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Arco is one of the most fascinating blends of turn-based and real-time tactics I've seen in ages

Its pixel art is gorgeous, too

A tiny man on a llama looks up a strange, fantastical tree in Arco
Image credit: Panic

Officially unveiled at this week's Panic Games Showcase, Arco is a triptych of revenge stories set across the deserts, plains and forests of a fantastical, South American-style landscape. It's a part of the world we don't often get to see in games, and its stunning pixel art (and tiny cute little llamas) instantly caught my eye when I got to play an early mission from it at last week's Gamescom. Made by four developers spread across the globe, the official genres listed on its Steam page describe it as a tactical turn-based action adventure RPG where you guide four separate heroes in their fight against the ominous sounding Red Company. But just saying it's turn-based is doing Arco a disservice, I think, as it's also a little bit real-time, a little bit simultaneous turns, and all pretty brilliant, if you ask me. Here are some very early impressions of it.

When it launches next year, Arco will be split across three separate storylines, which all meet up at the end, artist Franek Nowotniak explains. Each character will have their own abilities and specific playstyles to get to grips with, but my demo session was focused on tribal warrior Itzae who had a mean dagger stab and whirling sword swing. We meet her trying to take a shortcut through a forest, where she stumbles upon an old temple ruin guarded by a fierce demon. The boss itself is one of those classic treasure chest mimics - you know the sort, with the sharp, toothy grins and lashing tongues - but that's jumping ahead a little bit.

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Before we get to the fighting, you'll likely spend most of your time in Arco riding your llama around its wonderfully detailed pixel art dioramas. You (and your llama) are mere specks in these giant landscapes, giving Arco a sense of scale and majesty that you might miss just glancing at some screenshots. You can rustle around specific points of interest for extra items and spoonfuls of dialogue, but eventually you'll brush up against one of its set battle encounters.

Here, the action transitions to a top-down view, in an environment that matches your surroundings. A blue dotted line indicates the direction and range of your available movement for that turn, and boxes above enemy heads indicate what they'll be doing on their next turn, such as attacking or waiting. Your attacks are all clustered around a d-pad-style interface in the bottom right corner of the screen, and each one will consume a certain amount of magia, or energy, which you can recharge by moving around the environment (either in straight lines or, if you'd like to dodge, in light curves that you can draw with your mouse or controller).

A man fights three insects in a rocky scene in Arco
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Panic
A battle scene with a sentient treasure chest in Arco
A tiny man rides a llama through a large forest landscape in Arco
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Panic

So it's turn-based in the sense that you have ample time to decide what you're going to do next, but once you commit to an action, the battle clock ticks forward in real-time. Most actions will complete during that window, but sometimes you'll be in situations where enemy fire freezes in the air mid shot, for example, or an enemy will jump up into the sky, Final Fantasy dragoon-style, and you'll be warned where they're going to land, giving you time to potentially move out of the way and plan your next move.

This mix of styles gives battles a jaunty, but welcome sense of momentum, making them feel more alive than your typical turn-based fare where everyone stands in neat little lines whacking each other before returning to their set formations, while also giving you the full breadth of tactical opportunities afforded by its landscape. While most of the battle spaces I encountered were, admittedly, fairly open spaces in my demo with very little cover to speak of, the announcement trailer showed off a wider a variety of arenas big and small that will naturally impact how much you're able to dodge and move around in them, while others have gaping chasms in the centre, or large stone blocks to hide behind, so I'm optimistic there will be more strategic manoeuvres to consider further down the line.

To be honest, I think Arco already has plenty of tactical nouse behind it, even when you're just running around in the open. Deciding when and how far to move, and in what direction, along with balancing the range and magia cost of your own attacks is plenty to be getting on with - especially when it starts chucking little ghosty boys at you. You see, being undead and everything, these (strangely cute) little spectres aren't bound by the laws of time, and will continue moving around freely even when you and the rest of your foes are frozen in the turn-based stage. Nowotniak told me this is to help keep the pressure on players to make quick decisions and not endlessly turtle over their choices, and having to deal with even just a couple of these certainly gave fights an added layer of spice and tension. In short, even if the majority of Arco's battles are in plain open spaces, they're still going to be fizzing with strategic potential, and I can't wait to play more of it when it launches on Steam next year.

For more of the latest news and previews from Gamescom 2023, head to our Gamescom 2023 hub. You can also find everything announced at Opening Night Live right here.

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