Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: May 12, 2008
Picking on the faults of Drone Tactics for the Nintendo DS is about as cruel and unnecessary as plucking the wings off a butterfly. The game does a good job of bringing something new to a genre that seems to consist solely of Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. Atlus has delivered a thoroughly competent new strategy RPG with lots of depth for those wanting to kill countless hours battling giant mechanical insects. "The Badlands" missions provide enough challenge and replayability to satisfy anyone who complains about the shortness of modern video games. Sadly, what it lacks is an incentive to go through it. It's not lying to say that the most memorable moment of my experience with Drone Tactics came when I smashed a fly with the case. The irony of that will linger for weeks.
Drone Tactic's biggest flaw is simply that its story doesn't fit its gameplay. If you're setting out to create a lengthy new strategy RPG, you probably shouldn't fill it with unskippable and uninspired dialogue that would make a five-year-old retch. The forgettable story is told entirely through anime cut-outs and lots of text, a method that is getting pretty tired these days.
The protagonists are grade-schoolers who take it upon themselves to beat down hordes of insects in the name of justice. More specifically, the player starts out as Yamato, a straitlaced and blindly trusting kid with a love for rhino beetles. You're also joined by his classmate and voice of reason, Tsubasa, who seems more than happy to pilot a giant mechanical butterfly. You're joined by schoolyard chums, an insect researcher, and a spotty mix of defectors from the Black Swarm armies.
The Black Hole — er, Black Swarm — are the villainous legions that threaten the buggy planet of Cimexus. They're led by the Four Generals and the insanely clichéd Dr. Gidoh, a mad insect researcher with dreams of using insect drones to conquer the universe.
If it all sounds more batty than buggy, it is. The plot plays second fiddle to almost everything else, and only about a quarter of the battles involves the plot in any way at all. If you treat it as merely a tool to unlock your full arsenal of characters, it works out for the better. There are one or two shining moments of truly funny dialogue, and it all feels very nicely localized, but overall, it's rather underwhelming. The audience who might be entertained by the story scenes is a long ways off from the audience who would actually put the hours into enjoying this title.
With all that ridiculous garbage out of the way, though, Drone Tactics has a chance to shine. Though clearly inspired by portable strategy hits like Advance Wars, the game does a good job of differentiating itself in looks and gameplay. Rather than taking a pure top-down perspective, you're given an isometric view of the field. This is a nice visual touch to keep the game sprites at a good angle. In terms of gameplay, however, it's actually a bit of a hindrance. Anyone trying to play using only the stylus and touch-screen will have a hard time clicking specific squares around the edges of the maps.
Speaking of the stylus controls, they're functional, but just barely. The lack of a dedicated B button means that it's impossible to check the range of enemy units with just the bottom screen, and scrolling around the map is as slippery as an eel in a vat of grease. It would take some major dedication to play with just the touch-screen. Fortunately, the normal button controls are more than adequate.
The gameplay itself is a novel try at originality in a tired market. Per battle, you're given eight "drones" of your choosing, as well as a moving base unit from which all your other units are deployed. Your base generally has an extraordinarily high defense, but almost no attack abilities. It has one weak indirect combat weapon at its disposal and is otherwise at the mercy of the enemy. The only condition for failure is losing your base unit.
There are over 20 types of drones in Drone Tactics, and about 18 that you'll get to control. All of your units have their unique strengths and weaknesses, and you only get one of each. The Rhino Beetle, one of your starting units, has amazing melee attacks and a good defense, but awful gun attacks. In contrast, the butterfly has pretty good guns but little melee capacity. Some units are powerful against air units, and some units have an advantage over ground units. Some walk on legs, others roll on treads, and many fly. Each unit is unique, with little overlap among your playable characters.
Every direct attack a unit makes allows the chance for a counterattack, much like Fire Emblem. Unlike FE, however, you also have the chance to bolster your defenses and try to block the damage when you're attacked, or use your speed to evade. Defending pits your defense stat against the opponent's attack stat, and evasion is a showdown between your speed and their accuracy. Defending will always reduce damage by the same amount, but evasion is made inferior because the element of randomness is thrown into the mix. You could dodge entirely, or you could simply dodge enough to only take five damage points. On the other hand, you could also fail horribly and take full damage without even the benefit of a counterattack.
Everything sounds perfect in theory, but the formula is a little flawed in action. Each unit has three weapon slots: melee and guns, which are direct attacks; and cannons, which are indirect attacks. For some reason, there are very few units for which guns or cannons are any use at all. Melee attacks almost always dominate, and gun attacks chip away at health in tiny chunks, even when the advantage belongs to you. You can use the best anti-ground gun available and still only do 20 damage to an armored ground unit, while your average melee attacker does 120 to the same guy without any advantage.
Fortunately, Drone Tactics seems to realize this deficiency halfway through and starts giving you some equipment to make up for it. Rather than equipping everyone with all three weapons, you can fill a unit's useless alternate weapon slots with power, accuracy, speed, defense or HP boosts to even out your units' rough edges and create the perfect army. It's not perfection, but it keeps you on your toes and always customizing your units.
It also helps you make up for weaknesses with a plethora of attack and map cards. You're allowed to carry 16 cards from your collection into battle, and these can do anything from boosting your attack power for one turn to healing your units. Every time you use an attack card, you're forced to play one of five completely pointless minigames involving the touch-screen, but these are more of an annoyance than a gameplay feature. The only trouble comes when you find yourself up against bosses who use cards in retaliation. Against boss units, you're almost guaranteed a lost minigame thanks to an incredibly unfair ramp-up of difficulty, and this leads to their cards dominating you. Other than that, they're a welcome advantage, especially when you're outnumbered five or six to one out on the battlefield.
You can get cards after every battle, and the basic ones are more than plentiful. This lets you perform a little card creation by mixing together the cards you have. The early recipes for creation are simple, and you can find new recipes in item chests on the battlefield if you don't have the patience to mix cards by trial and error.
Unlike all of these other features, the experience system feels tacked on as an afterthought. Rather than distributing individuals experience based on how much they do in battle, every unit in your army gains an equal amount of experience at the end of battle. Units who die in battle only get about half the experience but are otherwise not penalized. To make up for deaths, you're also allotted bits of bonus experience to distribute to whichever unit you wish. Smart players will over-level one or two units and let them do most of the grunt work, but to each his own. This feels all fine and well until you get two characters later in the game that are about five levels below all your other units. It's very difficult to make these units worthwhile again once you get them, thanks to the experience distribution scheme.
Players not satisfied with the experience allotted during the main game can go to "The Badlands" at any time from the mission start screen. The badlands are 50 increasingly difficult missions with no silly plot to drag them down, and players can grind these for experience and items however long they wish. The difficulty is noticeably higher in these levels, especially once colonies get thrown into the mix, spitting seemingly endless hordes of enemies at your helpless little troupe. However, with a little grinding and perseverance, nothing is impossible.
Sadly, as the difficulty ramps up, battles grow longer and more tedious. Some of the later battles can take no less than 40 turns to finish properly, and item collectors will find themselves dragging units square by square through the muck just to get a measly card. This actually really hurts the portability of Drone Tactics. While there is a suspend mode that lets you resume battles from the title screen, I sometimes found myself coming back to a battle and completely forgetting the strategy I had started 20 turns and six hours ago. This would lead to pointless deaths and agonizing frustration.
The tediousness of later battles can be lifted a bit by a round or two of multiplayer skirmish. It's nice to have a friend to go up against instead of an AI that only has two modes: vicious attack and sit and wait. The odds of finding a friend who also plays Drone Tactics on his DS are a bit slim, making the multiplayer capacity of the title almost negligible. A lack of single-pak or Wi-Fi play is a serious handicap in this day and age.
The sound is all that could be expected from a low-budget DS strategy title. You're not missing anything by sliding the volume to zero, so do yourself a favor and turn on some music of your own to drown out the repetitive tunes that the game gives you.
These little complaints aside, Drone Tactics is still a solid title with a lot of shine on the core gameplay. Anyone looking for something new in the genre should give this a test run. Maybe it's not worth everyone's money, but fans who are desperate for a new strategy RPG series likely won't come away disappointed.
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