Developer: Torus Games
Publisher: Little Orbit
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Score: C+ (70%)
You could say that there are two types of turn-based strategy game fans out there: those who’ve played XCOM and those who yet haven’t. Falling Skies: The Game works better for those in the latter category as well as those XCOM fans who won’t bash this too harshly for its intentional lifting of much of that game’s mechanics. While it’s a well-made game and plays just fine with only some pesky camera issues in tight spots, a few gameplay flaws knock it down from being a great entry in the genre. However, if you’re a big enough fan of the show, the game will probably warrant a buy right off the bat. Just don’t expect anything revelatory in the plot or handful of familiar characters you’ve come to know and love and you’ll more than likely have a fine time over a rainy weekend…
With its story taking place between seasons three and four of the series, developer Torus Games has kept things fairly straightforward and somewhat too safe. Breaking the game into randomly generated missions separated at key points by brief cut scenes that spell out what plot there is, the only big surprises come once your team of four (and later, up to six) sets out on missions. After the mandatory tutorial, you can choose from a number of missions to play on in any order you like with more areas unlocking as you progress. One neat thing here is the game rolls out harder enemy types after key story missions (indicated with a red icon on the map) that introduce new alien types such as mechs and more mutated alien types that can leap great distances.
Depending on your skill level with this sort of game, things will be either really easy or mildly to very frustrating. Novice players who rush into danger (despite the tutorial doing a decent job at showing you how to play it safe) will find trouble early on and often until they smarten up. Some enemies have large movement ranges and can whittle down a party member’s health if they get to swarm them. On the other hand, players who take their time and exploit the AI’s weaknesses will slowly breeze through missions without ever losing a party member. As with XCOM, Fire Emblem and other tactical strategy games, you get two turns per character and it’s your choice what to do with them. You can move and attack, defend, reload a weapon or just use both turns to cover more distance. Your party members only level up by killing enemies, so it’s important to use every character you take with you to get their own kills.
In addition to experience, each mission has rewards of Food, Metal, or Medicine. The former is used to recruit and train new soldiers and the latter two are used to create and upgrade assorted gear or the camps hospital. With each new level, characters can gain new or upgraded skills. There’s usually the choice between two per level, save for levels two, six and ten when there’s a sole skill to train in. While your party eventually grows to six per mission, you’ll eventually have up to 50 total characters in your growing army. New recruits become available in a few ways, from rescuing them on missions to being successful rewards for completing “dispatch” missions using a character not in your away team. Dispatches aren’t playable, but take place as you’re out on story missions. This means the results are going to have one of two outcomes. Success means you gain 100 units each of Food, Metal and Medicine, while failure has the character that was sent out return injured with no rewards and unable to fight for a few missions while he or she is hospitalized.
On Easy and Normal, you won’t need anywhere near a 50 character army to face off against the different Espheni enemies, but Hard mode can be a bit tough on weaker soldiers until they get a few levels under their belts. That said, it’s easy to beat many maps by having your squad hang back and sending the fastest character forward until you get some alien attention. Then, all you need to to is lure them back to the upcoming turkey shoot, rinse and repeat. I did finally lose two soldiers thanks to a bit of carelessness. One died when he was on the receiving end of a critical blow and bled out one move before he got back to a medic (who I’d not equipped with a defibrillator unit). The other took two missiles and some machine gun fire from a pair of mechs before being poisoned by the pack of ankle-biting bugs she’d shot. Oh well, at least they were replaced by better units and I made sure not to take Hard mode for granted after that.
The randomness here means you might play through the game one time and have no one injured on a dispatch mission or end up having a character or three put out of action because they got hurt. Combine this with the game offering up random maps for each play through and you get a game that’s actually got more replay value than you’d think. Granted, that’s provided you like what’s here enough to want to replay it. As noted above, there’s an easy way to exploit the AI as well as the randomness of the map that will make the game quite easy, albeit a bit longer. That and once you unlock the Berserker class and level certain too-powerful skills, all you really need to do is recruit four of them, add a sniper and scout or later, a medic and you’re going to have one unstoppable party. I actually used five Berserkers for one mission, but the resulting overkill rout that took place made me drop one, than another for different classes just so the game was more challenging.
Weapons, ammo and armor can (and should) be your first priority for upgrades, as going into battle with the best gear is the smartest thing you can do. It takes a while for the best gear to show up, but once you start seeing the difference between your starting weapons and the gear that can be crafted past the midpoint, you’ll probably laugh at the crazy damage you’re doing. Between the fire damage, poison, bleed and other effects, there will be missions where the enemy won’t even get the chance to touch your team. Granted, the AI tends to only be surprising if it catches you off guard and has multiple enemies move and attack on its turn. But later on when the mechs show up, they can cause trouble thanks to missiles that hit multiple allies and machine gun fire that can whittle down HP in a few turns.
In terms of presentation, while the game isn’t winning any awards for looks, I’ll give Torus props for making some nicely-sized levels that at least get the gritty, ruined Boston cityscape look down just about perfectly. There are vehicles to use as cover which can be blown up (sometimes causing damage to aliens or allies caught in the blast radius), and warehouses and port areas feature appropriate wear and tear detailing everywhere. Some buildings can be scaled using ladders, making for a nice vantage or attack point on enemies below. But the tables can turn here as enemies will use those same tactics if you get caught unaware. There’s a fog of war effect in play, so evening and night maps are darker while daytime maps have greyed out areas until your move closer to them.
It’s the forest maps where the camera gets really problematic. All those tall trees and cliff walls don’t go as transparent as they should, the GUI can’t be moved at all and the camera can only be rotated raised or lowered. All these make seeing the forest for the trees pretty annoying. An option to tilt the camera to a top down view or at least move or make the interface transparent would have helped a lot here. That said, while it takes some work to get a decent view in these missions, the manner in which every type of map is reused makes for a nice touch. Sometimes you’ll get the same map with different objectives, starting and end points and/or entirely different missions save for the big plot point maps, which are always the same.
As for the sounds and music, the game could have used a few more character voices and definitely a LOT more dialog. As there are only a handful of classes, male and female characters of each class share the same few comments and repeat stuff more often than they need to. I should also mention that while you can customize your team’s looks (save for the show’s principals), the selection of clothing colors is VERY slim, you can’t change hairstyles or the type of clothes your team wears. So yes, four or five berserkers in a party looks like you’ve got a biker gang of clones tagging along, all with the same machine guns and rocket launchers. Yes, you can equip assorted weapons to each class, but it’s smarter to use the best gear you can upgrade to and not look back.
One big thing the game lacks is bonus stuff to find in the levels. Yes, there are missions with multiple objectives, but the lack of intel, supplies or other rewards to track down outside the objectives and rewards given for completing missions can make for some dull moments. It would have been excellent to have stuff hidden away in harder to get to corners or buildings defended by a big boss or wave of enemies that popped up once an item was located and retrieved. There’s a mission that does something like this once a switch it thrown, but there’s a near total lack of need to explore unless you’re on one of the “kill X number of…” missions and can’t find that last enemy or two because you stuck to a pretty linear path. Of course, by the time you get to the final stretch of the game, you’ll probably have all the upgrades and have filled all 50 character slots. But given that there’s a good chance you’ll have only used maybe a third of the characters in your roster, it would have been nice to have more incentive as well as the opportunity to replay some missions in the same game for extra goodies and experience.
The again, the endless nature of the game makes it interesting and you can always bump up the difficulty and play the game a bit more recklessly as see if that works better for you. Dead characters stay dead and yes, there’s a memorial area where you can see who’s lost the fight forever. Yes, the best players won’t even see this area unless they poke around between missions to see how empty it is. But at least Torus seems to want to acknowledge that there are players that won’t make it through the game unscathed. While it’s not a Game of the Year candidate, Falling Skies: The Game makes for an interesting entry-level tactical RPG that’s going to appeal mostly to fans of the show. It gets the basics down alright and the endless mission thing is actually really cool at the end of the day. However, all this hard work Torus put into the game could have been more impressive had more outside the box thinking come into play. That said, feel free to track this one down if you don’t mind the flaws.