Licensed games. I remember the discs, buried at the bottom of cereal boxes, released to promote the newest Ice Age movie. The Treasure Planet one had one map, which you raced to try and get the best time, flying on the hoverboard that Jim gets busted for. Mulan got a game, too, and there was a dress-up minigame that included loads of pretty clothes that weren’t in the movie. Licensed games are funny, because they should make sense outside of their connection to whichever story and setting they borrow from, but they oftentimes don’t. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics doesn’t.
It’s a turn-based strategy game based on the Netflix show The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which itself is a prequel to The Dark Crystal, a movie from 1982. A lot of Tactics is like the show, but, for those in need of a refresher, this is how it works. In the fantasy world of Thra, a parasitic collective called the skekSis exploit the elf-like Gelfling for their vitality, so they may become immortal. When their plot is exposed, the guardian of Thra, Mother Aughra, astrally connects the Gelfling in order to incite rebellion and oust the skekSis from their stolen throne. She rallies the Gelflings into a party, initiates the sequence of main missions, and shows side missions on the map of Thra. The party consists of Brea, Deet, Rian, and others, who have strengths and weaknesses based on their class and clan. For example, Deet is a Mender (mage), Hup is a Soldier (…soldier), and Kylan is a Scout (rogue). And the Drenchen clan has an immunity to poison, so they can cross toxic pools with no ill effects. Each class has individual abilities that unlock as that character levels up, and jobs let the player freely change the character’s class on the fly. With one job set as the primary and another as the secondary, the characters become very customisable.
The battles are scenes from the show, though there are twists in the tale. The player may bring in fighters who weren’t there canonically, and the game encourages this in order to experiment with strategy. Moreover, the battles won’t play out beat by beat. When Rian and Ordon encounter villain skekMal, he is accompanied by two allies, and in my playthrough I had Kylan and Naia help defeat him. Each battle has certain conditions—mainly, don’t let the central character in this scene die—and each character takes a turn to act.
The actions are straightforward, including movement, attacks, healing, and buffs. They are brought up on a wheel, with tiles that light up to show if the move is possible and how much damage it would do. Some environmental factors come into play; for instance, high ground gives rise to harsher attacks. If the player chooses to end the turn without acting, the character’s next turn is bumped up in the sequence. Undoing the move is possible, which feels forgiving without being pandering. Hovering over a character lets you see their stats and their moves, which works wonders if meeting a new enemy for the first time. The skekSis have a daunting health pool and have unique abilities based on their personalities. These throw a spanner in the strategy if the player doesn’t check who’s moving where and when (speaking from experience). Victory will give the fighters experience points, new abilities, and Pearls. Pearls may be spent in the shop to purchase better equipment for the characters. I must say that the Switch is the ideal platform to play Tactics, due to its pick-up-and-play nature. The bite-size battles suit the casual and convenient mode of streaming shows into the empty moments of everyday life, like waiting for pasta to cook or installing updates on my laptop.
First and foremost, Tactics is fun. The genre lends itself to the pace and themes of the TV show, and getting the Gelflings the upper hand against the skekSis through your own actions is satisfying. The antagonists are so evil that the show lurches into absurdity at times, and it is so entertaining to lob a stone at them for 34 damage points. It’s so entertaining that I think about how good the show is, and I tell people, “I’m reviewing this game, it’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, it’s on Netflix, it’s amazing.” See?
I appreciate Tactics for the elements it has taken from the show and translated into mechanics. Also, the game offers battles that occur off-screen and lets the player be an integral part of them. But, for someone who’s seen the show, it’s anachronistic to have a voiceless Gurjin defending Deet and Hup from the Stonewood bullies. Gurjin’s great, but why is he here? I only see Tactics appealing to this crowd of people, but, even then, the structure of the game’s battles doesn’t recreate the awe and tension that grows with each episode of the show. If I’ve stacked it and fainted everyone but still fulfilled the victory conditions, it’s strange to read Rian’s rallying cry to the bodies littering the forest floor. Some scenarios became wearisome, as I staggered the Gelflings three tiles at a time towards the finish line, and some sequences riff off of Benny Hill, as I drew enemies into the path of rolling boulders.
The Gelfling clans are split by the skekSis, and Brea, Deet, and Rian’s revelations are the catalyst to ousting the villains. As I went through the story, battle by battle, I thought how interesting it would be if Tactics followed three Gelflings forming their own resistance. Or they could be fighting the blight in one corner of Thra, and their story could conclude with a link to the TV show’s golden trio.
All this being said, I don’t know how flexible developers are able to be for a licensed property. And Tactics is an all right game. The only thing is that it isn’t doing anything terribly thrilling with its material. Games don’t need to be thrilling, but it’s the richness of the TV show that leaves me wanting a little more from Tactics.
Publisher: En Masse Entertainment
Available on: Nintendo Switch [reviewed on], Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Release Date: February 4, 2020