Indie Early Access Land: Fort Triumph

Now, I know what you’re thinking, so let me get ahead of some dashed expectations real quick: No, this isn’t actually an Archer-branded video game. That’d be Fort Kickass, not Fort Triumph.

I know, I know. Let’s all take a moment to mourn what could have been: Oh, Fort Kickass the video game, you were too kickass for this world. But then let’s also take a moment to imagine what an inevitable trash-fire any licensed Archer game will inevitably end up being, particularly in the Year of our Luigi 2018. So maybe it’s for the best.

And then let’s finally look at the actual game for this week, Fort Triumph — ostensibly by ‘Fort Triumph Team’, who are definitely not putting all their eggs in one basket. That it took me three paragraphs of rambling to even get to naming their game in this review should probably fill them with a lot of confidence.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, none. Mechanical, low-ish.)

(Game source: Distributor Steam key.)

(Time of writing: 2018-04-16)


Opening disclaimer: Fort Triumph is probably the earliest Early Access game I’ve ever reviewed. The opening splash screen mentions that the game is in early alpha, which at time of writing is marked as version Even the Windows process Fraps is hooked into is called ‘Fort Triumph Demo’.

I’d hesitate to call the current Fort Triumph experience ‘feature-complete’, and consequently I hesitate even more than usual to call this Early Access review a ‘review’. Maybe think of it as a spotlight, or like an awareness-raising campaign. Keep the Early Access review mantra in mind even more strongly than usual: Anything I write about here might change in any conceivable way. The core gameplay aspects and systems probably won’t, otherwise writing any sort of review wouldn’t make any sense to begin with. But even here, we can’t be 100% sure.

One of the smallest missing things you’ll run into right off the bat is the fact that only thing you can play is one single-player campaign. And a tutorial. Nothing else.

As always, though, I’m of the belief that any game that’s available for purchase is fair game for criticism, no matter how ‘early’. So what does Fort Triumph have to show us, this early in its life?

Speaking as an aficionado, the Options menu needs work.

There are two parts to the Fort Triumph experience. Firstly, and most noticeably, it’s basically fantasy XCOM. Let those words percolate in your mind for a bit. Fantasy XCOM. Really taste them. Okay, did you form a mental image of what that might look like? Good. You’re pretty much correct.

This was also a large part of what led me to request a Fort Triumph Steam key to begin with, not gonna lie.

Specifically, Fort Triumph is a fantasy interpretation of Firaxis’ 2012 XCOM reboot. It uses pretty much all the same basic gameplay systems: Square-based moment. Characters with two action points that can be used to move or attack, with the latter ending their go immediately. Light and heavy directional cover. Overwatch as a toggled state. To-hit percentages. ‘Pods’ of enemies that activate when they get within line of sight. Characters unlocking new abilities as they level up.

The enemy pod thing one is probably the most noticeable — and also the most actually improved, as these enemies *don’t* get a free scatter-to-cover.

To make sure the preceding is read in the right light, I actually think this is a good thing. I enjoyed Firaxis’ XCOM a great deal, in no small part because its systemization removed a lot of the unfair bullshit outcomes I’d come to associate with ‘X-Com games’, and I definitely don’t mind seeing this approach in other games as well. And Fort Triumph copies its sci-fi forebear relatively well. Most basic systems just… work, the way you’d expect them to work. Click to move into cover. Click, then click again to attack, or double-hit the associated number key to quickly activate special abilities. Flank around enemies to remove their cover and get better lines to hit. Miss enemies in cover and you might hit that cover, potentially destroying it. And so on, and so forth.

I’m not saying Fort Triumph is just an XCOM reimagining. For one, the smaller part, it does leave out a few important things — I really wish more games understood how meaningful it is that moving two action points at once in XCOM lets you move farther than two separate normal moves would do. And Fort Triumph‘s visualization of percentages and chances needs some fine-tuning. But for two, the larger part, Fort Triumph adds a bunch of systems, to lesser and greater effect. For instance, some character classes are melee-based, as you’d expect in a fantasy-themed game — your warriors and paladins and barbarians and whatnot. While all ranged characters have the option to go into overwatch mode, all melee characters instead have ‘attacks of opportunity’, a la third-edition D&D: If an enemy moves away from a square adjacent to them, they get a free attack. Inversely, most ranged characters can’t use their fancy abilities if a melee enemy is nearby… I’m sure you can see the interplay.

In practice, situations like these tend to naturally develop — both because your frontline fighters are at their best here, and because your backline fighters don’t get eaten by spiders this way.

Most noteworthy of all is Fort Triumph‘s emphasis on environmental physics and interactions, which you’ll actually find mentioned on the game’s own website. Basically, every object on the map has physics properties, and with the right commands/attacks/spells, characters can use this to good effect. Melee characters can kick objects into enemies, or enemies into objects, or enemies into enemies, or enemies into water — high-level wizards can learn to do this from a distance with a tornado spell. Wet ground has less friction, meaning objects slide further. And since we’re in ye olde fantasy ages, pretty much everything on any outdoorsy or village-type map is made of flammable materials. It’s fairly effortless for a stray fireball to light anything in its blast zone on fire.

And fire catches.

Hitting two skeletons with a fireball and lighting up a nearby tree in the process seems like a fair deal.

But then the burning skeletons get close to my paladin, and I run my paladin to a house wall to take cover, and before you know it…

‘Jarenth, does that mean that I can run up to an enemy taking cover behind a tree, and kick over the tree so that it falls on them?

Reader, it means exactly that thing.

Listen, though, here’s are the two most important things: Enemies that collide with anything don’t just take damage, but also get ‘stunned’ and lose the ability to attack on their next turn (though they can still move). And because this system isn’t just hard-coded gimmicks, but fully-functional physics, heavy objects bumping into light objects transfer their momentum and send the light object flying. And maybe those objects run into something smaller than themselves, or maybe about the same size as themselves. Like, say, another enemy of the same type.

‘Jarenth, are you saying that if I had a line of enemies, I could kick one of them and cause all of them to bump into each other like a conga line, stunning and damaging all of them in a ridiculous power move?’

In lieu of directly answering that, let me point out just how often enemies in this game choose to form up in perfectly kickable lines.

So, that’s about half of (current) Fort Triumph: Fantasy XCOM, with a focus on physics and kicking that would make Dark Messiah of Might & Magic nod in approval. But what about the other half? You might reasonably expect a campaign system again similar to XCOM, tying individual missions together in a grander narrative arc. Or maybe you envision a more traditional RPG: Fort Triumph‘s writing is fairly character-driven, suggesting that your starting party isn’t just some collection of disposable nerds. Maybe a Fire Emblem-style ‘this hero is now unable to fight on’ resolution would make sense?…

Both your heroes and your villains have, like, developed personalities, and traits and backstories and whatnot. It seems weird to be able to *lose* that to a bad chance roll.

What I definitely didn’t expect was to zoom out from the first campaign battle to find myself playing Heroes of Might & Magic III.

And yet…

No, but for real. I’m not joking. Between tactical combat missions, Fort Triumph takes the player to a Heroes of Might and Magic-style traversable overworld. This works exactly the way you’re envisioning it works. You move around the map in faction-driven turns, using limited movement points to activate points of interest, claim treasure chests and ‘magic’, enter towns, and engage in battles. Once your points run out, all the enemy factions get their go, in turn, and that’s one ‘day’ done. You’ll gain magic and ‘renown’ daily from some buildings, and you know what happens when seven days are done? You know what happens after seven days.

This is the moment that saw me throw up my hands and go ‘oh come ON’.

Oh, and what do you do with all the renown and magic you collect (from fighting and exploring, respectively)? You take it back to town and use it to buy items for your characters. Or new characters. Monster characters. You can straight-up go to the starting town and buy two different varieties of skeleton warrior, which are then added to your party of RPG tropes.

Ah, the five heroes! Lilith the Chaste, Ivy Grimebottoms, Prudence Toad Odour, Velvet the Nefarious, and Skeleton Swordsman.

The end result is a strange clash of systems: Fort Triumph‘s overworld systems support gameplay focused on exploration, resource collection, and army building, while Fort Triumph‘s battle system supports careful tactical combat and unit development. And then there’s the character-driven writing, which matches neither. It leads to strange scenarios like… well, like the aforementioned skeleton swordsman. Or the fact that you can recruit duplicates of existing heroes, which the writing doesn’t really know what to do with.

Nowhere is this clash more evident than when one of your units dies. In a tactical combat game, you’d expect death to be the end. But in a character-driven RPG, it’d be weird for the main characters to just up and shuffle off. And in an army management game, you’d expect to be able to revive or retain heroes somehow. Fort Triumph ‘solves’ this by… just having the characters be dead. XCOM is the trump card here. And then gameplay just proceeds from there, with the writing — as far as I can tell — just cutting out the bits of dialogue that would be delivered by the dead hero. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to revive dead heroes, because Fort Triumph doesn’t track dead heroes — out of sight, out of mind. The game doesn’t in any way compensate for the fact that you just lost a quarter of your fighting force, which can lead to some ‘fun’ death spirals.

Gotta tell ya: Nothing screams ‘this character is meaningful and unique’ like fighting two functionally identical copies.

Or maybe this is just an artifact of the alpha state. Fort Triumph is still clearly in a very rough state right now. For one, there are these game logic quibbles, which I hope will be resolved with more work. For another, the game chugs and strains whenever there are fancy graphical effects on the field — like that fire it seems to like so much. For another yet still, the loading screens currently look like this:


This is also the reason I didn’t play Fort Triumph for much further than I did. One of the ‘mandatory’ missions took me to some sort of UFO thing, where I was asked to side with one of the two factions. Except, psyche, we didn’t write the mission for Faction A yet, how about you side with Faction B? But then it turned out that going into the mission for that faction was an automatic fail: I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen, but what happens is that I go into the mission, a short cutscene plays, and then I lose automatically, without getting the option to make a single move. And because losing a battle means all your units died, that’s a campaign game over.

And since Fort Triumph currently autosaves at the start of every mission (or mission selection box), and since that autosave overwrites your latest manual save, I’m locked in an eternal loop of not being able to do anything but lose.

If I select this mission, I lose and get booted from the game. There’s no way to cancel out of this screen, hitting Escape just starts the mission. There’s no way to load any save that doesn’t immediately jump into this screen.

Consequently, I’d advice some… caution jumping into Fort Triumph right now. It’s definitely an interesting mix of ideas, and with some tweaking, I can even see its clash of core systems resolve into something cool. Plus, its current iteration has as your default party four cool, reasonably-dressed women, with nary a boob plate in sight — all white women, sure, but small pluses still count. It suffers a little from generic-feeling ‘irony-poisoned’ fantasy writing, but for the most part it’s only frown-inducing — a cringe-worthy section about skeletons ‘identifying as living-negative’ notwithstanding.

There’s some cute writing in here, and then there’s some terrible writing. I’m showing you the former, since there’s already enough of the latter in the world.

At time of writing Fort Triumph isn’t available for purchase yet, so I can’t really recommend anything vis-à-vis you getting it or not. There’s a demo, which may or may not be what I’ve been playing this week? So feel free to take a look for yourself. Just… keep in mind it might be a little rough around the edges. And maybe a little rough on the interior, too.

Jarenth is pretty proud he avoided the obvious joke in his closing statement — it’s so obvious, really, that it doesn’t even require alluding to. Share your understanding of what he’s talking about 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?

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