Wot I Think: Telepath Tactics

I should say right off the bat that I haven’t ever played Fire Emblem, which seems to be the first thing off anyone’s lips whenever Telepath Tactics is mentioned. If you want to know if Telepath Tactics is anything like as good as Fire Emblem may or may not be, please ask someone who has played Fire Emblem, which isn’t me. I haven’t played Fire Emblem. Is it good? Yeah, why’s that? But how does… oh, sorry, you were waiting for me to tell you about Telepath Tactics, weren’t you? That I can do.

It’s a tactical RPG, which is to say that it’s got fantasy combat, an inventory, levelling up and lots and lots of talking, but also grid-based, turn-based battles in which where you send your units is at least as important as what you make them do. It’s also got (depending on which difficulty setting you choose) perma-death, so even if your party is mostly decimated, you can continue.

Telepath Tactics is more or less the work of one person, which is worth stating right up front both to gawp at how much, and how much precision has been achieved here, and as something to keep in mind when I talk about some of its more fundamental problems. What’s practical for a team to do isn’t necessarily so for just an individual, but clearly inna final analysis it’s all about whether you, the Player of Players, enjoy what you’re getting.

Battles are the heart of the game, and they’re clever, exacting, huge affairs. What you field is less a squad and more a small army. It’s X-COM not XCOM in that regard (but not in others; I’m talking about the scale of fights and with it your own attitude to your soldiers), and it lifts Telepath Tactics above a great deal of the Little Men With Swords competition. It’s not this arbitrary, chaotic melee, but precise, highly tactical challenges which very nearly enter the realm of puzzles. Despite appearances – maybe we’ve been trained to think a certain way by several years of lo-fi roguelikes and roguelites – very little in Telepath Tactics is randomly generated. It presents these consciously fiendish, calculated scenarios in which you’re almost always outnumbered, and requires you to use your wits and experience to solve it. Every one is possible, but mistakes won’t be forgiven.

As battles, they work very well. Exceptionally well, even. With so many units in play, and a wide array of abilities including straight-up spells, telekinetic interference with the environment or enemies and all sorts of dirty tricks like shoving, flying, bows which can hit two targets at once and magic which sets people on fire, fights are not predictable even if they have been carefully designed to proceed in certain ways. The huge levels and trap-like setups keep repetition at bay too, while levelling up mid-battle will see your guys gain new abilities on the spot. Suddenly, just like that, you’ve got this major new tactical tool in play – but equally, enemies soon start using similar delivery on your guys.

This is a watchmaker’s game, all these dozens of delicate clockwork pieces finely machined to work in tandem, to result in something which looks so simple on the surface. Make no mistake: this is a game which has been carefully crafted, not one which relies on the luck of the procedurally-generated draw. The plain, low-tech art style and crude UI might outwardly suggest something that’s been knocked off quickly, powered by amateur enthusiasm, but what’s beneath is ever so meticulous, and gets its pay-off. I played the battles like fantastical chess, agonising about every move and every decision, hitting End Turn with that sweet mix of excitement about what I’d achieved and terror about what would happen due to my oversights or recklessness. It’s good stuff, and tight despite having so very many moving parts.

Unfortunately, the campaign structure takes the shine off this great work. The perma-death mechanic sounds ideal on paper, but in practice losing half your early team can result in hitting insurmountable obstacles later in the game, potentially even necessitating a total restart unless you’ve been extremely thoughtful about keeping savegames. You can play on Casual difficulty, which means felled units resurrect with diminished health at the end of a battle rather than disappear forever, but this really does feel like cheating. Really though, this merciless approach would work if only repeating missions or the whole campaign didn’t involve quite so much repetition. Some of the larger battles can take up to an hour, and with no capacity to save mid-battle you’ll have to take it from the top if any mission-essential hero units are slain, or if it crashes, or just if you need to go out.

That they’re frontloaded with reams of written dialogue is insult to injury. The writing’s not bad, and there are ideas thrown everywhere, but there’s so very much of it, and so little of it is essential to either plot or character-building. There’s a stream of consciousness quality to some of it, generally opting for breezy half-quips as short-hand for heroism, which has the added side-effect of making many of the large cast seem homogeneous. Again, the standard of dialogue is decent, but it’s badly in need of an editor’s scalpel and even more so of a skip button. Having to click click click click through some forty dialogue boxes to replay a long, difficult mission for the third time took a heavy toll on my goodwill towards TT.

I appreciate that TT wants to be an Epic Quest Game as much as it does as Tight Tactics Game (and hey, maybe the mysterious Fire Emblem made bedfellows of All The Talking and All The Fighting), but I get too engrossed in the delicate balancing act of the battlefields to want quite so much wittering keeping that stuff at arm’s length.

It’s crying out for a mid-battle save function as well. I fear Telepath Tactics is trying to be all things to all roleplayers: an unforgiving perma-death affair with no takebacks and a grand timesink. For it to be the latter, the option to partition it into digestible pieces (for our busy modern lives/terrifyingly limited attention spans) needs to be there. I appreciate that quicksave/load risks ripping the heart out of what’s intended to be supremely tense and heavy with consequence, but even a sometime savescummer such as I knows that there’s infinitely more satisfaction to be had from winning The Right Way.

The UI is clunky and unattractive to the point of occasional irritation, but given TT’s humble origins I can’t get too hung up on the appearance side of it. However, little things like being able to double-click on an adjacent foe to perform a default attack would be wonderful time-savers, while having to watch over a dozen enemies take turns to slowly trek towards you is agony even on the so-called ‘instant’ movement speed. It’s fairly buggy at the moment too – the dev’s updating it almost daily, but right now expect to encounter random stuff like your units swapping inventories at the start of a match, the interface not loading, and all sorts. I’m very confident given the clear care (not to mention several years) that’s gone into the mechanics and the dev’s pro-active approach to community that the majority of tech gripes will get sorted out in time, but fair warning and all that.

The lack of online multiplayer – there’s local hotseat only – will be a disappointment to some, I guess. It’s not something I personally demand, but I am disappointed that there are limited maps and army setups for player vs CPU skirmish, which is the mode I’d otherwise be most likely to return to TT for. However, get me a skip dialogue/cutscene option and I’d be well up for jumping back to into the campaign and rolling with consequences of my terrible tactical thinking.

Telepath Tactics, appropriately, has a beautiful mind. The rest of it is harder to admire, but even so, this is a game that people who crave patience, precision and strategy from their roleplaying battles are going to take to their hearts. In its quiet way, this is a huge game – big fights, lethal consequences, wide array of combat possibilities… Fire Emblem fans would love it, probably. I wouldn’t know.

Telepath Tactics is out now, available direct from the dev, Steam or GoG.

27 Comments

  1. salejemaster says:

    I never would have guessed that this doesn’t have online multiplayer? My interest in the game just went from a 100 to 0….is it planned for later maybe?

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I’m interested, but are the maps as bad as they look in those screenshots? A good tactics game uses terrain cleverly to create interesting challenges like bottlenecks and various advantages/disadvantages… these screenshots look just like big wide open square with the occasional blocking terrain.

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      gritz says:

      To illustrate my point, look at the first map from Shining Force (Genesis, 1993):

      link to shrines.rpgclassics.com

      You have a bridge bottleneck to the south, rough terrain all over the place, a river that blocks movement (park your archers and mages behind it), and generally interesting choices to make about the path you want your units to take.

      I’m not seeing anything remotely like that in TT.

      • Jockie says:

        From what I saw of the trailer, some of the telepathy (or magic or whatever you wanna call it) is to do with terrain deformation, and characters can create obstacles to force enemies into choke points. So while the shots above suggest big open spaces, the trailer suggested positioning and using the map to your advantage are key – it’s on the Steam store page if you want to check it out..

        I love the Fire Emblem series, and have had an eye on this for a few years, and will probably pick it up at a point where I don’t already have a bunch of games in rotation. And yea Alec, Fire Emblem has a bunch of text (some of it’s fine, some of it’s good, some of it is painfully bad), in the latest iterations it’s all skippable though, which sounds like something TT needs.

        • Jockie says:

          In fact the trailer is embedded above as well.

        • Thankmar says:

          The GC Fire Emblem (and maybe others, I only played this one) even had this option for dialogues between characters so they bond and get buffs when they were standing close to each other on the battlefield.

          • Kitsunin says:

            Awakening put a massive emphasis on that feature, allowing the nearby ally to add an attack or nullify the enemy’s, and even giving you the ability to pair two units like the “Rescue” command, but with a stat bonus rather than a penalty, based on their relationship strength.

      • Craig Stern says:

        Hey gritz! Developer here. Shining Force was actually one of my childhood favorites (and the game that first inspired me to try my own hand at strategy RPGs, if you can believe that). The topmost screenshot is of a multiplayer map, and is not illustrative of the sorts of battlefields you can expect in the single player campaign.

        If you’re looking to compare TT’s design with Shining Force, I’d say that there is less of a reliance on baked-in geographical features to force the player to form up at certain points on the battlefield, and a heavier focus on creating your own bottlenecks and choke points through barricade-building, boulder-pulling, trap-laying, bridge creation and destruction, etc. Terrain definitely still matters, but the way you use it is more malleable (though this is perhaps not immediately obvious in a screenshot of an untouched battlefield).

        • roguewombat says:

          Epic work, Craig. Congrats on the release!

        • Rainey84 says:

          The ability to edit the map is one of the best parts of Telepath Tactics. The mechanics you created really set TT apart from other strategy RPG’s. The Engineer character is one of the most important characters in my current game.

          The only thing I wish you would have implemented, which I know you are hearing a lot now, is the ability to recruit generic characters. I lost the healer unit early on in my campaign, and I have made due without her, but it would be nice if you had the ability to recruit a new healer and build them up to be able to handle their own with your squad. I know you probably decided to not do that as part of the challenge, (like the inability to sell items to a shop), but I’m always a fan of options.

          Overall, an excellent game and well worth the price!

        • MellowKrogoth says:

          Ah, Shining Force. Unmatched to this day, it was just such a harmonious mix of various gameplay elements.

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    Aerothorn says:

    “Unfortunately, the campaign structure takes the shine off this great work. The perma-death mechanic sounds ideal on paper, but in practice losing half your early team can result in hitting insurmountable obstacles later in the game, potentially even necessitating a total restart unless you’ve been extremely thoughtful about keeping savegames. You can play on Casual difficulty, which means felled units resurrect with diminished health at the end of a battle rather than disappear forever, but this really does feel like cheating. Really though, this merciless approach would work if only repeating missions or the whole campaign didn’t involve quite so much repetition. Some of the larger battles can take up to an hour, and with no capacity to save mid-battle you’ll have to take it from the top if any mission-essential hero units are slain, or if it crashes, or just if you need to go out. ”

    FWIW, Alex, this is why some of us can’t enjoy Fire Emblem even though it has many fine qualities as a series (at least, based on my time with the GBA games). Except they don’t even have a non-permadeath option, so it’s just a LOT of restarts with no saving.

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      Aerothorn says:

      Also: I’m sorry I just called you Alex! Typo! Damn the lack of an edit function!

    • Jockie says:

      The other option is to emulate, which generally means you can save at any time. Obviously the games lose a lot of challenge in doing so, but often in FE games the early missions tend to be a bit unforgiving as your units are piss weak (except the one overpowered unit who barely develops that lives in pretty much every FE game). One you’re past that initial curve you can take the stabilizers off so to speak. That said, I’d probably never have made it through Radiant Dawn without save states, it’s brutally hard in places.

      In Awakening (the 3DS FE) they introduced casual mode (it was actually introduced in the previous game on DS but it was never released in the west), much like the one described above, units who die just retreat from the battle, it does feel a little like cheating though.

    • Kitsunin says:

      The thing I always find funny about Fire Emblem is that I’m always too scared to finish a battle in which I lost a powerful ally or a couple weak ones, so I often restart battles…but then I get the the end and have so many powerful allies I’m not even allowed to field them all, and tons of weak ones on the side.

      Then I often start over, not allowing myself to reload, comfortable in my familiarity in the campaign structure…and realize that I could have probably afforded to accept all of the non-catastrophic mistakes I had made previously.

      And that is what marks a tactical RPG with permadeath really well-designed, in my opinion.

    • bill says:

      Hmm. Sounds familiar.
      I was rather enjoying Fire Emblem on my GBA (i think) but there was one level where I kept losing an important character, then restarted and then lost another important character, then restarted and lost another important character… then couldn’t face restarting again and never played it again.

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      Bluerps says:

      Yeah, permadeath pretty much kills Fire Emblem for me. I just cannot continue after losing a unit, so I either reload or stop playing. I’m not sure if an easier mode that switches permadeath off fixes this for me.

  4. mattevansc3 says:

    The no save feature is a bit weird. Fire Emblem has a single in game save state (multiple saves out of battle) that is saved after every battle roll but before the animation starts. It means that you can switch off at any point and start from that save point but it prevents save scumming as quitting and restarting just takes you back to that same animation.

    • April March says:

      Yeah, that’s what I was going to suggest. Even NetHack and its classic roguelike kins allow you to save at any time. They… well, it’s one guy, so he could limit it so you could only save at the end or beginning of the turn, and loading a save would delete it. (Preferrably while also allowing a second save the way it normally does now, so you don’t lose your entire game if your cat yanks your power cord or sth.)

  5. cpt_freakout says:

    Sounds like a game with a lot of promise… I think I’ll go for it now for support since the dev seems to be very active about patching, and I’ll get to play it once it’s more robust. Kind of a gamble, I know, but I guess that’s just what the KS backers did anyway.

    • Craxel says:

      Same, this looks really cool, despite the bland art (although it’s not really fair to compare this to the art in FF:T, Tactics Ogre or the last FE since, well, vastly less manpower).

  6. Berzee says:

    Hi, I’m Breezy Halfquips, hero for hire.

  7. qrter says:

    I bought the game at launch, and I’m afraid I bounced hard off the third mission, pretty much for the reasons Alec mentions. I really, really, REALLY need a midgame save.

    I wound up playing the mentioned mission for about 50 minutes, made a wrong move with one of the main characters, she died, and game over. It also doesn’t help that out of those 50 minutes about a third seems wasted on enemy troop animations – you can speed up your unit animations in the options, but this doesn’t seem to affect enemy troop animations. When you have a field filled with 30+ enemy units, it becomes a real chore to sit through their movements. (Perhaps this has changed since launch, btw, I haven’t tried playing the game since then – everytime I think I’ll need at least a free hour or more, and I tend to go for a different game instead)

    • almondblight says:

      There’s an option to turn off movement animations for enemy troops (or simply speed them up if you prefer). I found it necessary for the game.

  8. MellowKrogoth says:

    I’m looking for a spiritual successor for Shining Force I and II, not to Fire Emblem which I don’t like. The former are the only games I know which achieved a perfect blend of cinematic tactical combat, world exploration and story. Most tactical RPGs are just battle after battle with a bit of dialogue in between.

    Telepath Tactics kind of sounded like it could fill that niche, does it have wandering around the world map and villages, looking for secrets and talking to npcs? Sounds like it has too many flaws, though.

  9. NathanH says:

    I can’t really think of any game like this that has really managed to solve the conundrum of persistent armies in a relatively-linear campaign (that is, one distinguished from say a Total War game that has a higher-level game system). To the extent that I’m almost thinking it isn’t a very good idea.

    No saving during battles is unappealing.