Review: Drone Tactics (Nintendo DS)

Drone Tactics
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: Success
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 05/12/08


I do believe this is the first game I’ve ever played that actively seemed to want to make me hate it.

In fairness, plenty of games are hateable, but in those cases it’s largely a case of the game actively making it known that IT hates ME, or that the developers do, in any case. And even with games that can be easily hated, you can look at the final product and say, “Well, they tried to make it likable, but…” in some respect or another. Drone Tactics, by comparison, is the sort of product that actively goes out of its way to make the player WANT to hate it. This isn’t to say it’s BAD, because it’s not really all that bad in most respects; it simply does so many vile and belligerent things that are expressly counter-productive to enjoying the experience that it feels like that guy who holds his finger up in front of your forehead and asks if he’s bothering you even though he is, in fact, not actually touching you.

The story of Drone Tactics contributes excessively to that, of course (they often do); from the word go the game starts off by placing you under the control of several young (and I do mean YOUNG) children who are, apparently, the last hope of a race of ancient bugs who can turn into robots (not unlike the Power Rangers, one supposes) because they love bugs. You’re immediately introduced to the incorrigibly happy and forward-thinking lead, the maternal female associate, the jerk best friend and said jerk’s adorable sister who he loves to death, so when the inevitable stereotyped plot elements fall into place later and the requisite betrayal has to happen so that the bad guys can snatch the MacGuffin from the good guys you’re not in the dark as to who is filling what roles.

Seriously, okay? The ENTIRE story is one giant aggravating stereotype after another, and everyone in the ENTIRE GAME is entirely too genre blind to realize that yes, they’re walking into a trap and yes, this person will betray you. Christ, there’s even the formerly good but brainwashed bad guy and the honorable with a skewed sense of justice bad guy, okay? The entire game is one long stereotype that seems like it was written for small kids who wouldn’t see all of the plot points coming, only the game it’s attached to is ENTIRELY too difficult and time-intensive for a kid to want to be bothered with. When you further point out that story characters disappear for chapters at a time because the game simply has nothing interesting for them to say or do (including the insect characters you meet in the beginning of the game, who essentially disappear for most of the game except in small cutscenes that you have to seek out on your own) and the fact that a lot of the elements of the story are just messed up or broken (if you face a force of impossible odds you have to run from and eliminate the force, the game still pretends you ran away, which is exceptionally lame and annoying; despite the fact that all of your partners hade Drones, you don’t get to see them, only their avatars), there’s nothing to see here and less to actively pay attention to because you’ve already seen it all.

Drone Tactics does look good, at least; the game is divided into 2D and 3D visuals, with the 2D making up the bulk of the game and the 3D stepping in for battle sequences, and it largely works about as well as it did in Shining Force 3. The Drones are convincing in 3D, and the various battle animations look pretty powerful all in all, though the 2D landscapes and sprites look less than stellar. The in-game music is diverse enough to be different on a case by case basis (the enemy turn has different music from the player turn, preparation modes have different music from that, and so on) but doesn’t change much over the course of the game. The battle effects are solid sounding and convincing, and work well in context, though they’re not anything stellar.

Now, the trouble with a turn-based strategy game is that nine times out of ten, developers feel the need to muck around with the formula of what makes the games work to try and make something fresh and exciting instead of the same old game over and over. Sometimes this works, as with games like Disgaea and (if the demo is any indication) Operation Darkness… sometimes it doesn’t and you get Hoshigami or Rondo of Swords. Drone Tactics tries its hand at reinventing the genre, both by mucking around with the combat elements and by adding and changing up some of the non-combat ones as well; in the end, it ends up with a gameplay style that’s pretty easy to get into but hard to really learn, although many of the game elements are, shall we say, less exciting than others. The core of the gameplay essentially works like one would expect; outfit your troops as needed and deploy them into battle, whereupon they move along a square battlefield to beat each other up. Moving your troops around the battlefield is as simple as highlighting a trooper, specifying where you want them to move to, and confirming the action, and as is standard for these sorts of games, when two opposing forces line up, you can attack the foe, again with a simple press of a button. There’s terrain that does different things, and flying and ground type enemies, each with their different advantages and disadvantages in different sorts of terrains, and in general, the core layout is pretty accessible if you’ve played anything from the genre, ever.

And then we get into the weaponry and things go off the tracks a bit. Every one of your Drones has slots for three different types of weaponry: a melee weapon (for striking things), a standard bullet (for close range shooting) and an explosive or heavy beam weapon (for long range shooting). In theory this means that you can equip weaponry of all types to all Drones, but in practice, some Drones really suck at smacking things or shooting things, so the game also allows you to equip statistic enhancing items into those slots in case your Drone couldn’t hit a house with a Howitzer. Short-range guns and melee weaponry are used for close-range combat, and when someone attacks, they effectively choose the “type” of weapon that will be used for the altercation, as when an attack is declared, the defending party may choose one of four options to fend off the assault; they may choose to counter-attack (which is useful if your opponent is guaranteed to use a weapon you’re stronger with than they are), defend (which is guaranteed to reduce damage, but not much), evade (which may reduce or negate damage entirely, but might fail), or use a card. Cards, as it were, act as “items” in Drone Tactics, as they allow you to do all sorts of wonderful things, including reducing or adding to damage, healing, teleportation, and area of effect attacks. They’re semi-expended when used; they go away for the duration, but can be used again next battle, thus meaning you don’t actually burn through them, which in turn means you can use the things as much as you like in battle without worrying about being short next time around. You can build a deck of cards to use in battles, which effectively acts as your item bag of sorts; anyone can use any card when the situation permits, as everyone has access to the deck. Cards that are meant to be used outside of battle generally take effect instantly, while cards that are used during battle often require some sort of a mini-game to be played as a sort of competition between you and the opposing force, and may involve shoving bombs over to the other side of the screen, tapping quickly on the touch screen, tapping buttons, or swatting a fly/guiding a fly away from being swatted. If you win, your effect takes place and/or you negate the opponent’s effect; if you lose, it’s the same but in reverse.

Outside of battle, you’re riding around in a giant snail APC of sorts which acts as your mobile base (which also pops up in battle to fire mortars at foes, deploy troops, and repair damaged units), from which you’re offered a number of options. Aside from simply deploying onto the next mission and talking to select NPC’s prior to said mission (yuck), you can also play around with your deck, equipment and Drones as you see fit. Deck construction is fairly self explanatory (add cards to your deck, tah-dah), but you can also use recipes (garnered from battle, the internet or experimentation) or free-build new cards from older cards; in essence, trading weaker cards for stronger ones. You can also trade in scrap culled from battles to build equipment of various sorts for your Drones; in essence, this works like a shop, where you “sell” old gear for scrap and “buy” new items with accumulated scrap metals. You can also use your scrap to upgrade your base; the base doesn’t level up on its own, and instead requires a financial investment to level itself up, in one, two or three level increments (which increases its health, defense, and accuracy/damage with its cannon). As has become more common in SRPG’s of late, you can also take on free missions, called “The Badlands” here, to find treasures, level up outside of story battles, and earn scrap to build things. You can also make your own decals, customize the color schemes of your Drones, and play against/trade with other players who happen to own the game from here if you’re so inclined.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty standard SRPG with some neat elements thrown in. Which makes it something of a shame that they don’t work as well as they might.

First off, the various units have all sorts of modifications to them that dictate their advantages or disadvantages in battle; for instance, some are “Anti-Air”, others are “Anti-Ground”, some are weak against Beam Weapons, some against Melee, whatever. In theory, this means that you have an advantage against the opposing forces, should you choose to manipulate your team right; in practice, it often means restarting a mission because two of your aerial units went up against a flying unit that was labeled “Anti-Ground” when it should have been labeled “AERIAL DEATH”. In other words: labels only mean that something is guaranteed to essentially destroy whatever it’s strong against, and are in no way meant to be taken as an indication that a unit who is strong against ground forces would be weak against aerial forces. This becomes problematic when you try to compare your own forces to your enemies, only to find that your Dragonfly Drone isn’t anywhere near as badass as the opposition’s “Ëœcopter. This is kind of annoying, but can be dealt with well enough.

Then there’s the matter of the mini-games. Tapping the touch screen like a madman, while I can feel it silently killing my DS, is manageable enough, but most of the rest of the games are abysmal and not at all fun to play. That these games are a disruption is annoying enough; that failure effectively means you wasted a card for nothing is a big pain, especially later with the fly-swatting games where even if the fly-swatter lands on the fly YOU DON’T GET CREDIT FOR HITTING IT a not insignificant amount of the time. Essentially, you end up figuring out what cards are actually useful, then figuring out of you can play the mini-games before you load a deck, thus meaning that useful cards with terrible mini-games never see use, while mediocre cards with easy mini-games make up your deck. It’s something of a hassle, but this too can be managed.

Then there’s the matter of the smaller issues. There’s a generally limited pool of Drones to see throughout the game, and unless you see one of the major bosses riding around in a Drone, you can expect to see one pop into your party sooner or later. Parties are limited to eight active members, and while it’s nice to see that the inactive members still gain experience without fighting, with the small pool of allies it might have been better to just give me the full roster and let that be the end of it. At the end of battle, you earn extra experience to give to your characters, which is nice… but the fact that, later, it comes in 200 point increments that can’t be divided up into smaller bits makes dividing the EXP up a hassle when you have three characters close to leveling up but only one ball of EXP that could level all three troops. Also, there’s a point in the game where, for plot-purposes (whether you win or lose the related battle or not) you lose two characters; one of the characters is, at that point, replaced by a stronger and (arguably better) character, but the other character is one of the very few characters who can consistently with long-range shots, which cripples your effectiveness in service of the storyline… which is SEVERELY LAME. Oh, and while we’re on the subject; long-range shelling seems useless in most respects, as even the characters whose attacks are dedicated to such a thing seem to miss as often as they hit with these sorts of attacks AND THAT’S THEIR SPECIALTY; this makes shelling enemies as much about luck as skill (especially when you used a card to boost the attack of the shell only to see the enemy dodge it). And last, but not least, while I appreciate the IDEA behind fighting bullets with bullets or melee with melee, since both types of attacks occur at the same general range, it doesn’t make any actual sense WHY characters couldn’t simply use either weapon in close-range combat except “because that’s the way the combat mechanics work”.

But the biggest problem, overall, is that after dealing with the above issues for twenty or more chapters of inane plot developments and even more side missions, the game simply becomes a chore. The game blows its metaphorical load in the early stages by showing you how everything works; from then on, the entire game becomes a case of slogging through the various missions, destroying everything you see, until you eventually complete the game, only to get a save file that allows you to slog your way through all of the remaining extra stages. Unless you’re the sort of person who enjoys jacking up the difficulty and going through the game again, there’s no reason to go back to the game, and actually getting through the game in the first place will really be on the tough side simply because the game has nothing new to show you to bring you back for more after the first few missions. Characters don’t learn new attacks, they don’t get promoted, they remain the same from beginning to end, and with the only reasons to complete the game being “to see the stereotyped story through to its stereotyped conclusion” and “to say I did”, the longer the game goes on, the harder it becomes to care.

Which is something of a shame, as the initial first impression Drone Tactics gives off is pretty solid. It feels like effort was put into developing the game and trying to come up with something solid and entertaining, and the first few hours of the game are certainly enjoyable enough to keep you interested. But between the weak story, the repetitive gameplay, the broken and often uninteresting mini-games that feel shoe-horned in, and the occasionally odd mechanical issues with combat, the interest sours into apathy and disinterest before you reach the end unless you have the temperament for something so base and often unfunctional. If you’re dying for a turn-based DS strategy game, this is better than Rondo of Swords, but if you’re just looking for a good DS game in general, you’re probably better off holding out for something like, say, Etrian Odyssey 2. Drone Tactics is, at best, decent, and at worst, rote and boring.

The Scores:
Story: DREADFUL
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: POOR
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Drone Tactics is a neat concept for a game that is unfortunately attached to a game that can’t carry the concept to its maximum execution. The pleasant visuals and solid gameplay combined with what feels like some classic mechanics and solid innovations will keep you initially interested in the game, and may carry you through the product overall. However, the story is stereotyped and poor, the mini-games and combat mechanics don’t feel as solid as they should, and after you’ve completed about half of the game, you realize that the game has nothing else up its sleeve to show you. With a little more innovation and a little more playtesting this could have been a winner; as it is, it’s cute, but ultimately unsatisfying.

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