Indie Wonderland: Voidspire Tactics

A few hours in

I was wrong.

I didn’t even have any idea how wrong I was.

“Jarenth,” you may be wondering, “is that a cathedral? Didn’t you just climb down a spire inside a ship?” And that’s a good question, reader; I was asking myself the same thing.

I have had a bunch of adventures since then. The underground (?) cathedral led to some weird purple zerg-like horror world. Which then led to another, similar-looking cathedral. And from there, I went on to see a village of displaced people, a snowy mountaintop, an ancient robot battleground, a mostly abandoned mine that tunneled right into a cluster of Giant Turbo Wyrms…

It was gross. That’s all I want to say about it.

And what adventures they were! I fought a fortress of trigger-happy bandits for access to their underground jungle. I defeated a giant teleporting space-bending snake to obtain a floating rock. I battled red-eyed spiders under a canopy of total darkness. I sailed platforms of ice over a sea of pink water. I even met a powerful super wizard, and then, decided to let him go on with his day without hassling him, no sir.

Just don’t hassle the super wizard. Trust me on this.

I didn’t quite know why I was doing all this at first, mind. Voidspire Tactics is more than content to just let you flail around in confusion. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a friendly mechanic that I figured out that what I should have been doing was what I had been doing: explore this space-displaced hellscape, collect floating stones to power her fancy airship, and then bail this popsicle stand.

It doesn’t look like much now, but she’ll impress you one day.

And…

Well, suffice to say I’m having fun. I haven’t quite completed Voidspire Tactics yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I put in the extra hours next week. It’s not flawless, far from it: expect a long talk about its varying systemic weirdery later. But…

You know, I was kind of struggling to bring this review together early in the week. Voidspire Tactics has a lot of interesting stuff to talk about, systems and settings and player guidance and meta-bits. But it was unexpectedly hard to turn my rambling about disparate elements into a cohesive review. It was lacking something; there was something I really wanted to say, but I hadn’t quite figured out what it was yet.

It wasn’t until yesterday, writing the previous review page on the train, that it really hit me how much Voidspire Tactics reminds me of Divinity: Original Sin.

Now, those of you who know me (or who’ve frequented this site since last year) might think that sounds like a pretty harsh form of ‘praise’. I’ve been vocal about my experiences with this game, a lot. But it’s worth remembering that, for all my yelling and grumbling, I did end up naming Divinity: Original Sin my Game Of 2014. Partially because of the unique friend circumstances I played it in, but also partially because of what it is: an ambitious, expansive mess, a shot for the stars that makes it to the moon, a game with broad scopes and fun gameplay systems that never seems to notice that its big strides sometimes leave the player in its wake.

And hey! We’ve got our Voidspire Tactics review summary, right there!

This is you, Voidspire Tactics.

Where to start with this game?

The ludic core of Voidspire Tactics is its tactical battle system. You’ll be doing a lot of timed fighting in this game, unsurprisingly. This system is a fusion of the grid-based tactical battle engines you’ll see in games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea, and a time-unit-based activity counter that — it’s probably been used all over the place, but for me, this will always and forever be the signature of Final Fantasy 10. Battles are fought in turns, but the turn order isn’t solid: all actions carry a certain time cost, and faster actions and higher initiative mean that some combatants just get to fight more often than others.

It’s a simple system at heart. Every turn, a character can move up to their speed, and/or take one action. Attack an enemy, cast a spell, switch inventory items, use objects in the environment, that sort of thing. Moving around is lenient and can usually be reverted, but actions require commitment. The fancier actions in particular; while most basic actions are immediate, wind-up attacks and larger spells get their own place in time order, firing after a countdown.

They tend to compensate for this by being flashy and powerful.

On paper, timing and facing are the name of the game: you want to throw your spells and attacks where the enemy will be when they hit, and you’d prefer not to get hit from the back. In practice, this isn’t always that meaningful. More often than not, the difference between mine and the enemies’ time slots was large enough to make big attacks ‘effectively instantaneous’. And while you wouldn’t intentionally face away from opponents, they tend to have enough movement to just run around your guys anyway. There’s no ‘control zone’ mechanic of any kind, meaning battles tend to involve a lot of dudes running past each other all willy-nilly.

Still, it’s an interesting-enough system. The AI is at least competent enough to be a nuisance or a threat. They use spells and abilities effectively, they usually know to stay out of ability blast areas, and they’ll make beelines for your fragile archers and casters if they see an opening. The seams in the programming start to show a little after many battles: AI characters only really seem to have two moves — ‘move in range of a target and use an attack or skill’, and ‘use an attack or skill on a target already in-range, and then move as far away from any enemies as possible’. But this still leads to some neat emergent pseudo-intelligence every now and again.

And on the player side of things, it’s important to remember that ‘area attacks’ actually *hit areas* — an example of emergent non-intelligence at work.

Of course, it’d get dull pretty fast if all you could do is swing weapons and run around. What keeps the interest going for longer is Voidspire Tactics‘ mid-game draw, the RPG meat and potatoes of this tRPG: the class system.

I guessed at the class functionality a bit on the first page, and with the benefit of hindsight I can now say — I wasn’t actually too far off. Characters can have two active classes at a time. The first of these is the ‘main’ class, which determines your stat boosts, your experience gain, and (to a small extent) your in-game look. Only the main class gains experience and stat points, even if you have a second class. Which means there’s actually no reason not to have one!

Primary and secondary class determine which active abilities a character can have equipped. You can learn abilities from any class you’ve ever earned XP for, you just can’t use them. Interestingly, though, you can totally equip any passive abilities from any class at any time. And I’m… not actually sure if this is supposed to be a thing? It’s either a really pervasive and game-changing bug, or an intentional design decision that Voidspire Tactics just poorly communicates to the player.

Pictured here: I have three passive abilities equipped, and none of them are from my current primary class.

But then, ‘poorly communicating important systems’ might as well be Voidspire Tactics‘ tagline. It’s one of the reasons it reminds me of Divinity: Original Sin so much. For instance, here’s another example:

Voidspire Tactics doesn’t have any kind of discrete ‘leveling up’. Instead, primary classes gain XP from battle (or from the rare cases you can talk your way out of battle), and this XP is used to unlock and upgrade abilities. Every class has a handful of active abilities, most of them with a handful of levels. Like so:

Blue arrows mean you can unlock a new ability, green arrows mean you can upgrade it. Diamonds in each ability field indicate how many upgrades are possible.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, though, upgrading abilities doesn’t usually make them more deadly. Upgrades are usually more utilitarian: increased spell range, for instance, or increased buff length. To increase the power of your skills and attacks, you instead need ‘stat points’. Or whatever these little asterisks are called in-game. Your primary class sometimes gains these things after combat, indicated by an easy-to-miss asterisk underneath the XP gain:

Like so. Notice that Bill isn’t getting a point, for arcane reasons.

Stat points are spent on increasing hero skills: weapon proficiency, spell proficiency, health, mana, and sometimes even movement speed and jump height. And because that almost sounds straightforward, let’s throw in another complication: stat points are gained per class, but stat upgrades are tracked per hero. Which means that if you use three Scholar points to buy the first rank in Lightning Skill, then switch to Sorcerer, you’ll still have to spend five points for another skill-up. Add to this the idea that the set of which stats you can actually pay to raise is different for each class, and — yeah. You understand why this took a little getting used to.

The biggest draw of this class system, of course, is getting to unlock new classes. You know it, and I know it, and Voidspire Tactics knows it.

It will tell you in *no uncertain terms* when you qualify for a new class.

You’ll run out of classes before you run out of game, at which point the gotta-catch-’em-all draw of getting into more combats tapers off a little. But it’s a lot of fun while it lasts! There’s a lot of cool discovery and interesting decisions to be made here: what does this class do? How do I get to that class? And what party layout am I eventually working toward?

It doesn’t always feel super balanced, I have to say. It seems clear to me that Sean Hayden prefers spellcraft over swordplay and scouting. The Scholar class has a really expansive single-focus path, going from Sorcerer and Sage to Balancer and Unmaker all the way to Gatekeeper — functionally the ‘ultimate’ class, both in terms of power and utility and in terms of being woven into the actual story. In contrast, Warrior and Scout get left out in the cold a little. Warrior only has one single-focus ‘advanced’ class, which (oddly) only focuses on blunt weapons and debuffing. And Scout splits, fairly early on, into melee-focused Rogue and range-focused Sharpshooter. In all cases, the ‘best’ classes for these archetypes involve dipping into magic a little bit: in the world of Voidspire Tactics, you apparently put up (a spellbook) or shut up.

And why isn’t there any Paladin-type class? The healing-focused caster Sage and defensive-focused warrior Defender seem like a match made in heaven in my mind. But no.

Sorry, I’m rambling now. Have a purple world.

So now we have a neat core battle engine, a freeform class system that ‘allows’ personal decision making by way of just not telling you things, and a needless conflation of skills, stats, and experience that trades ease-of-use for a sense of accomplishment when you do figure it out. Are you seeing the inspiration yet?

What really cinched the Divinity: Original Sin comparison for me, though, is Voidspire Tactics‘ larger world. And the way it interacts with that world. And specifically, the way that the world is chock-full of systems and options and possibilities, all thrown in seemingly for the coolness of it, never quite explained, and with little consideration for how they interact to — potentially — completely break the game experience.

Consider: Voidspire Tactics has a crafting system. The surface level of it, the stuff that is explicitly taught, is easy enough. You find blueprints for weapons and armor, and then you combine those blueprints with certain materials on an anvil to get results. So combine a Sword blueprint with iron, you get an iron sword. Sword blueprint plus steel, steel sword. Sword blueprint plus bone, bone sword.

It’s needlessly macabre!

You can make axes out of wood and whips out of spider-silk and bows out of old electrical wiring, if you care to. You can even un-forge certain special weapons, and then use their rare ores to make weapons all your own. It’s all good.

But the crafting system actually goes further than that. In perhaps the most Divinity: Original Sin-reminiscent move, there are dozens of hidden crafting recipes, to be made by applying items in your inventory to other items. Using any cloth armor or cape on a pair of shears gets you bandages. Combining bandages with a piece of wood gets you a splint. Put a bandage in a can of oil and it becomes an oily rag, which you can use with a bottle of oil to create a firebomb. Add a piece of gloam-shroom to a lantern to make a blue lantern. And so on, and so forth. I have no idea how useful any of it is — though I used the bandages to good effect in cheesing an optional fight against giant worms — but it’s there.

And consider: this crafting system is only a part of a larger organic-feeling world. You’ve already seen that you can swipe bottles and plates and forks everywhere, for instance. But it goes beyond that. Items have a certain presence in the world, even if that presence isn’t always made explicit. Barrels and tables can be smashed to cinders with fireballs and grenades, for instance. Boulders can be pushed. Saplings can be planted, and made to grow into trees by using restoration magic — and then chopped down, into wood planks, if you have an axe handy.

Hell, if you have a (limited-use) pickaxe, you can actually tunnel through most dirt and rock walls! And this isn’t ‘just’ a gimmick: some puzzles and secret areas rely on this, sure, but you can also use to to just bypass entire challenges.

“Oh, you want me to go back up into the jungle, run through miles of possibly ambush-infested terrain, and hunt for a hidden pit that will get me to the second switch? Yeah, I’ll get *right* on that.”

Voidspire Tactics‘ simple elemental system gets in on the action, too. You can freeze and stun and burn enemies in combat easily enough. But fire also lights campfires and braziers. And water conducts electricity. And ice spells and weapons can actually freeze stagnant water — which then allows you to walk across the newly-created bridge.

“Oh, you want me to fight through another pack of magic-enhanced Jump Bears to get to the boat that’ll let me get to this waterlogged platform? Yeah, I’ll get *right* on that.”

Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Voidspire Tactics is an expansive world, full of hidden rules and interactions that are only barely mentioned in passing. I wouldn’t be surprised if many players get through the whole game without learning some of this stuff, for instance. And that’s crucial: the game isn’t actually balanced for you knowing these things. And exploiting these things.

My personal biggest was-this-a-good-idea moment was when I unlocked the aforementioned Gatekeeper class. Their signature ability, Gate, is a straight-up teleport spell. It starts out with only a two-square range, and ostensibly only the caster moves… but it can be upgrades to let you move up to five squares, and the party-follow engine can easily be juked to let all your other pals follow too. Hell, it doesn’t even require conscious action most of the time! It just happens.

“Hmm. I *could* go look for the high-explosive firepower needed to bring down this magical wall. *Or*…”

The Gatekeeper class is actually full of stuff like this. One ability lets you scroll the map around. One ability gives you infinity light for free. One ability lets you grab items and activate levers from across the screen. There’s a reason I called it the ‘ultimate’ class.

This system-interaction mess came to a head, for me, when I ran into an optional necromancer dungeon. Filled with high-level undead I had no chance of beating, it was clear I wasn’t supposed to be here and I should probably start looking at my latest saves. But because I’m a stubborn asshole, I decided I at least wanted to see what lay beyond a massive pack of super skeletons. So while the rest of the party served as distraction, I had Gatekeeper-Jarenth run and teleport across the map. Finally, he found a stairwell down. “Are you sure you want to flee from combat and leave your friends behind?” the game cautioned me, but what did I have to lose? My friends were already dead. So I ran down as fast as I could…

…at which point my friends magically teleported to my side. Dead, sure enough, but that’s nothing a little waiting in place couldn’t fix.

Oh, but it gets worse. I finally confronted the evil necromancer in his lair. Again, it was clear I had absolutely no hope of beating him. But because I was able to trigger his secret switches from afar, I could open a quick path to his inner sanctum. And again, I sacrificed the rest of the part so Jarenth could make it in.

I didn’t actually expect this nonsense to pay off. I had closed the door behind me, but I was still in combat mode. Surely, the necromancer would be on me at any moment. So in my turns, I ran around the back rooms, looking at everything I would maybe eventually be able to loot. While the necromancer and his skeletons…

…did nothing, actually. Turns out they couldn’t quite work out how to open the door.

“I knew I shouldn’t have had that thing installed.”

And then, after several turns of inaction, Voidspire Tactics just broke. “We see nobody has made any combat moves for a few turns. Do you just want to end the fight?” And suddenly, I was free. I could run around the sanctum, looting every high level item around — using my dead friends’ inventories for storage — before activating the secret exit and escaping scott-free.

No, but it gets even better. I could actually sleep in the necromancer’s bed, too! Doing so restored the rest of the party to life… who were now casually standing around the necromancer and his minions, not attacking, not drawing aggro. So I had them run around the battle arena, and loot everything in there, too.

“Hey. Sorry about that whole mess back there. We’ll be out of your hair in a moment.”

It’s stuff like this that reminds of Divinity: Original Sin the most: locking the final boss in dialogue with the main characters, while our side characters methodically killed all their supporting dudes without actually entering combat. It was so stupid: a clear example of system bloat gone wrong, one of those one-in-a-million scenarios you could never test for, but should anyway.

And it was glorious.

Final thoughts

Over six thousand words in and I still haven’t said everything I want to say about Voidspire Tactics. I want to talk about how the save system is broken for me, so I can’t overwrite my own saves and keep having to delete them. And I want to talk about how the initial lack of player guidance has — possibly intentionally, possibly not — made me feel like a cool explorer one more than one occasion, ‘finding out things for myself’ that the game was clearly banking on me finding out. I want to talk about this game’s weird economy, and I want to talk about the puzzles that bank on you carrying random cruft like planks and rungs around for the whole game, and I want to talk about the stacking inventory boxes, and I want to talk about the music, and I want to talk about how you can sometimes avoid combat entirely by selecting the right dialogue option, but it’s never clear who or how or why or what. And I want to talk about, and I want to talk about, and I want to talk about…

But at this point, it’s probably quicker if you just check out Voidspire Tactics for yourself. It’s fifteen bucks on Steam, currently, and it’s, er… it’s pretty good.

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Jarenth will always glitch around and exploit challenges if your game openly allows that sort of thing. There are no exceptions to this rule. Because it’s hilarious, that’s why. Try to convince him otherwise (and fail) on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

2 comments

  1. I do appreciate a game that will give you a stupid stereotypical RPG task while making the tools available to completely bypass it if you think of it.

    The only other times I have seen these puzzles subverted, the puzzle itself is deliberately impossible and/or tedious so that the player will have to seek out the subverted way. Or, it occurs to me, some games have offered it and I was too oblivious to see that there was a smarter way…

  2. Timing really is everything in this business. If I’d heard about this game around, say, six weeks ago, I’d have immediately bought it, as I’ve been looking for something on PC to tickle the same parts of my brain as Disgaea, the Best Game Ever.

    But now? Disgaea: the Best Game Ever, has been announced for PC and is only two months away, and I’ve not so much as sniffed my copy of The Witcher 3 yet, so…I’ll probably end up buying it at some point, but for now it’s a bad beat for Voidspire.

    Happy Holidays to all!

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