheme is never really justified by the relatively normal artwork. Not that the art is uninteresting – the various eldritch horrors you end up fighting are all very imaginative – but there’s nothing about the visual style that really explains such an extreme, monochrome look.
The game’s plot revolves around an army of Daughters, descended from a demon-fighting Mother, who are attempting to save the world from the Suffering – monsters spawned by humanity’s own evil deeds. In the history of wacky video game plots there’s nothing particularly unusual in that, including the fact that you’re expected to repeatedly fail in your task and have to go back in time and try again, which works in a very similar manner to turn-based classic Into The Breach.
Although Othercide has influences from a variety of different games the core action most closely resembles a cross between XCOM and Disgaea, with different classes of fighter that include ranged specialists and the self-explanatory Shieldbearer and Blademaster. The most unique element is the importance of timing, which is indicated by a timeline at the bottom of the screen and shows when each character, including enemies, will take their move. The timeline can easily be changed though and so one of your primary goals is to try and manipulate the sequence of events so that you stall enemies or interrupt their attacks.
There’s also the complication that there are no healing items in the game and yet most of the more powerful attacks require health to use. Instead, you’re forced to sacrifice a different Daughter, of an equal or higher ability, to heal one you want to make sure survives. For obvious reasons this is not something you want to do often, although it does also gift the recipient a new perk based on how powerful the sacrifice was.
Rather than just having a couple of action points to spend per turn you start with a pool of 100, which are used for different attacks but which can also be held back to make sure you take a move more quickly next time. It’s a highly flexible system, and great for those already familiar with the genre, but whereas the simple move-and-then-perform-an-action set-up of XCOM is enough for even strategy novices to grasp, Othercide is not nearly as straightforward.
This is most evident in the boss encounters which are simultaneously the best part of the game and also incredibly difficult to work out a successful strategy, meaning they’re almost impossible to beat on your first try without dying and coming back to try multiple times.
Like most modern roguelikes, Othercide is not as vindictive as it first seems and dying does not mean you lose all your progress. You retain an in-game currency called shards which can not only be used to unlock increasingly powerful perks but also allow you to do things like skip previously beaten boss encounters. You can also resurrect fallen Daughters with special tokens and while these are extremely rare it does mean that technically there is no permadeath.
The high difficulty level is not a flaw – if anything the number of shards begin to seem too generous by the end – but the esoteric nature of the game’s ruleset is not handled well and the game does little to ease you into its peculiar world. There’s also a problem with the repetition of map designs and mission types, with only really four of the latter. The ability to mix and match the wide range of different enemies adds far more variety than that may imply, but it could still have done with more.
Othercide is not a perfect game, and it’s certainly not for the easily frustrated, but it is the most original take on the genre we’ve seen for a long time. We’d love to see a potential sequel expand the range of maps and mission types, perhaps add a meta strategy element equivalent to XCOM, and ideally introduce a wider colour palette, but this is a daringly unique game that despite its many obvious influences has a very distinct atmosphere and play style all of its own.
A bigger budget game could never afford to be so idiosyncratic and that’s why indie games, and mid-budget AA titles, are so important. Othercide isn’t trying to be the next Fortnite or The Last Of Us and that’s exactly what allows it to be so interesting.
Othercide review summary
In Short: An impressively original take on XCOM style turn-based strategy that gains in depth and versatility what it loses in accessibility, with some of the best boss encounters of the year.
Pros: Impressively nuanced combat system that rewards forward-planning and experimentation, and despite obvious inspirations never feels like a clone. Excellent boss battles.
Cons: Extremely difficult in terms of both challenge and accessibility. Too little variety in maps and mission types. Black and white colour scheme really adds nothing to the experience.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Lightbulb Crew
Release Date: 28th July 2020
Age Rating: 16
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