Review: Ancient Frontier05 Oct 2017 0
Review: Ancient Frontier
Released 21 Sep 2017
With 2017 already feeling jam-packed with essential titles and Steam claiming to host more new releases this year than any other, it should come as no surprise that turn-based strategy/tactical titles seem to be more prominent than in the recent past. We've reviewed a fair amount of them on StrategyGamer already, from Iron Tides to Attritional: Tactical Fronts, and between vikings and World War II units of choice waiting patiently for their turn, we're taking off into the galaxy for this next one - it's Ancient Frontier.
Seemingly already far into development, last year developers Fair Weather Studios attempted to keep out a mere $5,000 through Kickstarter to help buy time necessary to add a little more polish before its Q2 2017. Missing its goal, plans still went ahead leading to a revised September 14 release. After a minor delay in August, it happily released a week later on September 21.
Ancient Frontier needs little introduction when it comes to its general premise. It's a turn-based tactics game set in the far reaches of space - meaning there's generally very little to look at and certainly isn't one of those space simulation titles you pick up to glide around the cosmos in awe of what could actually be out there. Outside of a discernible solar system, space is cold, dark and pretty ugly - not to mention just about everyone seems to want you dead.
Loading into the title screen presents you with options for a tutorial and to read up on the lore; otherwise, you're free to jump right in. With two 20-something hour story campaigns available right off the bat, it's clear Cristian Mobos and his team stuck to their Kickstarter promises. For just under £20, you're already getting a sizeable chunk of content for your coin.
Almost fully-voiced from beginning to end, it's clear to imagine where most of the Ancient Frontier budget was spent. No matter which campaign you choose, you're in for a dramatised story that feels like nothing but awkward chit-chat throughout. It's a bold move for any indie dev team to draft up a sci-fi story, script the entire thing and voice just about every line in the game, but it's a decision I feel should have been avoided very early on - at least in the scripted sense. You notice the odd bit of enthusiasm and charm in the voice work during the opening moments, but it's shot down just as quickly once a seemingly forced and incredibly creepy couple come out of the woodwork. A lieutenant is decided to date the trainee commander, leading to a bunch of incredibly uncomfortable situations as the two talk dirty to each other no matter the situation, and it's made even worse by what I can only imagine is a lack of experience in the voice-over field. It all leads to some seriously wooden work and forced pronunciations.
Once all the chit-chat is out of the way, you're free to spend your resources repairing, upgrading and buying new ships between missions. With one space metal used as a general currency, you're left with fuel used to deploy ships into battle and 'data' used to research upgrades, that rarely differ from boosted shields, accuracy and weapon damage. Once you've picked out a couple of ships from the store -- and have the fuel to deploy them -- it's time to embark on another mission; be it a side-story for extra resources, main story continuation or merely a simulated bout to gain some extra experience points for your fleet but you don't want to risk losing vulnerable units in the process. Assuming you stick to the regular difficulty mode, losing a unit in battle means it's gone for good. While the same could be said for your main characters, most missions can't continue without them regardless, meaning you'll be forced to reload should they go down in flames.
No matter which story you choose, the hex-based battlefield will always look far too familiar. Each ship moves independently from each other, with its 'movement' and 'action' points separated. Be it a Fighter, Escort, or Capital ship, they're all equipped with abilities than can be used in place of a standard attack for the same cost - like the use of a special weapon, regenerate a lost shield, or to move more spaces. Just like any good tactics-based game, it's working out how to deal with an ever-changing situation with a limited number of moves that brings you success.
For the most part, it works just as you'd expect: move around an obstacle to get a clearer shot, blow a shield off with one gun and deliver a damaging blast while taking into account which weapon works best on the unit you're aiming at. Scouting out a potential ambush is a good idea, but the AI drifts around so much that rushing with a decent fleet will likely up your chances against them more than any opposing 'strategy' could. However, each mission goes on far too long when you're executing repetitive actions to fight off far more ships than you control, and paired with the risk of losing it all with a misclick during a civilian escort mission, you're looking at doing the same old thing for far longer than you'd probably like.
Should you manage to hold your own against the questionable AI after what typically feels like a 45-minute ordeal of small steps and turn-skips, your surviving ships will gain experience based on the cleared objectives. Tier-based loot is awarded too, which can either be attached to increase your fleet's capabilities, typically at the cost of more fuel, or sold to earn the cash needed to buy something a little more personal. When it comes to 'resource management', you're either earning it through mission rewards or simply elongating your time out there by travelling across every tile looking for more. Though we wouldn't call it an ideal situation, it does give a minor reason to separate your attention from reducing the enemy count in each adventure.
Despite a decent amount of time in development, it ultimately feels like Fair Weather Studios put too much time and attention into attempting to flesh out a sci-fi story that does little to encourage those who feel nothing for it. The game itself isn't the victim of unflattering voice-work, but barebones tactics without captivating visual presentation to back it up – space has rarely looked so dull. You're left with an luck-based combat system in a place that feels like it's designed to take as much time as possible to get anything done.
With so many similar games to choose from this year, it's difficult to really recommend Ancient Frontier to anyone but other than die-hard tactic fans who've been around the block and back. It feels like a long-term university project that, if anything, could provide a lesson or two to budding indie devs looking for a stroke of achievable inspiration.