Timing really is everything in this business. Here, you want an example? A few weeks ago, Rad Codex developer Sean Hayden sent me and Justin both a directed email about his (studio’s) newest game, Voidspire Tactics. It looked super interesting, a top-down pixel-style tactical RPG adventure. And Sean was adamant that he’d love to see either of us write about it, which is more or less the exact phrase you need to trick my ego into doing things.
And then I had to tell him that, sorry, I can’t quite get to your game yet. I have six weeks of Sakura to struggle through.
But hey! Never let it be said that I forget good flattery. The season of the Sakura is done and done, and I’m in desperate need of something meaningful to cleanse my palette. Tactics and void spires, away!
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low to medium. Mechanical, somewhat high, but you’ll thank me for it.)
(Game source: Developer Steam key.)
Voidspire Tactics, yeah! The title is definitely… white!
I don’t normally associate RPG-Maker-looking games with expansive visual options. And Voidspire Tactics does nothing to rid me of this notion. I can opt for fullscreen mode, a mess of resolutions, a much-appreciated colourblind mode, and ‘Intense Visuals’. Whatever those are.
Voidspire Tactics does break some good ground for tailored challenge levels, though. I can fine-tune both the general combat difficulty, and the ‘AI speed/skill’. The game even properly explains that ‘combat difficulty’ is operationalized as ‘higher or lower enemy stats’. More than with most recent games to date, I have the experience that Voidspire Tactics gives me all the information I need to make a careful, measured difficulty selection.
And… alright, that’s it! Time to get started.
With creating a party.
On the one hand, this is cool. Lots of fancy visual customization! I’m a little confused as to why hair colour seems to be intrinsically tied to skin colour; my favorite white-grey hair, for instance, is only available on an ashen dark skin. I don’t really see the connection? And I also don’t think there’s any way to change the overt gender expression of any of these dudes. But still: pretty cool.
On the other hand, I don’t really have the sensation that I know what I’m doing yet. Next to the visual customization, I also have to assign to each dude a race and a class. There are four races: the snake-like Fareem, the cat-like Scurio, the golem-like Rasmen, and the human-like Humans. Each race has its own benefit: Rasmen are immune to blinding for instance, and Fareem get… plus one clock? ‘Time to Act’? Is that good? Is that bad? I have no idea! And the three classes, Warrior, Scout, and Scholar, all… do something, I’m pretty sure. But damn if I know that is.
In the end, I decide to go with one of each race. Four races, four slots; tailor-made, am I right? And for classes, I opt for one Warrior, one Scout, and two Scholars. Because learning and magic are awesome, that’s why.
And with that finally out of the way, I move on to…
…the actual adventure.
Well. What do we have here? Four dudes in a line, left to right, in no particular logical order. Four beds, one nightstand, one table. If I didn’t know any better, and I don’t, I’d say these guys just woke up! Am I… am I still in visual novel world? Is it going to turn out that we are late for school?
‘Right mouse click to walk,’ Voidspire Tactics tells me, and so right click I do. This causes my characters to shudder into a new stationary position. Turns out it’s actually hold right click to walk, but eh. Doing that causes them to walk after my mouse cursor, again in a line. Jarenth-first.
I walk around the room, clicking on things. What’s there to do in this game system? I quickly learn that double-clicking my own characters opens their (neatly colour-coded) inventory windows. None of us are carrying anything or wearing anything, so it’s not quite the discovery I hoped for. But it’s a start.
Alright, what’s there to do everywhere else? I walk into a hallway, which has a bunch of debris and a bunch of baskets. Surprisingly, I can left-mouse-click to pick up the baskets, and move them around. This is necessary because I apparently can’t walk over two baskets in a row… but one singular basket can totally be leapt, like a hurdle.
The rooms up ahead have kegs. Double-clicking the kegs taps them, spilling beer on the floor. And toy boats, which I totally steal into my inventory! And big boxes, that I can open, revealing that they’re full of… wood debris?
Later room have more interesting stuff, though. Like a lantern, that the game explicitly instructs I equip to one of my party members. It casts a cool dynamic cone of light, and I vow to have it on my always. And then there’s the dinner room, which has a whole bunch of forks, plates, and bottles. I’m taking those too.
And then finally, I climb a ladder, and emerge on…
I’d say this explains a lot, but it really actually doesn’t. And I’m not too sure about those squares of pure black in the distance, either? But hey: new harbor to explore!
My way is blocked by a cat-person — sorry, scurio — named Bevrais, who serves as an introduction to talking to people.
Cat-talking and box-pushing out of the way, I walk around the brightly coloured, fancily-textured Port Pixel. Or whatever it’s actually called. There’s a lot to see and take in here. Boxes and barrels to open. A raised burning brazier, to signal in ships. A locked door, clearly marked ‘locked door’. And many merchant stalls, with bowls of cloth and items that I can’t actually interact with.
And then there’s also the guy who only sells bottles.
I can actually talk with a surly human harbor guard called Livia. The conversation system is, well, of the Ye Olde Topic Selection variety. But it works.
Oh boy, I get to go through customs! I… actually have no idea why. I don’t know why I am, or what my goal is, or why I’m here, or where ‘here’ even is. Shouldn’t something like that have been established by now? Or am I actually playing a part of four amnesiac travelers, stupefiedly wandering through a town they don’t remember arriving at or even going to?
Well, anyway. I futz around for a minute with the keybindings and the quicksaving system, and then wander south to the customs office. There is, er… there is some line here.
Alright then. Into the line I go.
I decide to prod into Voidspire Tactics‘ systems a little while I wait. It’s an RPG, after all: complicated systems ought to be its lifeblood. And I am not disappointed: while the character overview on the bottom left initially looks a little meager…
…clicking it quickly reveals the depths behind these still waters.
Alright, let’s see… the top block of stats is apparently related to combat and movement. Physical attack, physical defense, magic attack, magic defense, you get the idea. Jump height too, for some reason. And the bottom block details my proficiencies with various kinds of weapons and magic. Even though I don’t have any equipment, the stats are different for each character; it turns out that this is because the classes I picked impart some bonuses.
And then I click on the character portrait, and a whole new world opens up.
I spend a good fifteen minutes clicking through everything. Voidspire Tactics is okay with just letting me mess about, so I don’t get much in the way of actual help. But this is what I learn: each character is (apparently) primarily defined by one or two classes. Each class gives stat boosts, and provides access to a list of active and passive abilities. These abilities are bought with XP, which I assume is earned in combat. And then there’s also some strange system of asterisks?…
Each character can have one or two classes. I’m not sure what the trade-off is here; intuitively, I want to say that having multiple classes probably splits earned XP over both? And I’m not sure I want that. Simultaneously, though, it feels as though Voidspire Tactics is kind of pushing me into dual-classing… the ultimate set of available classes isn’t just the three I started with, but seventeen in total. And these later classes are unlocked by gaining experience in earlier ones. Some of it is straightforward: the Sorcerer needs Scholar XP, the Brawler needs Warrior XP, and so on. Others are… less immediately clear.
To multiclass, or not to multiclass? After deliberating, I decide to split the difference. I want Jarenth to be a spellcaster, and Bill to be a warrior, so I’m keeping both of them pure. But I envision scaly Zasahl as a cleric or paladin of some type, which means dipping into warrior and scholar both. And Luxcenne ends up with a scout first and scholar second, because magic is awesome and you can’t stop me. I also unlock a few abilities here and there, because some of my dudes start with enough XP to do that.
Alright! Surely we’ve made some real-world progress in the meanti-has the line seriously not moved yet?
Okay, what… what other commands can I play with? There isn’t much that I haven’t fiddled with yet, but I do discover the ‘Look’ command. An adventure game classic — remind me to tell you of the ASCII text adventure game I used to call ‘Castlevania’ some time — Look allows me to look at things, and then, record what I see in my journal. I can look at items, backgrounds, and people, for a variety of lore. These are notes! This woman is apparently sharpshooter-class! Bill is a Rasmen, which I knew because I made him, but which is apparently something that’s not in my journal yet!
But no. Even looking at anything and everything doesn’t progress the queue.
And you know what? This is bullshit. I’m going back up to Livia, and I’m going to… I don’t actually know, complain to her about this? Even though she probably hears this stuff every day, from every traveler. But hey, listen: I’m going to play this by ear.
And then that plan falls apart, when I walk up north and find…
Well now. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t there before? What is it? It’s round, and purple, and shiny. It looks valuable. And dangerous. But more valuable.
My cries of ‘finders keepers’ die on my lips as I rush in to grab the thing, and the world goes mad.
The world flashes into purple light. The camera shifts to the north and south, where parts of the world appear to be shearing off. What is happening, what is happening, what is happening? And then the screen blacks out, and back in, and I find myself…
Livia rushes over as soon as she sees me. “Thank goodness you’re awake! Quick, I need your help!” I’m not sure if I should trust her, initially, but then one of the red-clad fighters yells “Stop her! Don’t leave any of them alive!” and I guess that settles that.
And then we enter combat.
Combat is a lot of new information at once, but Livia kindly provides a quick primer. The gist of it is this: characters move in turns. Every turns, a character can move a certain distance, and perform one action. Like picking up a sword from the ground, which is what Livia recommends. And then, next turn, attacking with that sword.
Which would be nice if I could actually reach any of the weapons.
Combat is swift, but brutal, particularly due to Livia’s helpful tips.
But, you know. For all the bluster, I’m a group of player characters, and these guys are combat tutorial mooks. They put up a good fight, but it’s a done deal from the start. Bill swords, Zasahl hammers, Luxcenne punches, and Jarenth ineffectually swings his lantern in peoples’ faces — he’s a mage without spells, what more do you want. And eventually, all enemies fall.
Okay. So, now that we got that out of the way. What in the devil is going on?
Livia doesn’t quite know either, sadly. She’s in the same position I’m in! Except she’s not a player character, and this isn’t someone’s first D&D campaign, so she’s not coming with us. She recommends I check out a boat off the side, though, which apparently now has a weird spire growing through it?
Armed with equipment and weapons looted from our erstwhile attackers, and powered up with abilities bought through their murder, I’m now ready to climb down the (convenient rope attached to) the spire. I’m not sure what I’ll find down there — I have no idea, in fact — but I’m sure that whatever it is, it can’t possibly be weirder than the world-eating-itself nonsense I’ve seen so far.