Developer/Publisher: Whale Hammer Games || Overall: 6.5
Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is a small spin on the world of tactical turn-based strategy games. Through its unique art style, story takes the forefront with gameplay taking a bit of a backseat. While the gameplay itself can be engaging at times, its mostly a slow and plodding chore **exasperated whinny.**
We follow the protagonist Tahira, a 20-something-year old who looks like she is in her early 60’s — she has white hair and wrinkles and wears an old lady’s robe. Tahira, and her friend Iba, will encounter many a dangerous situation in the fallout from the destruction of their home of Avestan by an invading army. Iba, who could be Mr. Ed’s progenitor (or possibly evolved ancestor), is an overly-expressive horse, who apparently loves olives **excited whinny** and won’t let genocide or his friends being murdered keep him from enjoying those damn olives **not-so-remorseful whinny.** While Iba isn’t a playable character, he makes his appearances occasionally during the story sequences as a minor character.
Tahira: EotAE tells the story of the first night of a war between what is old and what is new. In a post-apocalyptic (kinda sci-fi) medieval setting, a large army rallies around the idea of the foregone Astral Empire, a once star-spanning empire humans created. The new Astral Empire decides to invade all other kingdoms/city-states, taking no prisoners in their brutal imperialism. Tahira, a princess of the city-state Avestan, and daughter of one of the important figures of this planet’s history, must re-assume her role as her father disappears without a trace due to the invasion. And so unfolds the scenario.
The game will teach you, slowly, about the tactics and abilities of the characters you’ll be using. Every battle is in advance of the plot and has something new to teach you, so it keeps the levels from being too samey and you’ll never play “extra” missions either. During battles, turn cycles are interesting as your units are “grouped” together and will take alternating turns with the enemy’s groups. Since all of the battles are of very large scale, you’ll be taking on 10 to 20 enemies in one battle, and more will keep coming in sequential phases of the same battle. You will have control over approximately the same amount of characters as well but, other than the Heroes, your ranks will be filled with generic solider-types that mimic the hero unit. Using the unit groups strategically is important to minimizing your losses, and most of your units are a bit overpowered compared to your enemies. It becomes necessary to quickly chew through as many enemies as possible to mitigate any future losses.
The tactics aren’t too out of the ordinary or even that complex when it comes to your strategy, but there are some interesting aspects. Health pools are split into “Health” and “Guard;” Health is not regenerative, but Guard is and can be recovered by special tiles on the map or by using a special action. Special actions are limited by a resource called “Will.” Characters regain Will by killing enemies, and can use powerful abilities to vanquish foes with skills that use Will. Different unit types have different special abilities and they all mix in to your repertoire of strategy to fell your foes. Some units are able to string together kills, hit multiple characters in a straight line, stun, do knockbacks, and more. Possibly the most unique mechanic is Ambush. Ambush can be used to disrupt your enemy’s plans by popping out your units from an Ambush point and killing the enemy at opportune times. These are considered “stealth” turns by the game and happen outside of the planned turn cycle.
It can be a challenge to enjoy actually playing Tahira: EotAE, as it primarily tells its story through a cinematic approach and leaves the gameplay elements to the wayside in helping the story along. The story basically pauses itself for pesky gameplay and you almost feel like you are wasting your time until you get through the battle at hand. An example of a good mix of gameplay and story to move a game’s narrative along is X-COM: Enemy Unknown — the base-building and gameplay progression actually feeds into the game’s story along the way. Unfortunately, a missed opportunity comes as there is no overall progression in Tahira: EotAE; no overlying gameplay system that rewards you when you defeat enemies or battles is present. Your only impetus to do well is to minimize your losses in the beginning phases of a battle so the later phases can have more units, at which point you can more easily continue on with the story. You feel like you are playing a new game of Chess each battle, and nothing you’ve done as a whole will help you in the future. Nor is there any sort of talent system for Tahira herself to at least feel like you are taking a part in her gaining power. Of course you can just say “fuck it” and literally skip all of the combat by opening the menu and clicking the option to do so — yes, this is actually in the game.
At a few points you’ll enter an “exploration” mode where it becomes a bit of a normal RPG, talking to recurring characters and seeing the finer details of what is going on. There is also a lot of opportunity for witty banter and interesting story bits, but there’s not a whole lot of different places where this occurs or anything “hidden” to find as far as I could tell. There are also dialogue trees that seem to have little to no effect on the way the story ends in this episode. By the way, it is clear to see that the game is meant to be an episodic series with the way the story ends. There is no final resolution to any of the conflicts set up, and we are left with more questions than answers about what we experience. All in all, the game will last around 10 to 15 hours depending on how well you do during the fights and what challenge level you decide to play on. Or it can last about 30 minutes and you can skip all of the battles and just read through the story.
The shining aspect of Tahira: EotAE comes with its atmospheric music and wonderful art and animation. The art has a very unique look to it and the animation of the units are fluidly motion captured. The hand-drawn style of the game is a great look that makes it look more like a storybook and in turn more like a fantasy. Character designs are also interesting, more or less. While voice acting isn’t really needed in every game, I can’t help but feel that since the idea was for the game to be cinematic that it should have paired some voice acting to the characters to get more of an attachment to their emotions. Also, don’t be surprised when you see a couple of random F-bomb-equivalent words dropped in the dialogue. They were “intriguing” when they did happen, but just end up sort of being needless since it only happens a few times. I’m not one to complain about cursing usually, but they shouldn’t have restrained themselves if they were going to jump over that hurdle. The main character definitely should have screamed “FUUUUUUCCKKKKKK!!!!” at some point. Why the fuck not?
Tahira: EotAE is probably not going to impress seasoned strategy gamers just on its gameplay alone. While some interesting aspects are introduced in the gameplay, they are not enough to help you stay engaged in wanting to complete the game “the long way.” Because the battles are so long and there are so many enemies, you’ll feel like the game is very slow. With no way to progress your troops, there will be very little reason to put up with any of it. If a series of games is the plan, we’ll probably get an interesting story but not much else.