There’s something about the trends of naming indie games that gets on my plums a tad. Either it’s some over-long, quirky, retro-but-not-really, LOL-isn’t-it-random title that just feels like the opening line from the design document describing the game, or it’s a single word that tells you absolutely nothing whatsoever, and that’s if its even a real word in the first place. Maybe you liked Oxenfree, maybe you didn’t, but I doubt the name informed you that you were in for five hours of slow-paced walking, radio-fiddling, resurrected time spirits and teenage drama.
Acaratus is very much in the latter camp, if you haven’t guessed, with the name either being a misspelling of the term for specialised equipment, or translating as some sort of Latin martial art. In reality it’s a game about mech-combat, fantasy warfare and turn-based strategy, but I’m unwilling to commit to any more detail than that, mainly because large elements of the story are about as clear as engine oil.
Acaratus is available on Steam Early Access for £10.99.
Part of the problem with the narrative might be the odd feeling that I’m playing the second or third game in a trilogy that doesn’t actually exist. We start with one of the densest plot-dumps I’ve ever heard, all narrated by a chap mumbling into the microphone so that I couldn’t hear about half of what he was saying. Also doesn't help that a good chunk of that dialogue is fantasy names and locations that mean Foxtrot-Alpha to me, so what I could hear often meant very little. It’s like being given a five-minute history lesson by a substitute teacher with a hangover, and the result was that I came away more confused at the end than at the start. Hence why I went to YouTube with a pad and pen to watch the opening for a second time, with the sound turned way up and my ear pressed to the speaker.
What I could decipher is that this particular fantasy world of “Valeria” (I think) has eschewed swords and sorcery for the more reliable warfare that comes with everybody operating giant steampunk robots and beating the crap out of each other. Seems slightly odd to me that this society would’ve deciphered the mysteries of making functioning Iron Man tech before they worked out the Spinning Jenny, but what do I know about science?
Regardless, a wealthy tyrant amasses an army of robots, as wealthy tyrants so often do, and uses them to overthrow the rulers and proclaim himself king of everything. Any mech suits that don’t belong to him or his soldiers are made illegal, and the owners, should they be caught, are summarily executed. I’m guessing this law is the fantasy equivalent of prohibition, because it’s taken just about as seriously by the public. Everybody you come across seems to have power armour out the wazoo, presumably because the threat to have criminals killed becomes a lot less weighty when the offender can just sit inside six tons of armoured steel and gun turrets, blasting any policeman that’s foolish enough to ask “is this your vehicle, sir?”
But that’s all set-dressing and backstory, thrown hastily at you in the first cinematic before we leap to the perspective of our two “heroes,” a slave merchant named Adina and her pet human, Bolt. So right away we have the issue that identifying with these characters is difficult when one of them is a professional kidnapper and life-ruiner, and Bolt just comes across as way too apathetic, seeming to treat his master’s ghastly occupation with a wry sense of humour. He's about ten minutes away from chuckling, “Oh, you wacky slavers, what are we going to do with you?”
But the plot’s all pretty simple after that. Adina’s insistence on keeping a robot of her own lands her in hot water when Bolt tattles on her to the town guard for his freedom, except they also decide to kill Bolt for no reason I could decipher and end up driving the two to cooperate and escape. Adina flees her hometown with Bolt and her mech suit (not in that order), before getting drawn into a wider revolution against the Emperor and learning lessons about life, humanity and all the rest of that good stuff.
Frankly, I can’t claim that any of the characters really blew my mind, all being fairly cut-and-dry in who they are and what they do, but I did like bits of the world-building. Valeria comes across as plausibly grim without being miserable in that relentless way that so often comes with dark fantasy stories, and the touches of steampunk aesthetic does make it feel unique and unlike anything else. It comes across like the cast of The Banner Saga and Game of Thrones all got given power armour and told to go nuts, and whilst that’s interesting as a premise, I would’ve liked to see more done to explore the core concept, not just having the narrative rotate around two schmoes with a dodgy human-rights record.
So the introductory cinematic concluded, and my face dropped like a stone as I saw the map screen open up before me. What the hell am I looking at? There’s a bar of data at the bottom that’s mostly empty and just confuses me when it's not, there’s weird squares in the centre of the screen that I think represent locations but I have no idea what any of them mean beyond that, my robot’s stats are in the upper right, but those might as well be written in Babylonian for all I can gleam from them…
If there was a tutorial then I couldn’t find it, which certainly smacks of the game’s “early access” nature to me. It’s admittedly true that there was an option for hints in the menu, but nothing happened when I clicked on it. I guess I needed a hint to explain the right way to get hints, which is an irony I could probably appreciate more if ninety-nine percent of my brain wasn’t geared towards desperately trying to decipher the core gameplay.
Because once I had cracked the enigma code to the point where I could get into one of the battles, the game threw a second challenge at me that made the map screen feel like a junior jumble. I won’t say there’s nothing fun about the robot fighting, because I quite liked the bits I could work out, but it’s about as intuitive as a Greek Labyrinth. The whole thing is laid out like a chessboard with your own robots and your opponents’ on each side, and you spend your own turn waddling about before slapping or shooting at anything you can reach. Seems like it should make sense, but the screen is so filled with incomprehensible numbers and algorithms that you’re probably going to end up processing more numerical information than your computer will. For one thing, I still don’t understand why each of my health bars has its own health bar, and why your real HP is referred to as “units,” just to complicate matters more. When the game told me I had seven units just for one robot, I assumed from the terminology that it meant I had seven copies of the same mech to bring into battle. I certainly felt like a fool when it turned out I just had the one, and that seven units of health roughly equates to about the same structural resilience as a tin of spam, complete with tasteless meat snack inside.
So the thing I liked most about the game was the customisation options for the bots, which I only wish had been more of a big deal. The various arms, legs and optional extras you stick on those suckers really does change how they operate in battle to an enormous degree, and it gives a level of control that’s fun and satisfying, allowing you to construct multiple plans of attack that are all equally valid, especially when you have more than one bot to play around with. My preferred system was to have one guy covered in turrets and another with all the armour and melee attacks, luring the enemies into a corner and having Scrappy function as a shield whilst Doug shot them from behind. What I lacked in naming ability, I made up for in tactical prowess.
The result of all this was that despite the potholes that would occasionally snap me out of my immersion, I was getting into Acaratus just a tad. I wanted to keep playing, not to find out about Adina’s favourite manacles or whether Bolt ever got confused with that animated dog, but because I had personalised my Jaegers to the point where they felt like my own and I wanted to see what new kinds of fluffy dice and missile launchers I could strap to them. And so I went to bed, pleased with my progress and satisfied with what I had accomplished…
…Before waking up the next morning to discover that all that precious progress – and my saved game as a whole – had been lost to the void, with no sign that it’d ever been there. Well, bugger. I hope you NPCs get used to that dictatorship and having the last, best hope of humanity be somebody who would sell your freedom for half a cheese sandwich, because I can’t quite summon the energy to do this whole “forge the fires of rebellion” thing for a second time. Maybe call Luke Skywalker and see if he’s interested instead.
S’alright. Not much to say about it really, it’s perfectly serviceable if a little unremarkable. The painted cinematics look good even if the animation quality lets them down a notch, the bots have an interesting style to them even if the 3D modelling seems pretty archaic, and the user interface is an unholy terror that should only be approached with caged canary, the visual flourish only serving to put a flowery curtain in front of this Lovecraftian horror.
The audio follows the same patterns. Music is just middle-of-the-road normalcy, though the brief narration still sounds like it’s being spoken into a pillow on the other side of the room, making me glad that there’s probably about seven minutes of the stuff across the entire game at most, with the rest of dialogue utilising basic text boxes. Text boxes that do the old trick of audibly typing out each letter as it appears, except that the typing sound is utterly excruciating to listen to and doesn’t even sync up properly, meaning it goes on for about a second or two after every line is finished. I ended up reflexively slamming the mute button on my computer every time Bolt and Adina would have a bit of banter lined up, or when we’d cut to the Emperor ordering minions to do something evil from the safety of his throne.
I’m not entirely sure I’ll find myself going back to Acaratus after this review, but I don't think it’s bad by any means, it’s just not for me. It’s certainly very dense, even by the standards of strategy games, whereas I find myself drawn to more self-explanatory systems like XCOM or Sid Meier’s Civilisation V. I also like games that can actually bother to remember what I was doing for more than ten minutes, but that should probably go without saying.
I do like all the customisation options though, and I appreciate the intention to do something a bit different with the usual sort of story you'd get about big robots sucker-punching each other, mixing it with some sort of revolutionary costume drama (disturbingly light-hearted master/slave relationships aside). Give it a shot if you like your micro-management and the ability to consider every little detail going. If your brain has less than 32GB of RAM at any one time, might be worth skipping this one.
|+ Visual style and tone is pretty unique||– Occasional glitches|
|+ Customisation is fun||– UI is messy|
|+ Battling is well-suited to those who like complexity||– Arguably over-complicated|