Isn’t Focus Home Interactive just amazing? They are one of the last major publishers still working consistently with smaller studios to release unique I.P.’s. If ever the endless stream of AAA sequels start to feel like clones off the factory line, playing something from Focus Home Interactive never fails to offer a refreshing experience. I therefore feel a little guilty for posting this review of Othercide, the latest game under their production.
Developed by the studio Lightbulb Crew, Othercide is fundamentally a roguelite release that plays out within the tactical, turn-based genre. The game therefore aims to combine that intensive strategical thinking you can only get from turn-base combat, but the possibility of loosing all progress and character development raises the stakes even higher.
While numerous other studios have given us great games from an creative use of this formula, Othercide doesn’t quite make the grade. At its core, this is a well-rounded and engaging turned-based RPG which is all this game needed to be, but it makes the most detrimental mistake of a bad roguelite title: Imbalanced difficulty.
The result is that Othercide’s progression feels like a square peg forced into a round hole because the roguelite mechanics never really feel as if they serve a purpose. The gameplay also lacks the feature of randomly generated experiences that a good roguelite thrives on, so even the gorgeous visuals inevitably loose the battle against the increasingly obvious sense of repetitiveness.
Lady in Red
Othercide plays out within in a sombre, plague-infested city where the Red Mother – a guardian entity – prepares to thwart the imminent birth of her nemesis, Suffering itself. In an effort to protect its incarnation, Suffering spawns an entire army of avatars known as the eponymous ‘Others’, which means the Red Mother needs a hand or two if she is to protect something called ‘The Child’.
She therefore unleashes echoes of her own strength in the form of ‘Daughters’ to stand a fighting chance against the legions of Suffering. Playing as the Red Mother, the player commands squads varying between two to four Daughters during each of the short missions, and the main objective is usually to hunt down small clusters of Suffering’s manifestations.
With an emphasis on body horror and plague iconography, the enemies could easily be the cousins of the creatures from the Silent Hill franchise. The Daughters, in a pleasing contrast, are all sexy fashionistas, and they are randomly generated with a surprising variety of different names, outfits and hairstyles.
In fact, despite the macabre themes, Othercide is really nice to look at. Running on the Unity Engine, Lightbulb Crew have rendered their game in a stark, monochromatic colour palette, which is highly effective at setting the dank atmosphere of the game’s decaying and melancholic world.
The only real colour that ever makes an appearance is red which symbolises everything connected to the Red Mother, such as in the special abilities the Daughters use. The visual design therefore casts red as something like a symbol in this noir-tinted game, and the colour stands out like a vivid beacon of power and life.
Another pleasant visual touch lies in the game’s moment to moment animation. Whether in poses as you select one of the Daughters in the menu screens, or setting off her most powerful attack on the battlefield, their movements are elaborate and look awesome. Much of the same holds true for enemies meaning that battles turn into delightfully visceral affairs as your units dish out devastating attacks, or react with unsettling realism to taking damage.
It don’t matter if you’re black or white
Othercide’s grid and turn-based tactical gameplay is functionally identical to several other I.P.’s that have gone this route, so I shall only touch on some of the defining elements. For starters, the maps are closer to the fantasy flavour of tactical RPG’s since their design hosts a more flat and compact style of gameplay.
Counter-moves (defensive triggers) therefore form a particularly central component of the the player’s strategy since units do not have the option to hide or take cover from enemies. In the same spirit of keeping things minimalistic, the Daughters can only be germinated (the game literally uses that term) into four different units basically amounting to swords, spears, guns and scythes.
I was relieved to see that Lightbulb Crew have generally done a decent job of dividing up the different abilities, attack ranges, strengths, and weaknesses between the four character classes. Savvy players can just as easily play every mission with their favourite combination of units (as members of the community have proven), or get by with a more balanced squad of each unit type.
Much like the recently released XCOM: Chimera Squad, Othercide’s gameplay is centered on a ‘timeline’ mechanic in that it is not the AI and the player that alternate turns here, but the units themselves. A crucial sub-strategy therefore involves manipulating the timeline through a conservative use of your unit’s action points. If a Daughter uses less than 50 action points at a time, her next turn comes up much sooner in the order of the timeline.
Choosing to spend all of a Daughter’s action points during their turn is therefore only advised if an enemy can be finished off with one more hit, or if a unit urgently needs to get out of range from an impending attack. The Daughter’s also posses several special abilities and counter-attacks that completely interrupts (cancels) an enemy’s turn, and sends them right to the back of the timeline.
These interrupt actions, however, cost health points to perform, which is a high price when you consider that this game has a roguelite progression system. There is no option to heal your Daughters between the missions unless you sacrifice another Daughter of the same or higher level. Playing Othercide therefore turns into delicate balancing act of keeping Daughters alive for as long as possible, while choosing to make sacrifices for the sake of progress.
Paint it Black
If Lightbulb Crew had stopped there, I would now be concluding this review by saying “not as fancy as more established examples of this genre, but definitely worth trying at least once”. Unfortunately, the game shifts from a decent tactical experience into a dysfunctional roguelite due to a progression system too obsessed with making the player fail.
In the interest of concision (and in trying to avoid being whiney), let me limit my concerns to Othercide’s two most fundamental issues: The excessively obscure narrative and the highly repetitive progression.
Othercide’s rather nebulous story is mostly told through a series of intermittent, highly abstract cut scenes, and neither the cryptic in-game codex nor the lore posted on the official website does anything to alleviate the confusion. I get that leaving things up to the player’s own interpretation can be an engaging narrative technique, but, to be frank, Othercide’s story just doesn’t make a lick of sense.
What the blazes is this ‘Book of Nostra’ that the game keeps preaching at me during loading screens? Who the hell is this ‘Child’ that I am supposed to be protecting, and why on earth am I suddenly fighting them as a boss? What are these memories that the Red Mother brings up at every possible chance? Frankly, your guess is as good as mine.
Even those who value gameplay over narrative quality will likely find this approach off-putting because Othercide takes its story so seriously. The game repeatedly drills the player with overly dramatic voice over cues when you do just about anything, you have to sit through the same, drawn-out cut scene every time you restart a run, and conventional RPG menu items have even been renamed to fit the lore of the game. The story is deeply integrated into the gameplay whether the player cares or not.
Finally, there are the boss fights. I intentionally used ‘roguelite’ (and not ‘roguelike’) to describe Othercide because grinding and increasing the skills of your Daughters is ultimately the solution to beating this game.
As such, Othercide has a Groundhog Day kind of thing going in that players will have seven days in each run to prepare for one of Suffering’s most powerful creations – the bosses. This mostly involves playing through the randomly chosen maps, killing lesser enemies, gaining various currencies to unlock skills, and seeing your squad level up. Pretty standard stuff.
Too bad then that the difficulty spike for each of the five bosses in Othercide is some of the biggest and most unfair I have ever seen in a video game. When I faced certain bosses for the first time, they pulverised my entire squad in just three or so hits, while even my most powerful Daughter barely managed to make a chip in their health.
Normally I would just sigh, smash up a keyboard or two, and go back to restarting my runs until all characters are at the right level to defeat the bosses (in accordance with the usual procedure for playing any roguelite game). Yet, it didn’t take long before I could no longer kid myself that I wasn’t getting bored.
While the maps are randomly chosen, their layouts or enemy placements barely change at all, and I could eventually predict what kind of enemy would spawn, where they would pop up, and what their first attack would be. The game therefore expects the player to go through the same shtick over and over again until the Daughters finally reach a level where bosses are easier to beat.
Preparing for the boss fights becomes even more boring when you realise how meager the rewards are for beating these missions in terms of XP, as well as other in-game currencies. Overall, Othercide’s progression just ends up feeling like an incredibly repetitive and useless grind just to get past one particular boss. You can tell someone must have pointed this out during play testing since the player gains the choice to skip bosses they have already defeated later in the game. So what was even the point of the roguelite style of progression if the game suddenly takes pity on the player?
Long cool woman in a black dress
In the moments where I was enraptured by the beautiful, carefully-designed, tactical gameplay, Othercide is truly enjoyable. Between four interesting classes of Daughters, the technically sophisticated AI, and a captivating art style, the developers had most of the ingredients to make a lovely tactics game (even if they left in the excessively cryptic story).
It is therefore so tragic that Othercide makes progression such a chore by crippling its pacing with excessive difficulty. As such, this game’s unhealthy obsession with providing a punishing experience makes it unrealistic to recommend for newcomers to this genre, and yet the highly repetitive gameplay makes it redundant next to more established I.P’s in this genre. Sorry Lightbulb Crew, Gears Tactics is still the tactical game to beat of 2020.
- Gorgeous visual design
- Immersive soundtrack
- Solid tactical gameplay
- Interesting characters
- Boss fights are too difficult
- Too repetitive
- Terrible tutorial section
- Story is confusing as hell
- Annoying audio clips
- Quite a few bugs
Computer Specs: Windows 10, 64-bit PC using Nvidia GTX 1070, i5 4690K CPU, 16GB RAM