It's not enormously likely you've heard of Nadia Was Here [official site]. It came out at the end of last month and I'm not sure anyone noticed. Turns out, after stumbling on it today, everyone really should have. My early impressions are that this pixel RPG is something rather special. And that's a lot to do with some completely intriguing combat.
I'm not quite sure what it was about Nadia Was Here that caught my eye when it appeared on Steam. Wont as I am to regularly look through the madness of the deeply hidden New Release list, I scroll past a hundredty-nine different pixel RPGs a week, so why this one? Maybe it was the nifty and cute game logo (goodness me, indies, put more effort into these), or just the peculiar colours in the screenshots. (The only thing I've seen recently that looks similar were those early intriguing screenshots of No Man's Sky, oddly.) Couldn't tell you - it certainly wasn't the game's description, which entirely forgets to say what the game's about. Anyway, glad I did!
It probably helps that it hasn't been made with RPGmaker, which means it has a more distinctive look. Jajaben Games have crafted some really lovely teensy pixel art, and then presented it with the fascinatingly strange colour palette, resulting in an aesthetic that at once evokes 16-bit RPGs, but at the same time weirdly distorts the notions. Immediately after that, it gets the next most important thing right: the written dialogue is punchy and strange, not wordy and banal. Tick, tick. And then the third tick arrives with quite some style: it has combat like I've never played before.
Now, of course there's the curse of saying "this has never been done before" because someone will inevitably reply, "Didn't you play the Russian-only Amiga A3000 Побег в прыжке?!" But I've certainly never played it before. It immediately looks relatively traditional. Combat leaps out of the top-down game world to a side-on turn-taking battle, where you can switch between weapons and tools, drink potions, and use special abilities. However, it does two lovely interesting things. The first is more familiar, although usually more disguised: the timing for attacks. Each character, yours and theirs, is on a looping countdown, attacks launching when their little box rapidly fills. This is combined with the second: the combat taking place in 'lanes'. Each fight is fought across, what for want of a better analogy looks like a strip of running track, your and their combatants stood one per lane. But, and here's the thing, you can move your characters between lanes at any time.
So the result is, trying to swap your characters whose timer is about to ding into lanes opposite enemies whose timer isn't going to ding first. But they fill at different speeds, and it's all rather fast, and there are four of them and three of you, and it becomes quite the manic tactical juggle. You want your powerful dude to be bopping this guy, but that mean baddie is about to take a slice out of a weaker character, so you need to make sure she's moved out of the lane in time, and oh shit, that enemy just moved into the other lane so now you need to move him too to get that hit in! And so on. It all feels manageable because of a very clever decision - highlight a character to move them and the action pauses, so you can at least think. Of course the moment you drop them back down again all those boxes carry on filling up just as fast. Watch it all in action here:
This gets more complicated when you take into account the resistances of the various characters, meaning you're going to want to put your mage in front of magic attacks, and burly old Hogan to bear the brunt of heavy physical attacks. Then even more complicated when you realise that weakening an enemy in a gang might be more useful than killing him, to balance their party energy levels. Energy is a party-shared resource that affects the efficacy of attacks, and the effects of status ailments, and balancing it involves all manner of things, from party fitness going into battle, and extras used during. Oh, and each character has unique skills, with Nadia possessing the ability to steal instead of attack - something that sounds like a novelty extra until you learn weapons can't be bought or found here, only nicked off opponents in combat.
Do you see what I mean? The more I dig in, the more intriguing it appears, and the more interested I've become. I've not gotten anywhere near far enough to start forming opinions about the story, but the breezy, easy writing feels just right, and with so much that's novel I'm hooked. Hopefully I'll bring you a proper review in a bit. Meanwhile, there's a demo on the Steam page.
Nadia Was Here is out now for Windows and Mac via Steam for £9/$12/12€