I’m surprised it took the world this long to do a smash’n’grab on Frozen Synapse‘s extremely clever ‘turn preview’ approach to turn-based strategy. Mode 7 themselves are working on an open-world, slightly more singleplayer-focused follow-up to their ‘simultaneous turn-based tactics’ squad shooter, but in the meantime we get the rather more colourful, appallingly-named TASTEE. For once, I’m not going to hurl XCOM compari-bombs around the place, and look instead to another old dear of TBS: Jagged Alliance.
Though TASTEE’s primary mechanics are lifted almost wholesale from Frozen Synapse, its theme and presentation owe much more to Jagged Alliance. TASTEE concerns itself with characterful, killable mercs, engaged in various gang-fighting, hostage-rescuing and cache-grabbing. It never quite manages to form a clear identity of its own, mostly because its apparent interest in being comedic is applied only sparingly and superficially, but it’s livelier and more aesthetically varied than its icy-hued forebear. While I know I’d be annoyed were I Twitter’s leading purveyor of long-running Star Wars culture jokes, there’s no escaping that the tactical gambling of its order system fits it well.
If you don’t know Frozen Synapse, here’s how it works. Rather than each side taking it in turns to give orders, they each do it in their own time, and only when both participants commit to their planned actions will the turn play out. When it does, it does so in real time, with both sides’ units moving and shooting at once.
I.e. you get to see the consequences of your best-guesses about where to send your guys and who to have them shoot. When giving your orders, you can only predict what the enemy might do or even where they might be, but in many cases you won’t have second-guessed them and so end up with a shotgun to the back of the head for your trouble. Frozen Snyapse’s genius moment was a preview tool in which you could see a potential outcome, adjusted every time you made a change either to your own actions or what you suspected the enemy’s might be.
TASTEE lifts the concept but makes primarily UI changes to it, as well as throwing in some special actions and named, rather than identikit, anonymous units. This, coupled with more colour and detailed rather than neon-skeletal environments means it feels more varied than Synapse, but the price paid for this is the purity of the challenge. An essential tension isn’t there, as battles are longer and woolier, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Partly because it sets TASTEE more apart from Synapse than it otherwise would have been, and partly because it allows for a little more mucking around, rather than the constant fear that every decision is life or death.
That said, Frozen Synapse did have a slightly more forgiving singleplayer mode, but it was the in-your-own-time, play-by-email-esque multiplayer that really sold it. TASTEE has that too of course, and I suspect it’ll be what it lives or dies on, as the singleplayer mission mode ultimately doesn’t seem terribly satisfying. It’s got thirty missions with some variety of objective and some thoughtfully cruel chokepoints, but despite some attempts at story in the mission briefings and a unit unlock system, they come off feeling pretty disconnected with no meaningful sense of progression.
They’re not throwaway though, so shouldn’t be written off as a glorified tutorial mode: it’s both a less stressful way of figuring out the game and of having it throw some of its steeliest challenges at you. It’s pretty good at setting traps and pulling the rug from under less attentive players’ feet.
Sadly, some of the challenges relate purely to the UI, which though flashier and less programmer art-y than Frozen Synapse’s somehow manages to be fiddlier. For instance, the cancel order button is pathetically tiny and stubborn in where it’ll show up from, there’s limited clarity about whether an aimed shot will reach its target and rearranging the order of actions usually entails taking it all from the top. TASTEE is focused on slickness of presentation throughout, including in its lobby (another upgrade on FZ’s), which makes its relative wobbliness in the orders part of the interface rather confusing.
I know I’ve referenced Frozen Synapse in almost every sentence, but honestly, it’s so hard not to: TASTEE simply couldn’t exist without it. So the question becomes whether it’s a worthwhile alternative. I think only the long-term can tell that, because it hinges on whether there’s enough of a community or not. It’s definitely not impossible though; there is more character here, and slightly more meaning when one of your units falls, given they have names, faces and a sometimes-invaluable special ability, such as being able to sense nearby units or lobbing down a proximity mine. Events tend to take a different turn to FZ because of this: there’s slightly more unpredictability, a few more get-out-of-trouble possibilities and perhaps greater scope for sudden upsets. I kinda dig the colourful, vaguely Team Fortressy way it looks too, although it’s shame it doesn’t manage to weave in much humour beyond the bug-eyed character art and silly name.
It’s slick and solid, outside of some UI quibbles, though, so if you were put off by Frozen Synapse’s austere appearance or just want to explore its precision take on tactical strategy with a few more possibilities woven in, consider this a qualified recommendation.