Having played some great turn-based tactical RPGs this year, I hoped to give Element: Space a try when it launched in Early Access on Steam back on November 20. Developed by Sixth Vowel and published by Inca Games, both based in Argentina, this is a fairly ambitious title that has been in development for a while. According to the developers, it should be released in its final form at some point in Q1 2019, with about half of the game already available for early adopters. My experience so far has been mostly positive, though I'm not particularly enthusiastic about it.
Element: Space takes place 200 years in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. These colonized planets become national factions in their own right and, as it usually happens, humanity becomes further fragmented. Geopolitics evolves into astropolitics, governed by four main pillars of ideology: Independence, Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and Humanism. As you assume the role of rogue captain Christopher Pietham, you must also choose which ideology you will follow.
Each Move Matters - I believe the essential distinction between turn-based tactics and real-time tactics is that in the former, just as in the paragon of turn-based games that is chess, each single move matters. There is a ripple effect to your moves, punishing your impulsiveness and rewarding your attentiveness. The turn-based combat system of Element: Space seems to adhere to this principle religiously. I lost a few battles because I didn’t properly consider the consequences of my moves, and it felt fulfilling when I realized what I did wrong. Of course, some players might feel this is unduly punishing and won’t like it. Although the game doesn’t force you to play in the hard mode, called Extinction, you’ll still have to work hard to achieve a victory in the normal mode.
Polished Performance and Mechanics - Apart from a couple of cases where the overwatch function (when you set up an ambush in case an opponent passes through the character's line of fire) didn't trigger for some reason, I have few complaints in terms of performance and mechanics. As a whole, Element: Space doesn’t play like an alpha, but like a very polished beta that is just about ready for release. Sure, the animations go out of focus sometimes, and the top-down camera gets the odd glitch, but overall it’s smooth and solid, with short loading times and no major issues. It’s a steady and sturdy product, which is more than you can ask from many Early Access games.
Story Feels Generic - My standards are somewhat high in this respect, as I was hoping for a plot and worldbuilding similar to the TV and book series The Expanse. It’s nothing like that. While it’s not really bad, the writing here is just lackluster enough that I find myself nodding through the dialogues and cutscenes. As far as I’m concerned, no work of science fiction, no matter the medium it’s in, should ever use the word "galactic" to describe the world order. It’s just such an egregious cliché that it’s difficult to take anything set in this world seriously when I read that word. Apart from that, it’s just not a compelling fictional universe, and the usual save-the-universe motivation simply doesn’t do it for me. Even the Shakespeare-quoting artificial intelligence called Zero, who becomes one of the members of your team, isn’t enough to redeem the overall shallowness and vacuity of the setting and the story.
Difficulty Spike After Introduction - Once you make it through the introduction you are thrust into a series of missions that play in a way that you’ll feel unprepared for. You can choose to fail those missions and go back to your ship, but then you’ll add a slice to the doomsday countdown called Rubicon Clock, which shows how long you have to save humanity from extinction. I haven’t made it very far yet, but I thought it was a bit unbalanced, and the campaign didn’t prepare me at all for it. I did manage to beat a very tough mission, but it took me a while to understand the different types of enemies I was dealing with, and how to approach the combat from another angle.
As a game that is almost ready for release, I doubt there will be major game-changing revisions to Element: Space in the coming months. The final version will include more side content, and will probably be more balanced to accommodate the needs of most players, but I don’t expect the story will change much. For some players that is perfectly okay, as long as the gameplay is fulfilling and balanced. The narrative is adequate enough to move the game forward, but I can’t help but wish it had more depth to it.
I might change my mind when I play the final version and realize the full consequences of my decisions along the way, tied up as they are with the ideology system that governs the factions. It might be possible to delve deeper towards a more fleshed-out universe, even if most of it is already mapped out in advance. I hope that Sixth Vowel has an ace up their sleeve to bring the story full circle in a way that feels impactful. For now, at least, I’m satisfied with a turn-based combat system that rewards my careful attention to each move, challenging me in the way that tactical RPGs are meant to.
Richard covered Element: Space on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.