If you had told me around a decade ago that XCOM Enemy Unknown and Fire Emblem Awakening would help usher in a new wave of turn-based tactics games, I would’ve been irrationally stoked. Too much, honestly. After spending multiple years of my life griping that they weren’t making the video games like the video games I liked, there is suddenly an abundance. A surplus of games what with square and/or hexagonal grids, probably turn-based, and undoubtedly full of numbers. And to be clear, this list is just games I’d explicitly consider “tactics” first and foremost. They might have other elements, but the primary form of interaction is moving goofuses around in a turn-based fashion. If we wanted to expand the definition to strategy games, or RPGs with tactical elements, there’d be even more.
Point is, there are a lot of these things. And if you’re not sick like me, you might want some actual recommendations instead of just playing all of them. That’s fair. That’s what I’m here for. So assemble your troops on a square or hexagonal grid, stare blankly at your slate of abilities, and figure out how many action points you want to spend because… I dunno where this metaphor is going. Turn-Based. We’re talking about turn-based video games. That’s the joke. I'm going to write more of these.
Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate – Daemonhunters
When trying to explain the torrential flood of games with the Warhammer license in its fantasy, sci-fi, and higher fantasy permutations to a normal person, I often have to take a step back. How is a layman supposed to distinguish a Dakka Squadron from a Darktide? A Dawn of War from a Battlesector? A Chaosbane from an Inquisitor Martyr? What about that one Age of Sigmar tactics game that came out last year and nobody played? I guess I can see how that might be confusing to someone who can’t tell one division of the techno-fascist Imperium of Man from another, but that’s why I’m here to help. Just remember this handy dandy device to determine which games with the Warhammer license are good, and which are bad: The ones I say are good are the ones you should play. Okay cool. You’re welcome. I guess you could also try asking Henry Cavill, given he seems to have some free time right now.
Chaos Gate Daemonhunters is the ostensible revival (sequel?) to 1998’s Chaos Gate, a game I’d call a “pretty good X-COM style tactics game.” It’s something I might eventually dig into more, but for now I want to talk about this new one, which is a “very good XCOM style tactics game.” In fact, I think it’s one of the best games of this year, if my top 10 wasn’t indicative enough. You’re Space Marines, you’re the super duper secret psychic daemonhunting chapter, you’re a squad of four heavily armored trucks wrecking shit and eradicating heretical snot cultists wherever you find them. Along the way you’ll get to be yelled at by your disappointed father of a Chapter Master, condescended to by the sassy lady Inquisitor who does your research, and probably face the most dreadful minions of the plague lord. You know, regular 40K stuff.
For as much as I kind of despise the way “XCOM” has turned into mainstream parlance for any game with turn based combat, a grid, and half-cover shield icons, this game is undoubtedly “An XCOM.” Most of the baseline design decisions in Chaos Gate feel like they came from people who played a lot of Firaxis’ take on XCOM and took notes on what did and didn’t work. Damage is fixed and based on range and cover. There are no percentile to-hit rolls. Armor acts as a buffer to HP. Your squad of four Spayce Muhreens recovers all of their AP the first time you encounter an enemy pod, letting you take position even if caught by surprise. Instead of XCOM 2’s hard turn limits (which are good) there’s a soft timer in the form of the warp surge meter, which constantly debuffs your squad, buffs your enemies, and even occasionally sends in reinforcements. It also goes up incrementally whenever your characters use psychic abilities, creating tension without forcing you to rush.
It’s some good shit, and even with occasional bits of jank, though I admit some parts can be frustrating. There are some boss fights which definitely lean a little too hard on gimmick mechanics, you can get screwed over on post-mission loot drops, and the (thankfully) light strategic layer can be annoying to deal with early on. It’s also kind of a fucker? The recently released Duty Eternal DLC, which adds some extra mission types, Techmarines, and even the occasional Dreadnought, also made the game notably harder (though like half of that was certain overpowered abilities and exploits getting balanced.) I’m saying my attempt at an Ironman run has gone very poorly multiple times and I should stop trying to beat the game that way.
But yeah, if there’s one game from this list I would recommend to anyone who needs their fix five years since War of the Chosen, it’s this one. In a lot of ways, it feels like the game Gears Tactics should’ve been; similarly focused on getting close up and aggressive but with a stronger sense of identity. It even has the same execution mechanic, granting your entire squad extra AP if you manage to kill a stunned enemy. That’s always fun! Anyway there's a near-full playthrough of the game I did on stream with @relkin so maybe you could check that out if you want an example of video games.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns
Speaking of Actual Firaxis, let’s talk about the actual game from the Actual XCOM people. I know people break out in hives when the topic of Marvel comes up, or when the topic of “there are cards” comes up, or when the concept of “doing a S.Link” comes up. I know this because, at various points and to varying degrees of severity, I find myself some level of done with all three. BUT EVEN SO, I think Midnight Suns is a pretty fuckin’ good tactics game. I was a doubter, I was a naysayer, and look at me here now. Writing a thing. On the internet. Please tell Jake Solomon I'm sorry.
To get it out of the way immediately, I think the writing and socializing elements of this game are *fine.* They’re not great, and they feel like someone in the dev team played Fire Emblem Three Houses and tried to put that game’s bad hub area in there verbatim. Your mileage with these things will likely be based entirely around how much you’re willing to buy into Marvel Bullshit at this point in the Year of Our Lord 2022, a year which brought us like five Disney Plus TV series and like three or four theatrical films. I refuse to look up how many there actually are because fuck man, there are too many. They don’t repeat the same mistake as Crystal Dynamics’ Avengers game – the more notable characters aren’t just carbon copies of their MCU counterparts – but your actual mileage may vary on how much you want your dweebus OC to become platonic besties with Blade.
For my part I’ll just say that I liked some characters a decent amount, liked some of the club interactions a lot (book club good) but didn’t hang out with Iron Man at all (he sucks.) I basically did none of the exploration puzzle shit on the abbey grounds after a while either, and straight up think the game would be better if all of that stuff was consigned to a menu. Perhaps more damning, I definitely started buttoning through dialogue instead of letting the voice acting play out. There’s a lot of talking, especially early on, and by the end I had my fill of it. Call me when the Morbius DLC comes out. I want to hang out with Michael Morbius. (Morbius is one of the DLC characters in the season pass I am not doing a goof)
The chaff between missions was probably my biggest point of contention during my playthrough. Once you get into the actual missions though, it’s that primo quality shit. That tactical cocaine. You’ve got three card plays, two redraws, and one move. It’s your job to maximize that as much as possible, alongside a pool of Heroism and a bunch of environmental interactions. It’s puzzle-esque without feeling as stifling as something like Into the Breach, and there’s a lot of customization and expression in the way you can load out your characters and synergize as a squad. The difficulty also is granular in a way that lets you play exactly up to your comfort zone. It’s really inspired in that way, which is why the parts of the game which are less confident and less polished really stick out.
If I was going to get super specific and dig through every character’s deck, there are probably some things I’d harp on, but for the most part I think they do a great job of making each character feel unique and capture the stupid dumb power fantasy one wants from a video game what with super heroes. Spider-Man sticks out as being a tad weaker than the rest of the cast, especially before you get some of his better cards. Otherwise, very few notes. I maybe wouldn’t recommend this at full price if you aren’t enthused about doing a Diet Fire Emblem with Wolverine, but that’s about it. Now please make XCOM 3.
YOU THINK IT'S OVER? THIS IS JUST THE FIRST TURN. also there are a lot of games on this list. Like, a lot. Like, at least two more write ups worth.