Chroma Squad, Released: April 30, 2015, Reviewed on: PC (Steam), Genre: Strategy RPG, Developer & Publisher: Behold Studios
There are certain flavors that just go together. Orange and vanilla is an awesome combo. Peanut butter and chocolate seem custom-tailored to mesh. Electronic music and strobe lights. So many things are more powerful combined than they are separate, and usually, those separate parts are pretty powerful and awesome on their own. Every so often, there’s a new combination that you’d never considered before the moment you first heard of it, and you find yourself loving the sound of it. You try it, and it may be brilliant. Other times, it might be downright terrible. Sometimes, it’s great, but it’s missing something important.
Chroma Squad is one of those things that’s amazing, but lacking. What it gets right, it absolutely nails. It’s quite possibly one of the greatest flavor combinations imaginable, and you’d have never expected it — it’s a fusion of Super Sentai and Strategy RPG. If you don’t know what Super Sentai is, just think Power Rangers; the series as we Westerners know it is a cannibalized and retooled version of multiple Super Sentai franchises. So essentially, Chroma Squad is a Strategy RPG that’s based on managing a television studio responsible for making Power Rangers. How could you go wrong with that?
The problems occur once the things it gets wrong show up, and those things will show up repeatedly. Because of those flaws being on top of a game that’s actually pretty darn good, it can’t escape the fate of having those flaws magnified as a result. Sometimes, you can have problems in a piece of media that can easily be handwaved or ignored due to the overwhelming quality of what positively surrounds those flaws. In Chroma Squad, the problems are blatantly obvious and plain to see due to the repetitive nature of those flaws, and they serve to stain an otherwise brilliant final product.
Let’s start off with what it gets right. The game itself is solid, and takes more than a few cues from the recent versions of XCOM. It still manages to pack a lot of interesting strategy options that the genre is known for. There’s lots of gear to buy and equip, lots of stats to boost, lots of abilities to deal damage, buff characters, debuff enemies, etc. Standard operating procedure. But what’s really cool is the ability to use teamwork to cross distances and create unified attacks.
For instance, one character makes their first of two turn-based moves and gets to the maximum range of their movement. Every enemy is out of reach on their second move, which will put them into dangerous territory and incur a risk of getting hit. Instead of ending their turn well out of range or using their second move to step into near-certainty of taking damage, they can invoke Teamwork. This allows a multitude of options to become possible. Other team members can use that character as a springboard to get enhanced range on their first move, therefore completely closing the same gap in an instant that the previous character could never accomplish in two moves. Additionally, this enhanced jump only burns one action from those who take the jump, which means you can place your teammates into immediate attack range to dole out the harshness on their next action.
They can also physically attack a nearby opponent in sync with the character who initiates the attack, and this extends to weaponry as well: up-close Teamwork tactics can utilize awesome swords, axes and daggers, while pistols, rifles and bows can be utilized at range by multiple team members, and thus dealing extreme damage from relative positional safety. However, using the attacks ends Teamwork, so make sure you position people first. There’s nothing worse than using your springboard character — as some characters are better suited to the task than others via natural stats and equipment boosts — and ending their turn before you got the rest of the team in position.
There’s plenty of cool things to do pre- / post-mission as well. The studio you manage needs to be upgraded, has per-episode maintenance costs, shops for better equipment, marketing budgets, a crafting portion where you can make new and better equipment than what the shops offer (sometimes, but not often enough), and parts for your giant mecha.
This leads into what this game fails at doing: giant mecha. I didn’t forget to mention it in my list of good things, because it’s not good. And that may be the most cardinal sin that this game commits. Anything, and I mean anything that involves giant robots should always be fun. Without question, without incident, without fail. If you can’t make giant robots fun, you messed up big time. And the problem with this isn’t the fact that the giant robot portions aren’t fun, it’s the fact that they’re not fun and forced on the player as end pieces to just about every single stage of the game, at least from the halfway point all the way up to the end of the campaign.
The problems with the mecha fights are this: they’re based in random chance and percentages, and they don’t translate well to the rest of the game. Melee hits are how you deal damage, and with each hit you land, you lose about 10~15% of your next chance to hit on each successive blow. Once you miss, your turn is over. But each successive hit adds damage to the next one, so it’s a gamble you’re going to take if you want to deal the most damage you can. You can also choose to end your turn by defending, which also gains boosts depending on the multiplier you’ve built up with those successive hits, but it doesn’t do all that much good for the player as it doesn’t nullify (or even mitigate) the majority of damage taken. You get special finishing moves that do insane amounts of damage, and while they will gain even more strength via that all-important multiplier, they end your turn after use and will require multiple turns worth of cooldown before they can be used again.
Defending is achieved by clicking the mouse at the right time when a prompt hits the “sweet spot” of a bar at the bottom of the screen. Timing is everything. Problem is, the timing doesn’t seem to be all that accurate. I’ve clicked perfect blocks multiple times, but I have also been on the receiving end of clicking a stoppage point and having the prompt suddenly end up on the other side of the sweet spot. There’s no rhyme or reason to why it skips the point where you stopped it. But said prompt teleports to the other end of the bar on click so often that it cannot be ignored. Also, relegating all attack and defense mechanics to a game of chance that removes most of the strategy you just used to get to that point is a great way to frustrate the player. It makes finishing each mission a full-blown chore, plus makes you feel like you have to stop playing a fun game just to play a different one in order to get back. I groan every time a giant robot section comes up. As someone who loves mecha anime, this butchers what should be coolest part of the game — and of Sentai shows in general, at least for me.
Forcing a player to actively engage in said butchery every time you want to clear a level is borderline torture. Causing a player to replay a level because said butchery doesn’t work well practically ruins the fun of the entire game, and does so single-handedly. I cannot stress this enough: I dread each and every mecha battle in Chroma Squad not due to difficulty, not even due to the arbitrary nature of offensive / defensive success, but the fact that these sections are incredibly, tediously boring. Worse than that, they’re tedium without need, and the fact that they have to show up so frequently ensures that the game takes massive hits in the enjoyment department.
You can craft better pieces of your mecha using materials that alter your machine’s stats, but none of these things make the inherent mechanics better. They simply diminish the risk of losing, all while failing to do anything about the level of fun involved. It doesn’t matter how much health you have or how much damage you do, when the monsters get more powerful and have more health as you go on, you simply keep up with the Joneses just to spend the same amount of time in a world made of fun’s very antithesis. Combine that with the frequency of these sections, and you have a recipe for something that threatens to break the very game it’s an integral part of.
The story, while jam-packed with tropes and lampshade-hanging of said tropes, is not really going to excite or inspire anyone who isn’t a full-blown Sentai devotee. Yes, there’s plenty of jokes in the script, and lots of little pop culture references, but none of them are especially great. You may get a chuckle here and there, but I never had a full-blown laugh. The music isn’t bad either, and even though it fits the 8-bit aesthetic, nothing really stands out save for the opening theme tune and the studio theme where you do all your in-between-mission upgrades and shopping — that song is on the level of the Mii Creation screen on the old Nintendo Wii, it’s that perfect for the job. Also, let me just call out one other track in particular that became my new ringtone due to its earworm qualities.
All in all, I think that Chroma Squad is a lot — and I mean a LOT — of fun when it works right. And to its credit, it works right almost all of the time. I never ran into a game-breaking bug, for starters. That’s high praise considering that this is an indie production made with tender loving care and Kickstarter money. There’s multiple endings and story branches, and I’m most definitely going to give it another spin in the future to see how much juice I can get from this thing. But the only thing holding me back from diving right back in is the thing I should have had the most fun with. I’m hoping that can get fixed, possibly even expanded on. As it stands, I can’t recommend Chroma Squad to anyone but the most devoted of Sentai fans and those who already like Strategy RPGs. Even for as fun as the main bulk of the game is, the insular nature of the jokes / story and the sheer mind-numbing-ness of the mecha pieces keep me from telling everyone to buy it without reservation.
However, I will say this: if the mecha fights can be made just as much fun as the regular game itself, this would definitely be a must-buy. It’s that much fun to play.
Note: The review copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.