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Cantata is an absurd, colourful blend of Advance Wars and Dune, with production chains and tree squid

It's like nothing else in the tactics genre

I had my first go of turn-based tactics-'em-up Cantata more than two years ago, when it was barely more than an incredibly shaky tech demo. Even back then, with a build so rudimentary I could hardly fathom how to play it, the game stood out thanks to its astonishing colour palette and its esoteric sci-fi aesthetic, which I described as "Advance Wars with an Ann Leckie glow-up". Now, with the news that Cantata has a publisher in Modern Wolf, whose portfolio already holds a few games that are up my street, I've been given a new build. And this time, it's looking a lot more polished: the demo is a whole level from the single-player campaign, complete with a script, objectives and everything.

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That superb aesthetic is still there, although I'd say it's now drifted closer towards Dune, along the scale of SF you're allowed to like and still think of yourself as highbrow. Is the actual game any good? Well... probably. It's certainly interesting; the Advance Wars DNA is still very much in place, and has been combined with a set of supply chain mechanics more familiar from factory games than anywhere else. Together, they make for a tactical experience that's unique, surprisingly complex, and brutally, crushingly slow.

More nuts and bolts in a moment. First, I want to talk about the Shotar of Mars. Here they are:

What a fucking art style, no? Gives me a definite sense of reading a giddily weird early 90s French space opera comic, which is never a bad thing. There isn't too much more character art on show yet, apart from a mustachioed space soldier, who's even more brilliantly stylised than the Shotar, and a character called the Exec, who I suspect will be a big deal in the full game.

The Exec, and the mustachioed space soldier. As well as the humans, the full game will let you play as the machines, as well as the aliens native to Shoal. The latter are represented only by a few weird tree squids in the demo, but they had the definite air of foreshowed significance to them.

These scruffily magnificent portraits, combined with the stark, fluid, very graphic-designy UI (also used to great effect on the game's website), and the bizarro pastel hues of the battlefield itself, give Cantata a visual identity unlike anything else in the genre. It's cool as hell, and is further entrenched by the snippets of worldbuilding that have made their way into the demo.

Like any good big, baroque SF, what's actually going on is reasonably opaque. You are playing as a human empire with a long and ludicrous name, probably in the very far future. There are space aristocrats with incomprehensible ranks and loads of medals, like the Shotar, and they seem to have a problem with sapient machines.

These machines, who will almost certainly turn out to be deserving of more sympathy than seems likely at first, have begun mysterious activity on a back-of-beyond colony world called Shoal. The Shotar pursues them there, being very racist about robots in the process, and immediately orders an invasion, which you are in charge of.

The very first unit you deploy is a mightily odd contraption like a medieval siege tower with tank tracks, which drops from orbit with a belly full of miserable conscripts. It begins to trundle across the teal-and-peach landscape with tiny pixellated pennants fluttering in the breeze, and is utterly wonderful. This sort of stuff, if you don't already know, is my idea of a damned good time, and it immediately made me feel a fierce sense of loyalty to Cantata. That's a good thing, mind, because it's not the easiest game to love.

The actual tactical model is sound and time-tested: you have a pool of action points, which any of your units can draw from in any order, to move and fight. You also need to draw on this pool yourself, to build production structures and more units. The AP pool doesn't stretch very far at first, but as your units fight on, they accumulate XP for you as their commanding officer. This allows you to level up, increasing both your AP pool, and the variety of structures you can build.

Even then, it never feels like you have quite enough action points to support the army you're fielding at any given point. It feels weird, for example, to leave units sitting passively in a lethal firefight, because you need all your points to move other units to the front. Cantata's maps (or the one in the demo at least) are colossal, and even vehicles seem to move across them in tiny, excruciatingly costly increments, making simple force movement a crippling expense.

This is a deliberate move, I'm sure, aimed at necessitating the supply line management side of the game. All of your production buildings use resources piped to them from other production buildings, and so a smart player follows their advancing front line with an ever-extending network of supply pipes, so that new tanks and that can be parped out right in the enemy's face.

In theory, this is an elegant, tactically interesting solution. In practice, however, there's another mechanic in play which makes it an utter bastard to pull off. You have a global supply limit, you see, which dwindles over time, and disappears in big chunks whenever you put down new buildings, or even extend resource-piping links. It can't be replenished, and once it's gone you're basically left with whatever industrial infrastructure you've already got.

Maybe it's just a little overtuned right now, or maybe I was just doing something very, very wrong. Either way, all three of my attempts with the demo turned into hours-long, grinding odysseys, largely comprising attempts to nudge units across the immensity of the map in a desperate attempt to replace losses at the front. Turn counts became ludicrous, pushing past eighty on one occasion, and leaving me with a stretched-out, knackered production network with no supply left to spend.

Don't get me wrong: there was a lot of tactical fun to be had along the way. But I would have preferred to have had it in about the quarter of the time it eventually took to have, and without the grinding sense of entropy which accompanied it.

I am certain this is exactly the sort of issue, however, which exploratory demos like this exist to highlight. The systems in place are fine, in theory - they just either need some numbers tweaking, or some more thorough explanation, if it turns out I was just being a massive dolt. Either way, I urge you to have a go for yourself - you can download the demo for free on Steam right now - and use the in-game feedback button to let developers Afterschool Studio know your thoughts.

I hope you do exactly that, and I hope Cantata gets balanced in time for its as-yet-unannounced launch date. Because I really want to see what that maniac the Shotar gets up to next, and if I can have a grand old time managing tank factories and conscript-bearing-trundletowers while doing so, I will be delighted.

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Nate Crowley avatar

Nate Crowley

Former Section Editor

Nate Crowley was created from smokeless flame before the dawn of time. He writes books, and tweets a lot as @frogcroakley. Each October he is replaced by Ghoastus, the Roman Ghost.