The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics

"...the "lite version" of the story cheapens the entire gameplay experience by cutting down a pillar of what makes the RPG genre a true joy."

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Ever since Jim Henson, Brian Froud, and a myriad of other talented individuals brought the world of Thra to life in 1982, fans of The Dark Crystal have been wanting more. More of the world, more of the lore, more of what happens next for the little Gelflings that reshaped their home. Novelist J.M. Lee did a lot to fill that gap, developing a young adult novel series that built up Thra into a more tangible place. Then, Netflix got their hands on the property, and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance aired for delighted bingers back in August of 2019, creating a prequel story arc that gave fans more of what they wanted. What said fans likely never expected, though, was for Netflix and En Masse Entertainment to publish a strategy RPG set within that same period of Thra's history. Up until now, developer BonusXP has crafted some solid mobile experiences. Among these are some Stranger Things titles, so they are familiar with the streaming service giant and its precious IPs.

Visually, Jason Sallenbach (Art Director) and his team have done justice to Brian Froud's artistry by interpreting each element of Thra in the game's largely isometric 3D world. Every detail is vibrant and fits The Dark Crystal's established style. Each new territory is a treat to visit, with fun little features that make each map more real, like blowing leaves, cups on tables your characters can kick off as they move, or undulating pits of Gobblers. The finer details of the character designs are exemplified in the various changes heroes undergo when they switch jobs, as well as the subtle costuming changes between each Gelfling clan. Monsters are mostly pulled straight from the series, but the lack of variety can get tiresome when you find yourself attacking yet another purple-hued thing. Some further alterations to enemy design beyond simply adding adjectives to creature names would have been welcome. Still, it is obvious the greatest care was given to the look of combat encounters, as they are the closest you will come to feeling like you're in Thra. The iconography used for a lot of the gameplay is well designed, if overwhelming at first. Each effect, status, and ability has its own symbology, but it does not take long for players to understand the rather efficient UI BonusXP has implemented. I feel this speaks to their experience developing for mobile devices as the interface is effective and won't leave you bogged down by endless submenus or reading tomes of text. Where The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics (DC: AoRT) loses me artistically is in its comic-style storytelling cutscenes. The execution is inconsistent; sometimes a cutscene will render things perfectly, and other times it ends up looking rushed and flat. Between this and the simplistic UI presentation, the game's visuals feel low budget outside of the combat encounters. Fans of the film and the series could be left wanting due to the loss of scope and sense of wonder that accompanies it.

Dynamedion's work on the soundtrack hits the mark wonderfully, merging so seamlessly with the music Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim made for the series that you could almost swear it was an arrangement. The opening/world map theme is truly enchanting and rouses you for adventure between each encounter, taking from the main motif Pemberton created for the show. The individual battle maps mostly seem to have their own themes, which aptly serve the atmosphere of their respective landscapes, like the forlorn woodwinds that accompany the drifting sands of the Crystal Desert. That being said, the compositions are short, and with such a small soundtrack, the music can get repetitive. Filling out the audio experience are the myriad sound effects that help bring Thra and its denizens to life. The sonic landscape is largely well implemented. Most importantly, SkekSil's trademark "MmmmMMMmmm!" is worked into encounters with him, so I am satisfied. Overall, DC: AoRT sounds great, even if the soundtrack lacks some variety.

In the early moments, players will have no issue understanding DC: AoRT regardless of their experience with strategy RPGs. BonusXP smartly uses the parlance of Thra, asking the various Gelfling heroes to Dreamfast with Aughra. These fasts manifest as combat encounters, which not only get players up to speed with the characters and story so far, but also introduce various gameplay mechanics and allow you to start building your party. The game describes each basic element, from combat to menu navigation, so thoroughly that you'll have it down after only a few missions. Mastering tactics, however, is up to you.

DC: AoRT is a traditional strategy RPG at its core, but it differentiates itself soundly. It is most akin to something like Final Fantasy Tactics in terms of manoeuvring about the battlefield, controlling a smaller party, and becoming intimate with each character's progression. Each hero, Gelfling, Podling, or Fizzgig (yes, you can recruit Fizzgigs!), has a primary job that governs their stats and the abilities they can use in combat. It is a limiting system, at first, that offers more flexibility as characters gain levels and start branching out into secondary jobs. A character can equip up to three abilities, active or passive, from their primary job and two from their secondary job. Plenty of abilities are free to use, but many consume MP or require a certain status condition to execute. This forces players to build a well-rounded team instead of focusing their efforts on a one-Gelfling juggernaut executioner. Unlocking more jobs definitely requires a certain commitment to grinding, especially to access the final Tier 3 Jobs, which is as time consuming as the difficulty you choose. But it rewards players with more fun and flexibility, since character growth is one of the best parts of DC: AoRT and feeds directly into how enjoyable combat is.

Encounters take place on sizable isometric battlefields, many offering a variety of elevations, obstacles, and elements to interact with more often than one might think to. Each region of the world map has different gimmicks for its battlefields, like the poison-inflicting bogs in the Swamp of Sog or the random rune tiles that offer boons in the Caves of Grot. Beyond the elevation and gimmicks, many of the story missions also offer alternative victory conditions instead of simply wiping out the enemy force (though the mechanics still boil down to "hit a thing to do a thing.")

By default, characters have the ability to move and attack. Almost every ability, aside from Move, immediately ends that character's turn, which can be frustrating if your plan was to hit and run, as you might have done in other strategy RPGs. DC: AoRT uses a clear initiative system governed by the Recovery stat that is tracked by the "mission timeline" to telegraph when each character, good or bad, can act. You won't feel as trapped when you realize that moving away and doing nothing is sometimes the best choice to ensure a critical turn comes earlier. A lot of the other character stats are standard RPG fare, and all stats are affected by character gear or what their primary job is. Gelfling races have the same base stats but unique racial abilities. Drenchen are immune to poison, while Grotton cannot be blinded, and Vapra get an additional boost from their equipment bonuses. These different abilities are neat, but players have no control over the kind of Gelfling they can recruit, and you'll find yourself with a few members of each. This is likely to ensure adequate balance, as rolling through the Swamp of Sog with an all-Drenchen war party would make the encounters there far too easy, for example.

Experience and pearls are the resources that govern character progression, and both are earned at the end of encounters along with the occasional piece of loot. New levels and abilities are unlocked with almost every encounter, so character progression feels relatively quick and fresh, ensuring you'll often have something new to look forward to in the next fight. Pearls can be used in the equipment shop to buy new weapons, armour, or trinkets (accessories). Equipment improves as the game progresses and can get outlandishly expensive. The economy system of Thra seems a bit flawed in that players cannot sell their old, outdated gear when they replace it with new gear. This makes grinding the most expensive gear for multiple characters a slower than necessary process that exists just to pad out the gameplay experience. Furthermore, this leads to problematic optimization when characters change jobs. If the new job doesn't use the same gear, it'll default to the lowest quality gear it can equip, adding tedium where other games with this system have streamlined the process substantially.

All of this feeds into the core combat gameplay of DC: AoRT, which is incredibly enjoyable. Equipping the best abilities in tandem with other party members to maximize battlefield control and damage output is immensely satisfying. The game continues with the trend I have seen lately of making almost every ability and status effect matter, so players feel like they are truly mastering combat. If you ever lose track of who is doing what, there's an easy-to-access info window that details each stat, effect, piece of gear, and character race in clear detail. I referred to this often in the early parts of the game to figure out what each icon meant and how that fed into my individual strategies. Sometimes a strategy fails, but players do not lose anything except time if they are defeated. Coupled with the fact that each encounter lasts an average of 10 minutes, it is very easy to dive right back in after reconfiguring abilities. While this lowers the stakes, it makes for an accessible experience that doesn't squander your time any more than necessary. Furthermore, the game has three difficulty settings that can be changed at any point between encounters, so players can tailor the experience to their needs: to grind more or not to grind more, that is the question.

The game isn't without its technical flaws, but none are egregious enough to ruin the entire experience. Maneuvering around the isometric grid is fairly easy, and selecting targets for attacks and such handles well most of the time. Controlling your characters is also straightforward: you use a radial menu to select abilities. I sometimes found control imprecise (or perhaps too precise); I'd find myself selecting the wrong ability at the last second somehow or inadvertently cancelling my move, wasting time. On a deeper level, there were a few visual glitches here and there, one of my characters could not equip all three abilities when I assigned them the Tracker job (though other characters were fine), and I once had the game crash on me when the world map loaded like I was trying to start an ailing NES cartridge. Again, it was nothing that made me want to quit DC: AoRT forever, but I hope these quirks will get patched in the days following the game's launch.

Contextualizing the engaging and satisfying gameplay is a story that sadly fails to live up to its companion media. As the name might imply, DC: AoRT largely follows the story of the titular Netflix show, albeit poorly. Mother Aughra has awoken from her slumber to discover an evil presence known as The Darkening has begun to corrupt Thra. This nefarious force originates from the Crystal of Truth, which she entrusted to the Skeksis to care for. The game then adapts some pivotal moments from the show into gameplay, while others are told through the comic-style cutscenes. None of the in-game storytelling offers the depth or scope of what the companion series provides. It is a massive missed opportunity because the gameplay and world offer an incredibly solid platform to build from. This game could have delved into other characters or further explored Thra in ways the film and series haven't yet, but instead it feels like they wanted to play it safe. You only get a hint of what could have been in a couple of side encounters, which represent the first time the game's story managed to truly interest me, but it didn't last. For the most part, I found myself watching the story only out of a sort of morbid curiosity to see how they would interpret things. Ultimately, players who have not seen the show will find DC: AoRT's story to be choppy, inconsistent, and confusing. It's a great marketing tactic to drive more eyes to the show (and it's a great show, you would probably really like it), but the "lite version" of the story cheapens the entire gameplay experience by cutting down a pillar of what makes the RPG genre a true joy.

If players can get past the weak storytelling elements, DC: AoRT is a solid experience when enjoyed alongside the Netflix series. The moment-to-moment gameplay is engaging, well balanced, and rewards sound strategy and creative thinking. As interesting as the world of Thra is, it almost feels like this game would have been better served as its own IP, but it plays with the lore of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal in a fun way that I ultimately cannot complain much about. What I do hope is that BonusXP continues to work with the solid framework laid out here and takes a greater risk with their storytelling in the future.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.

© 2020 En Masse Entertainment, Netflix, BonusXP. All rights reserved.