The first title from former Ubisoft Montreal developers, The Protagonist: EX-1 will be familiar to fans of the recent XCOM titles from Firaxis Games. From exploring an unknown science fiction environment to training and outfitting your growing squad of characters, there are a multitude of similarities. But while Protagonist shows promise, there are still some rough edges and wrinkles to iron out.
The Protagonist: EX-1 is currently in Early Access on Steam for your regional pricing.
STORY – WEAK WRITING
Players are put into the role of Angel, the leader of a highly trained military squad, tasked with infiltrating and destroying an invading alien space station. At the outset of the game, Angel awakes in the station’s infirmary with no memory of her mission or her teammates, guided only by the voice of “Pilot”, a surviving member of the team who is guiding her from a computer terminal.
You’ll need to reconnect with your squad as the game progresses to put up a formidable fight against the alien security systems. One party member you encounter is a good dog. But the rest of the characters are all extremely one-dimensional, and they lack any sort of fleshed-out personalities.
In fact, the only character with any sort of real character traits is Radical, a (drunk?) demolitions expert with a tragic backstory full of torture and bloodshed. Radical is abrasive, hotheaded, and brash, but he immediately crosses the lines of human decency. In one very early scene, he gets into a fight with Angel and calls her all sorts of disparaging terms. It doesn’t at all come across as a quirky side-character bit, it’s out of place, in your face, and offensive. I didn’t enjoy it.
But it’s not just that one character is bad, it’s that he’s the only fully-realized character. Angel is an amnesiac that only learns things she forgot about others; we aren’t discovering things about her as we go along. Buddy is a dog. Further party members are generic soldiers with helmets full of secrets.
I was really disappointed with the lack of narrative. The setup is interesting and has promise. I like breaking teammates out of prisons and utilizing them how I wish. But to put it all on the shoulders of a husk of a woman paired with a man who actively threatens her? It’s a misstep.
Again, the title just launched in Early Access, so all of these criticisms are absolutely things that can be addressed and improved upon before the final release. It’s the beauty of the EA program! But at this time, the contrast between the initial premise and the delivery is stark and frustrating.
GAMEPLAY – BUGGY NUTS AND BOLTS
The framework of a tactical strategy title is perhaps the most important thing about it. Whether or not the combat systems work, if there are too many moving parts to master, the impact and ease of use of the progression system. These are all different elements that need to fit together cohesively so that players aren’t overwhelmed, but still feel challenged in a way that they will want to push forward.
The Protagonist: EX-1 doesn’t short-change anybody on its systems. Even though it’s just entered into Early Access, you can tell that the development team has been working on this game for quite some time. Combat is handled in a familiar, turn-based fashion across a grid system. Enemies and party members alike take turns moving, attacking, and utilizing special moves to accomplish different goals.
There’s not really much that is new to be found in the combat mechanics, except for physical attacks. Each character can be equipped with up to two different types of weapon, such as a pistol and a knife. But unlike other titles that lock you into what your loadout is, punches and kicks are still an option here. So in addition to a long-range shock pistol attack, Angel could also knee an enemy drone in the face.
Physical attacks can be chained together as well to execute stronger combo attacks. I still found weapons to be a more formidable option (I prefer to fight at a distance), but I did play around extensively with the unarmed combat, and it is a great tactic to utilize in a pinch.
Instead of relying on skill trees, each squad member has a similar sort of loadout that you can dump points into. Everyone shares the initial character sheet, allowing upgrades to things such as stamina and endurance, but different classes can also improve certain specific skills such as sword proficiency or hacking ability.
That’s not to say that there are different classes. This is only true in a technical sense. Every character plays the same way, and there isn’t very much variety at all between each person. More or less, the characters are generic bodies that you designate to be effective with different weapons. One will be your pistol guy, the next one is a hacking lady, etc. As discussed before, nobody has enough of a personality to be anything more than a pawn.
I’m going to repeat myself: the game is not fully released yet. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I encountered quite a few bugs and rough edges as I progressed. A number of times, a certain progression flag would fail to activate, so I’d find myself staring at an impassable door until I rebooted the game from a previous save. This was frustrating, but not exactly a deal-breaker.
My biggest gameplay gripe, though, is with the camera system. Rather, with the level design being completely independent of the camera. You see, players can rotate the view to get a different look at the field, but the default viewpoint works just fine for 98% of the game. I wouldn’t rotate my visuals because I didn’t have a reason to.
The problem is that the hitboxes of walls are larger than the actual walls. For example, if I was trying to move a damaged cube over to a weak wall so I could blast open a secret room (a surefire way to gather crafting materials), the exact tile I was trying to click on wouldn’t register because the wall was in the way. I could see the tile. The wall was not covering the tile. I had enough space to click! But the game was registering the wall as larger than it truly was, so I’d have to spin the camera around the room to get a clear, completely unobstructed shot. Madness!
Crafting, well, isn’t a fun part of the game. Besides being pretty buggy (it was hard to even drag the recipes around), things like inventory management just don’t exist. At certain times you’ll come across a recipe for a new item, such as a sword or battle armor, and you can use these to create a new item. There’s also an option to give that item a modifier, like electric damage, or piercing.
But everything just appears in a massive pile. There are subcategories that you can sort things as, but it’s not intuitive. There are two different scroll boxes, you have to drag components into specific spots, and it’s not clear what each modifier is compatible with. It was like navigating a clunky Rubik’s cube.
I’ll be the first one to admit these gripes may seem innocuous, but it’s a perfect example of something that can easily be rectified over the course of development. Considering how recently the game hit the Steam Marketplace, I have hope that player feedback will guide the title to an acceptable place.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – IT’S FINE
I think that the graphics were more disappointing as time went on. The levels of the station itself are incredibly drab, filled with little else but empty space and the odd medicinal vat in the corner. Everything is so shiny and covered in chrome that it feels like the future in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode, “SB-129“. Enemies are almost entirely identical, and the environment is just extremely repetitive.
The biggest problem, though, is the character models. Not the dog! Buddy is, again, a good boy. But as noted before, additional soldiers are just generic troopers, and Angel’s model appears to be based on a retail store mannequin with large breasts and a skin-tight uniform. Nothing here is unique or interesting, it’s all ground that’s been tread before (and it’s been tread better).
If there had been an attempt at a new and interesting direction to take the characters or this world in, I’d feel differently. An attempt would show a desire to make something fresh and new. But as it stands now, with a blank space station, the sexualized main character, and offensive Irish sidekick, so much here is uninteresting and recycled from other properties.
The Protagonist: EX-1 is available now in Steam Early Access. A key was provided by Evolve PR.