In the fag-end of 2014 I managed to have a chat with X-COM creator Julian Gollop about the (early access) release version of his new game Chaos Reborn, but as the many demands of a festive season hosted at home hurtled towards me I flat-out ran out of time to give the game itself more than a cursory look. Now that I no longer need worry about which brand of cranberry sauce is best, putting tinsel high enough that a toddler can't hang herself on it and whether those vacuum-packed chestnuts are a substitute for fresh ones, I've been able to put good time into Gollop's remake of classic Spectrum turn-based strategy game Chaos. Here's what I made of it.
It helps a lot that an update just before Christmas added a singleplayer mode of sorts. While a full campaign is due further down the line, Chaos is an inherently multiplayer game - it's you versus up to three other players, all doing your best to destroy everyone else on the battlefield with an array of spells, most of which involve summoning creatures. You have to have equally-matched opponents, and they have to be trying to second-guess you, but those opponents need not necessarily be human-controlled as the game has clear, inviolable rules which permit only a certain amount of things happening per turn.
Clearly, the thrill is lessened when you're playing against your processor rather than other fleshlings, but I was grateful for the singleplayer mode both due to a shortage of opponents, and because I really wanted the chance to practice in relative safety before risking humiliation against randoms. Whereas previously I had a generalised sense of what I was supposed to do, now I feel like I get Chaos, and more importantly I can see that it is good.
The game's come on a fair bit since its initial release, although embarrassingly there've been no updates this year as yet, which means the current version is still festooned with Christmas decorations. I'm all for festivities regardless any time of year, but a dwarf in a Santa hat in mid-January seems a bit much. Hopefully they'll turn off the Christmas lights soon though. Update: and they have now!
Even so, it's art and animation that's most brought the game to life since earlier builds. I quite like the stark, untextured shapes of the initial alphas, but by now Chaos Reborn is ornate and characterful. Its characters retain a distinctive, stylised oddness - the dwarf's stovepipe hat, the unicorn's Final-Fantasy-sword-for-a-horn - but they've enough detail and animation going on that they seem rather than like pieces on a board. There's an organic, living and breathing quality to Chaos' presentation, which is pleasantly unexpected from what's something of a formal game at heart. Its characters and levels look like magic forced into earthly shapes, likely to explode into intangible streams of colour at any moment.
As for the game beneath this, it's magical gambling. Every time you summon a creature, you risk it not working. Every time you attack, you risk it not working. Every time you move, you risk moving into range of an enemy's spells or minions. Every time you cast an illusory summon because you felt the odds of pulling off the real thing were too remote, you risk it being immediately Disbelieved by an opponent, and that spell card having been wasted. Risk, risk, risk. I look at my small collection of cards - summon an elf, a skeleton, a dwarf, an elephant, a dragon, each with odds of success, and I fret. Once they're gone they're gone. They're the last and only line of defence against my wizard getting murdered, so I can't squander even a one of them. What to cast, when to cast it, the frustration of it not working out, the jubilation when it does.
The new mana/mega-spell system is far more natural a fit than I'd suspected, too. Perhaps ironically, gathering mana shrines works a little like XCOM: Enemy Within's MELD, in that you're willingly send your units into danger or away from where they're most useful in order to grab a resource with longer term benefits. That being a mega-spell capable of, for instance, zapping multiple enemies at once or spawning a huge forest of violent trees. I like the gamble of it - stretching out beyond safety in the hope of laying a climactic smackdown. It can be ignored completely, but it's a valid alternate strategy rather than a perverse departure from how Chaos works.
With its limited actions, short movement distances and card-based actions, Chaos' feel is perhaps much more boardgame than videogame, but it works. It doesn't come across like crudely digitised cardboard and plastic, but a true middleground between the physical and the virtual. What initially feels slow, confusing, even obtuse quickly coalesces into the sort of moment-to-moment agonising dilemma that any game about trying to second-guess an opponent depends upon. I like it a lot, and it's barely begun. So far at least, Chaos is well under control.
Chaos Reborn is out on Early Access now.