What a pleasant surprise this turned out to be. I try to pick games I’d like and I’ve been in the mood for a good, traditional, hex based strategy game so I impulse bought Ancient Frontier using my complex value formula: hexes + turns = sold. My hopes fell when I heard the first bits of voice acting but then the game rallied and all was well. I hope the tone of the review below is not too negative as the good definitely outweighed the bad.
Should you Buy It?
Yes if you are the target audience. It’s slow paced yet too streamlined to be a hardcore. Panzer General keeps popping into my head as the closest comparison. Not in tone or flavor but in the way the entire campaign plays out. That game was also considered too streamlined to be hardcore and like Ancient Frontier its challenge played out over the course of the campaign, not mission to mission.
Doing a persistent campaign, where your force is mostly whatever survived the previous mission is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand it gives maximum engagement. You feel a connection with the troops who were with you from the beginning. The first capital ship I built was still around at the end of the campaign – a sturdy Corvette that had saved the day half a dozen times despite being under powered and fragile as the game advanced and ships got bigger.
On the other hand the designer must balance difficulty over a longer term and the player might dig a hole they don’t realize they’ve dug until many missions later when they simply don’t have enough troops to finish. This can be crushing when combined with ironman (partial – you can retry a failed missions, just not save at will) and permadeath. That’s what happened to me near the end of the first campaign. I vastly prefer to finish games before reviewing them and I like Ancient Frontier enough to go back and start over but don’t want to delay this review another 3 days just to finish the last few missions.
There is a fully voiced, slightly branching campaign and some ship upgrading but the vast majority of your time will be spent in combat. What I initially thought was too simplistic turned out to be substantial and satisfying. The game strips away some conventional space-based strategy complexity. Every weapon can shoot 360 degrees and your ship is modeled as one solid block. You don’t get to transfer power to aft shields or line up true broadsides.
Turns are taken in order of initiative with no ability to delay until later in the round. Unit can move and shoot a number of times appropriate for their class. Fast scouts get 3 movement phases and a single action while lumbering Battleships get a single movement phase and 4 actions. Each movement phase is further dependent on class, so that same fighter might cover 5 hexes per move while the Battleship trundles along at 3. It’s a nice system that lets your swift ships dart out, unload their firepower and dart back into cover. Strafing runs with fighters translated better than they usually do in turn based games.
There are the traditional weapon types (missiles, lasers, slug throwers etc.) and shields but very little paper-rock-scissors at play because of how weapons are abstracted. Your main guns fire on a mouse click and follow general established conventions. Big ships with giant guns have a hard time hitting nimble ships while flak canons shred enemy fighters but are ineffective against thick armor. But here every capital ship has an array of other weapons as well as the main guns. They all have anti-fighter and anti-shield weaponry and because facing is not modeled every unit becomes a generalist. It’s not a bad thing, the combat is already lengthy. I’m not sure extra layers of complexity would make it better, but it is unusual enough to warrant mentioning.
Your ships are also fairly durable. That’s not the right word – even your largest capital ships will go down if swarmed by a handful of enemies. But they recover quickly if not destroyed. Every unit has a shield recharge power that completely recharges the substantial shields and it’s only set to a 2-turn cooldown. If your ship survives the round you’ll usually be able to recharge shields and keep going. I like the balance but it feeds into the AI deficiencies the same way that happened in Civ 5. Human players competently cycle units back and forth so wounded units are screened by fresh troops while they recover. The AI does a poorer job and so its possible to whittle down a superior force through focus fire and tactical retreats.
I don’t think the AI is bad. I think it’s doing what the designer wants it to do. But I’ve rarely fought a more timid computer opponent. They are entirely too focused on their own survival. Tiny fighters use meager buffs instead of getting off a final volley despite their destruction being assured on my very next action regardless. Wing mates seek out cover and retreat instead of finishing off damaged ships. It actually feels natural, the opposite of the melting problem I rant about, but it’s a bit odd.
It’s also strangely obsessed with overall efficiency. A single enemy combatant often used both its actions to shoot ion bolts and do heavy damage to separate ships’ shields. This would make sense if there was a large backing force who would then finish the job. But when he’s just there by himself he accomplishes nothing instead of at least damaging the hull of a single combatant. There is so little focus fire that sometimes it felt like the AI was going out of its way not to finish off my ships.
There’s also an X-com effect where units are not activated until you get close enough to wake them. You’ll rarely be fighting all the enemy forces on a map at once. Since there’s no mission time limits you can methodically clear out a section at a time with a relatively small force in order to save resources. It breaks immersion as enemies in visual range just hang out watching their allies get overwhelmed. But it’s welcome because the game is difficult and stingy. Still, the few missions that start you surrounded (and therefore in range of the AI) were far more thrilling and I wished there were more.
Resources play a huge part for a game that doesn’t concern itself with base building or traditional resource gathering. You have three: hydrium, energy and research. The last lets you progress along the wide research tree. It’s not deep but it’s very broad with a separate research tree for every ship type’s equipment and powers.
Hydrium is the magic substance everyone is mining and is primarily used to purchase equipment, repair and purchase new ships. Energy is also needed to produce ships but more crucially for deploying units to a mission. That cost increases with every piece of equipment you add.
Between story quests you have the option of going on optional missions for resource rewards. You can also collect a lot of resources floating around the maps (note – I did not find out until I finished my playthrough that the harvester ship – a ship that I thought was largely useless – multiplies this reward by 4. Life would have been a lot easier if I knew that from the beginning.).
This all creates a subtle and complex meta game that will make it difficult to finish the campaign if not managed properly throughout. Carelessly losing a ship or two every mission will ensure your fleet is too small when difficulty ramps up in the late-game. With no way to go back to a previous save you’ll be forced to start over.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. I remember I had the same experience in Panzer General. There were too many moving pieces that I didn’t fully understand on my first run. I thought I was doing well finishing every mission with small losses but they compounded until final failure. I’m looking forward to retrying the campaign now armed with the knowledge of 20 hours of playtime.
More Good than Bad
In what is becoming a theme for these polished indie games, inventory management is a clicky mess but the in-combat interface is flawless. Every piece of data you need is clearly displayed and highlighted which is a good thing because the game is leisurely, bordering on slow. Missions can take a long time as you hunt down the final requirements on each map. If you go on every optional mission, and you will because you’ll want the resources, there’s a lot of gameplay here. I wish there was more variety in goals and structure.
The combat engine is gorgeous. You can zoom in close enough to see rivets. The maps, especially the later ones, are full of cover and asteroids and strange outer space things. Weapons cast beautiful glows and shadows as they streak by minefields. It’s pretty, the weapons are satisfying and the sound design is great. Getting hit by a hail of gunfire and hearing it first absorbed then pinging off your hull as shields go down adds anxiety when it’s your favorite frigate being pummeled. Railguns have a short anticipation before causing a visible and auditory reaction in their target. It’s much too busy to feel like space but it’s so lovely I didn’t mind.
The story itself is hit and miss. It’s fully voiced and has a bit of consequence but the acting ranges from bad to passable. The writing is also uneven. When dealing with strictly military matters, mission briefings and dry interactions, it’s competent. Nothing pulitzer worthy but not eye roll inducing either. When dealing with romance and flirting it gets amateurish. There’s a weird 50’s vibe to how the men flirt with the women that seems out of place today, let alone in an imagined future world. The coy innuendo, double entendres and puns are a little juvenile and weaken the games’ most impactful moment. Your admiral also went to the mayor of Jaws school of leadership.
In the one instance where it appeared choice and consequence would make me feel like a complete asshole for doing a complete asshole thing the game let me off the hook emotionally. There was a powerful moment but no one mentioned it again. It was a wasted opportunity. The twists and larger story held my interest despite using some well worn cliches. In the end I walked away feeling like the designer used most of his time on the combat engine and balancing. I can’t say I mind that decision in a strategy game.
This is the definition of a solid genre game earning a 75. If you like traditional, hexy turn based strategy there’s no reason you won’t enjoy this and there’s quite a lot of it to go through. The campaigns are long and there’s a chance that like me you’ll have to restart after finishing most of it. If you’re looking for an introduction to the genre this could do nicely, just understand that you’ll lose and restart a few times as you come to grips with some of the missions and the subtle meta. If you’ve never liked the genre this won’t win you over. It’s really good at what it does but doesn’t do much else.
There is some grindy slog, not nearly enough variety in mission types, some important data is obscured, stilted writing, not enough ship customizing, predictable twists and many other small complaints that don’t really detract from a really good, tactical strategy game with gorgeous presentation and enjoyable combat. If it did everything right it could have been a contender. As it is it’s just a good game that I’m happy to play. I hope it makes money so the developer who is clearly talented gets to make the next game at his leisure with no compromises.