Tactical RPG Element: Space quietly snuck out of early access today, after a short but eventful stint in public production. The debut game from new independent studio Sixth Vowel, it's hard not to make comparisons to Firaxis's XCOM after looking at the screenshots and trailer. However, after playing a chunk of the game in the run-up to launch, I found myself surprised that while XCOM is invoked, this may have more in common with Ubisoft's Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, but with more politics. See the launch trailer below, and let me explain that odd comparison a bit further.
Element: Space - at least from what I've played so far, admittedly not one full playthrough - is a 'light' tactics game. You've got at most a squad of three characters, from a total of eight possible party members. While you can alter them a little through skill trees and weapon choices, there's none of the technical finesse you get in other games in the genre. While there is a little bit of running around freely in-between fights, it's purely for narrative and exploration purposes, rather than Mutant: Year Zero's blending of stealth, navigation and tactics.
Combat in Element: Space seems streamlined. At least early on, your chance of hitting an enemy behind light cover is a flat 50%, and shots that hit hard cover damage it. Battles seem more like tactical puzzles, with each fight giving you a ranking based on your efficiency. Characters also partially recover health between fights. There may not be any cartoon rabbits cosplaying as David Bowie battling pseudo-Italian plumbers, but this feels familiar. It has some ideas of its own though, like targeted cone-based overwatch and movement outside of cover not being grid-based.
What sets Element: Space apart is its structure. It's a shorter but more broadly branching RPG with a political core. Your dialogue options skew towards four political ideologies mapped out on a basic graph. Humanism and Independence are apparently opposites. Autocracy versus Bureaucracy is the other conflict, and each of the seven factions you can meet (all humans, sorry - no weird aliens here) exist somewhere on this grid. Depending where you stand, you can end up taking different missions, recruiting different party members or just pissing off everyone.
While I'm curious to see if the story can hold itself together or whether it collapses under its own broadly political aspirations, I've got my weekend all booked up. I'd love to hear thoughts from anyone else who played the game through early access. It's nice to see a game not afraid to be overtly, loudly political, but in allowing you to pick where you stand on the spectrum, I fear it'll end up just saying a whole lot of nothing. It's just amusing to see something so self-serious attached to systems that remind me of slapstick cartoon antics.
Element: Space is out now on Steam for £15.49/€16.79/$19.99. Inca Games are publishing.