Many turn-based tactical RPGs from the past decade seem to have an underlying ambition: to be the next XCOM. It’s a noble aspiration, but my impression is that developers sometimes forget that turn-based tactical RPGs didn’t begin and end with Firaxis’ acclaimed 2012 reboot. There were and there are many other great games in this genre before and after that particular title. In my original impressions, I hoped that Element: Space would be one of those. Unfortunately, it ultimately flops under the weight of its ambition.
Space soap opera
Set 200 years in an alternate future where the solar system is colonized by diverse ethno-technological factions, the plot falls flat as a cardboard cutout space opera. A mishmash of stale tropes and clichés override any potential for a genuine and compelling story. The transparent attempt to emulate the epic quality of something like Mass Effect simply backfires. The setting and the narrative might be minor disappointments, but, if at least they offered an emotional investment, the game might feel less frustrating as a whole.
This frustration first emerges when you realize that Element: Space consists exclusively of a series of repetitive battles and dialogues in between. While sparing you from potentially bad voice acting, the dialogues with companions just don’t feel the least bit interesting. There is an attempt to give the characters dimension and realism, but it’s half-hearted. It doesn’t give you a reason to fight the repetitive battles. It feels like it’s just there to pad the game out with a brief intermission between the grind.
In my impressions, I highlighted the fact that each move matters in the turn-based combat. And it does. It was compelling for the first few introductory battles. Once the novelty wore off, and once the difficulty increased, with more and more enemies showing up, it became an aggravating grind. When you make a bad move you’ll often have to start over, as there is no point in going on, your mistakes just pile up. Starting over is not as simple as it sounds. Since Element: Space operates strictly with a checkpoint system, you’ll often have to reload before that specific battle. This means you’ll have to play two battles in a row, hoping you don’t make any bad moves.
It’s this puzzle-like quality to the combat that will cause you to feel like rage-quitting very often. It’s simply not a flexible combat system that allows you to bounce back from your bad moves. The consequences of your mistakes will follow you all the way to the end of that particular mission. There isn’t any way to prevent or adapt. You’re not allowed to change equipment in the middle of a mission, only between them. It’s the kind of difficulty that challenges you by depriving you of the means to use the game systems in your favor.
Systems in shock
This is compounded by what seems like ineffective or seemingly buggy systems. Half-cover doesn’t seem to work half the time. Enemies will often walk right into your overwatch cone and it won’t trigger. The most egregious bug happened as I struggled through a particular brutal battle with constant reinforcements. I had to save a scientist, Maria de Souza. I had reloaded at least twenty times already, and I was almost on the verge of beating it. When I used Trick Shot, one of the characters' skills that's basically a ricochet, the shot got stuck on the object it was supposed to ricochet from. And the game just stopped. I couldn’t do anything but quit.
While most of the game seems polished and ready for release, the underlying systems don’t seem stable enough to warrant the difficulty that the game imposes. You can play Element: Space on the standard difficulty like I did, or you could try the Extinction mode, which I’m not masochistic enough for. I don’t doubt there will be other cases of skills bugging out and preventing the player from completing a mission after spending so much time in it. The difficulty is just not conducive to either fun or challenge.
There is a tutorial in the beginning, but it only covers the basics. As you progress, you’ll often find yourself confused by what the enemies can do, and what you can do against them. Trial-and-error is the only way to find out, and it will often cause you to reload over and over. During the Enemy Turn, you can’t do anything, not even press Escape. This means that when you’re up against about a dozen enemies, you’ll have to wait for each of them to move or attack before you can have the chance to reload. This is particularly infuriating during the toughest battles.
You can’t interact with the levels most of the time. Every single mission consists of moving from one battle to the next, and nothing else. There is a lot of variety in environment art, and they look good, but nothing spectacular. In terms of technical glitches, when the enemies destroy one of the cover structures, the game tends to stutter. Since I’m running an i5-4690K and a GTX 1080, I really doubt this is a problem on my end. Some of the battle animations also go out of focus quite often, and it became distracting enough that I turned them off. Reloading sometimes freezes the game for some reason. Some general performance fine-tuning is necessary here.
I really wanted to like Element: Space in spite of its flaws. While I wasn’t keen on the setting and the narrative from the start, I thought that polished and compelling turn-based combat could carry the game. This might still happen if the developers manage to fix the bugs, and overhaul the difficulty and the overall user experience so that it doesn’t feel so frustrating to play. Even then, I wouldn’t call Element: Space a good game; it just wouldn’t be a bad one.
Richard reviewed Element: Space on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.