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.