The title might ring familiar. Battle vs. Chess is a kind of spiritual successor to the old Battle Chess of the late Eighties; a game that incorporated chess with combat animations to create a modern variant of the traditional strategy game. I say “kind of” because beyond the animated-chess conceit there’s no actual connection between the games. Different studios, no relation, maybe a slight whiff of copyright infringement, but try and ignore that.
In fact the similarities between games aren’t even a criticism. Battle Chess had developed a surprisingly cool formula for success by combining the standard strategy game with a literal interpretation of battles, a formula that has been repeated for years online through casual game sites. The primary difference is that Battle vs. Chess is chess for a generation spoilt by a diversity of mini-games and apps.
Imagine a series of mini-games in addition to old school chess and you have Battle vs. Chess. So beyond the classic game, you’ll have a series of campaigns for either side, white or black. These come in the form of challenges. You might be given a set up with two knights and a king against an opponent with a king and four pawns, then be told to take out the pawns before your own king is taken. Each campaign introduces new, randomly selected chess pieces in different strategic positions around the board. Like all games, here any move you make is followed immediately by a movement and battle animation, a la classical battle chess.
Beyond the campaign you’ll have mini-games that require you to finish the game within a minimum number of moves. One might set a few pieces on the board and direct you to take out the unprotected piece, the one guy on the board that can be taken without putting any of your pieces in danger. The next might drop an entire set, mixed randomly across the board, and have you begin the game from within that hodgepodge of clutter. Another will drop you onto a board already mid-game and ask you to put the opponent’s king in check.
The game is nothing if not an extensive brainstorming event to try and translate absolutely staple gameplay in as many creative ways as possible. Occasionally it wanders a bit too far away from the tactical elements of chess and into a realm of hit and miss ideas. And I mean that in a literal sense, choose to play in Arcade Mode and you’ll be dealing with a fun albeit strange combination of chess and twitch gaming. At any point in the game where you are about to take your opponent’s piece you’re faced with a series of scrolling button prompts, which you’re meant to hit in order to whittle down the health of the piece.
It’s one of the crowning creative jewels of the game while at the same time the primary aspect that has little to actually do with chess at all. This goes for the game’s option for full-scale war. If you are attacking the opponent or being attacked at any point the board can transform into a third-person, action-adventure-like battle where pieces attack each other in groups. A queen might be accompanied by a series of pawns, a king might be accompanied by knights. You’ll take control of the target of the attack or of the attacking piece while being aided by this little makeshift army of yours.
It creates a strange scenario on the board. On the one hand you’re still playing the full game using the traditional tactical system that is used for any standard game of chess. On the other, these fights can impair any element of strategy you might have started out with, mostly because in this mode pieces have health bars. So an attacking queen who has been in enough of these fights will have had enough of her health chipped away that it’s possible for a defending pawn with full-health to take her out.
But Battle vs. Chess isn’t just being targeted at long-time chess fans, we have to remember, not even your run-of-the-mill casual PC gamers. It’s being adapted for console as well, not for download but as a full-scale title. And it’s been developed to be as accessible for such a market. Beyond the combat modes and the occasional health bars the game supports head-to-head matches online and allows you to access hints that will help you decide on your next move, which can be a brilliant life saver. It’s built to be palatable to as wide a range of gamers as it can find, so it will be a question of whether creative gameplay can make up for what it loses in conventional strategy.
Battle vs. Chess is due for release on PC, PS3 and X360 later this year.