Othercide Review17 Aug 2020 0
Released 27 Jul 2020
A smaller scale, skirmish focused XCOM-like seemed like an untapped niche in the turn-based tactical sub-genre until literally a few months ago, when Firaxis made one of their own. Remove most of the guns, replace the aliens with eldritch horrors, and add a 2003-era alt rock soundtrack and you have Lightbulb Crew’s Othercide, a brilliantly brutal take on the concept.
Sometime right before the turn of the 20th century, a being called The Red Mother lost a battle against a dark threat called the Suffering. In her last moments, she fragmented her soul, and used it to birth clones of herself to fight the good fight in a perpetual goth Groundhog Day, resetting reality back to this moment every time the daughters fail.
At least, I think that's what's happening. The story is told in a disjointed and jarring way, supported by reams of codex entries that fill in backstories of enemies and important moments in the lore. This comes in pieces and not in any particular order, so deciphering them all as you go along can be a chore. That said, the necessary plot points are pretty straight forward - if they aren't a tall, pale woman with a sword, gun, or spear, they’re probably the enemy.
Combat is turn-based, but turns are determined based on an elaborate initiative system that includes a timeline that works similarly to RPGs like Grandia II and Child of Light. When a unit gets all the way to the left, they’re free to act. Your daughters spend action points on abilities and movement, standard fare for games like this. But the twist is that if your daughter spends more than half of their action points in a single turn, they will move to the very end of the timeline instead of resetting at the middle. This, plus skills that can make activations faster or knock enemies further down the timeline makes plotting turns a few steps ahead essential. Where many games like this focus more on controlling space, Othercide really stands above the rest when you’ve mastered the fine art of getting your units to act several times before the enemy due to clever initiative manipulation.
Layered onto that are delayed actions, which treats time and proper placement as a key to making these abilities work. Units can also use abilities that trigger as reactions to other unit’s, or interrupt a unit’s attacks. Many of these can cost a percentage of health instead of ability points, adding more and more risk factors in order to achieve bloody rewards. How much danger you’re willing to expose a unit to in order to potentially win big is a compelling gameplay mechanic that keeps Othercide feeling engaging even on the tenth run.
The maps you battle in offer little in the way of variety. I found that after a single run in each of the games Eras (read: worlds), I’d seen about every layout on offer. Enemy variety and the way they are mixed up on maps offer plenty in the way of dynamism, though. It’s less that enemies do a good job at covering each other’s weaknesses, and more that there are often so many to deal with that you always feel like one of your units could be in danger. Outside of the bosses, every enemy has a small range of abilities that they use pretty reliably. They also act deterministically, meaning each one has a sort of flow chart that they always follow to determine how they move and act. Learning from these enemies (and reading the codex) is key to learning the best way to deal with them.
If there’s one consistent theme in Othercide, it's that death and loss are inevitable, and your daughters are disposable. You create them with vitae and they grow with XP, all earned through battle. Every so often, you can teach them new skills, or upgrade the ones they have with memories, a type of modifier that adds extra effects to abilities like armor shredding or initiative boosting. But the only way they can recover from battle damage is to be sacrificed to one another. The pressure to keep daughters alive and kicking long enough to be formidable killing machines while also being healthy enough to survive increasingly harder battles has you making decisions about who gets to live and die that only become more and more difficult.
This gets offset by the incremental progress you can make across all of your different runs, called 'remembrances'. With shards that you earn through combat and just making it through each day, you can unlock upgrades that alter your next run. Giving daughters a 30% health boost, and having all new daughters start at level 4 instead of 1 have been staples for me. There are a lot of other options to unlock, and I found that on average I earned enough shards that I didn’t have to compromise all that much on what I could afford.
As these help make the climb back through the eras less difficult, it doesn’t really make it any faster, nor does it make the bosses any less frustrating. Oftentimes I spent upwards of an hour getting through an era just to get creamed by a tough boss, making all that time feel largely wasted. It isn’t just that they have big health pools and heavy attacks, but they often have a laundry list of abilities triggered by various conditions that are impossible to memorize, and not handy to research during the fight. Once you fight a boss once, you can choose to fight them at any time during their era, with the trade off being that your daughters are likely under leveled and under prepared. It's a pacing dynamic that makes sense in theory, but doesn't always feel great in practice.
Ultimately, Othercide is a unique entry into the genre that is definitely worth your time. It’s pacing issues and ramping difficulty might be the stuff of nightmares for some, but when it comes together, the clever timeline mechanics and risk-based troop management can be the stuff of sweet tactical dreams.