Black, White and Red has got to be the coolest colour combination of all time. Immortalised in the two Sin City movies, noir with a splash of blood catches the eye and makes for something that always looks cool. Teenage me thought the Sin City movies were the bomb, and that there was real substance to those stories too. Adult me knows better, and though I can still appreciate their visual style, they hold little in the way of good plotting, or emotional depth. Lots of awesome quotes though. Adult me can still be swayed by a smart Black, White and Red colour scheme. Othercide has a lot of striking gothic design; there’s the noir colour scheme, the greyscale warrior girls who look halfway between nun and schoolgirl cosplayers, their flashy weapon poses, the sack-face boy and his creepy army of hook-masked plague doctors (they are so in right now) and dogs with tentacles coming out of the heads. It’s creepy and it’s cool.
Style comes and goes, but substance will always mean something. We know that style will only last so long, before a game must perform and have a tight gameplay loop that consistently brings you back. Well, under all the flash, Othercide is a roguelite turn-based strategy game, with a massive emphasis put on manipulating the turn timeline. Now that’s not to say you are Bruce Willis and time is your bitch, but there are some interesting turn manipulation mechanics here. Is that enough to make it more than just flash? Don’t believe everything you are told.
We start with what might lose you the easiest. Othercide is vaguely set in the early 1900s, a world of cobbled streets, trains and the industrial revolution. Instead of steampunk though, this is more plaguepunk, riffing on a few aspects of Victoriana and creepy enemy design built around mutations, patchwork sackcloth and tentacles. A force of freaky creatures has come through to our world from the Othercide, led by what I think is a young devil child called Suffering. The people have fled or locked themselves inside while the abominations walk the streets, spreading their corruption and grotesquery.
It sounds good, because I’ve jazzed it up somewhat. But that’s about where the plot ends. I could not work out any motive, revenge story or anything driving the Suffering except pure evil. He just was, just is, and you need to stop him.
Enter the Mother, and her Daughters. I’m piecing together here from a series of unconnected flashes of explanation, from the voice of the Mother herself, decrying platitudes about evil and ruin, or the few times the Suffering or one of his minions says anything of note. There really is nothing you could call a plot.
The Mother is a being outside of time, a red woman with intensely strange birthing powers. As you start the game you run through a tutorial of the turn-based battle system, using the Mother as your single unit. We will come on to the battle systems in a moment, but the point for now is that the Mother is massively overpowered, you have no trouble killing a lot of creepy plague doctors, but then you are overwhelmed and killed by the Suffering. The Mother reawakens, immortal in some way we must presume, but now unable to take physical form.
Instead she gives birth to Daughters. She doesn’t use the, um, normal method. Instead she draws these clones I suppose, out of the stark black waters of a super-creepy birthing pool. These mute young women, birthed as adults are born completely capable of wielding weapons and fighting. They are decked in cool black and white gothic battle dress, with red scarves that float above them almost like the strings of a marionette, and they have names like Peace, Joy, Chastity, and Temperance. But they are character-less voids, birthed to be soldiers, without personality, individuality, or charm.
So, the premise is great, it’s just hidden under a lack of explanation, and sporadic unconnected bursts of esoteric information. It’s one for those who like to piece lore together. I’m confident I would have enjoyed it had there been characters to invest in, and a plot rather than confusion to guess at. Without these essential life rafts, I quickly lost interest in my units, my motives and the game itself, and drowned in a dark birthing pool of confusion. For all its complexity, it gave me nothing back.
That first mother level really sold it, but when you actually get started you are super weak, and there is an intensely hard early game to get through. Combat is of course the main drive of the game and plot was always going to be secondary. Thankfully, there is a lot of depth to the combat system, some of it welcome, some of it not so much. You play a series of around 7 or so synapses, or levels, on the way to a boss confrontation. Synapses can be straight combat hunts or a few other types, including escort and rescue missions. In some you must escort a small naked boy-child called the Bright Soul from one end of the arena to the other, and then evacuate your units. Saving him nets you a healthy bonus.
To begin with you have three classes of Daughters to take into battle, and three slots to take up in most battles. But that’s doesn’t mean you need one of each. They each have different playstyles and I found one of them never helped me in battle.
A Soulsinger is a deft backup unit, capable as you progress of interrupting actions and covering allies with their long-range pistol attacks. But their health is low compared to the others.
Blademasters are the brute damage dealers, their huge swords slicing enemies apart. However they have little in the way of interrupting actions and need cover as they need to get close to enemies, putting them in harm’s way.
Shieldbearers bear a shield funnily enough and a pike, and they can use some defensive moves, but their general attacks stats are weak. In the early game, I found these nigh-on useless, but if you can get one through to higher levels, they can buff your party well.
As in many tactics games, each synapse is set out in a grid. You can move around the grid, up to a certain amount of AP per turn, or you can use AP to attack. Do too much moving or attacks and you can Burst, which means that unit gets thrown to the far end of the timeline and can’t act until everyone else has had a turn, rather than get multiple goes before they get a look in. This can be used freely, and makes a lot of sense if you are confident of victory – you don’t need to worry about the next turn, because they’ll all be dead. These are the basics that we see in countless tactics games, but where Othercide gets more interesting are its delayed moves and interruptions that manipulate the timeline.
Beyond basic attacks, you have delayed actions, which are generally more powerful attacks that require a moment to prep. This extra time pushes them along the timeline at the bottom of the screen where you can see the timing of the next enemy attacks, or your own daughter’s turns, or when their delayed action will connect. Enemies can do this too, so one of the first things to master is using normal attacks to cancel enemy delayed attacks before they can hurt your measly three units. You can’t afford to take much damage, because you cannot heal!
If you want to do some damage of your own though, you need to set up your own delayed actions. Blademasters were great for this, doing double damage if you waited around a quarter of the timeline. The timeline lets you know that the enemy you are targeting can’t move again, before your move connects, and then bam you’ve slaughtered them. These are satisfying moves, but they lock you in place for a time, committed to an action. They are not to be used if the enemy can still move, dodge, or break your delayed action.
The best moves however are interruptions. These were my favourite part of the game. So an interruption move sacrifices health instead of AP, but in return, you can set yourself up to counter-attack. Say I use one daughter as bait, make the enemy come to them ready to attack. However with a different unit, say the Soulsinger, with her long-range pistols, I’ve already performed an interruption, sacrificing her health literally on the off chance that the enemy would attack an ally the next turn. The enemy commits to their attack, and my Soulsinger interrupts it, unleashing a powerful cover/counter and dealing massive damage. The better you get at this mechanic the more you are effectively stealing the enemy’s turn for yourself, and if you manage to kill them with the hit, then their attack never connects, and the bait never gets damaged. Remember you can’t heal!
The first time I did this convincingly outside the tutorial was very pleasing. The game shines in the little things that bring it up from being a simple tactics game, such as setting things in motion to happen further down the timeline or based on enemy actions. Stealing enemy turns is very satisfying.
So, as I mentioned a couple of times, there is no way to heal your daughters while in battle. They rest between synapses, but they still do not heal. Instead the only way to heal one is to sacrifice another one of equal rank. I don’t understand the purpose of this mechanic. Am I supposed to let them die, never getting attached to the clone daughters I have birthed? Or am I supposed to raise up a large number of daughters, and whenever I have played badly, be forced to sacrifice some of them, to save stronger ones that may have been harmed. Deliberately not allowing healing without losing a character is a harsh way to discourage experimentation, and made me feel unable to lose, even though the game is a rogue-lite. Truly do not get attached to these units. Later you get more ability to raise dead daughters back to life, but it is not a free-for-all and you can generally only resurrect one per run.
Bosses are intense unforgiving demigods, buffed repeatedly, or capable of dealing insane damage and travelling most of the grid in a single bound. They require you to have a deft grasp of the interruptions and delayed actions, and probably to sacrifice at least one, maybe two daughters on your way to victory. It will also take many runs before you can feasibly take one down.
As a rogue-lite system, you will inevitably die on your run, and then have to try again. Your daughters from that run are all dead, and you must raise new ones. This system of failure rewards you for each run, giving you more options on your next. How far you get on one run determines the rewards for the next. Killing enemies sometimes unlocks memories, which are boosts for attacks you can keep forever, though it’s very underexplained how to use them.
During a run, Daughters will level up, and each time they can choose one of two skills, usually vastly different. When resurrecting them, they keep the levels you have built previously, so it’s possible to raise at least some to high levels, if you are prepared to put in the time to repeatedly raise them.
There are also a good forty or more trophy-like tasks to complete as you go, and for each one you complete you earn a Remembrance; buffs and perks for battle such as 15% more health next run, or better attacks. Completing levels is rewarded with shards for remembrances, and Vitae for memories, or for making or resurrecting more daughters.
After five or six runs, equipped with memories and remembrances, your daughters will start surviving all the way to the boss. You will be doing gratifying damage, and hell you might end stand a chance of beating one. If you beat a boss, that completes the sequence of synapses, termed an era. And there are 8 or so eras to complete, each with their own grotesque boss.
The game is basically spread between these two types of screen, the combat arena and the menus. Othercide uses the tiniest font I’ve seen used in a game in some time, to the point I had to squint to see the instructions in the extensive tutorial, and this goes across combat and menus.
Othercide is currently pretty glitchy on inputs, constantly forgetting my input command, or picking a different enemy than the one I wanted to target. This is simply resolved by just pressing circle and trying the input again, it just seems to get itself confused often.
Instead of plot or character, the Mother likes to just exclaim random lore or quotes as you play, or work your way around menus. Its distracting and annoying, and no substitute for the plot this game could have had.
Othercide is a solidly made game with a fair grounding in a interesting battle system with some quirks to it. If you really enjoy the system, and tactics games in general, there is depth to be found in the encouragement to go all out a lot, and slowly reach the levels of power and the amount of skills necessary to beat the tough battles. However I struggled to see the appeal of a system that penalises you at every turn.
For me the roguelite elements robbed Othercide of anything I could relate too. The plotless encounters using units that were nothing more than clones without personality, only for them to die as a necessary part of the system all the time, just became a chore fast. If there had been an element of healing, I think I could have got more invested – if you could heal the units, they could have had real character to them rather than just being placeholders. For all its style, without any plot, Otherside lacks the personality of the FF Tactics games, XCOM, or Fire Emblem.
Othercide does not skimp on the hours it will take to complete, and the interruption mechanics are rewarding, but without any characters, hook or impetus to work through the difficulty, it became little more than a sequence of creepy battles, that are going to be far too hard for most people to progress through.
Like Sin City, a lush black, white and red style is only skin deep.
Othercide is launching on the PS4 (review platform), Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch on July 28th, 2020.
Developer: Lightbulb Crew
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of Othercide. For our full review policy, please go here.
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