I fear, dear readers, that our Emma has gone slightly mental. I gave her copies of Pixel Tactics and Pixel Tactics 2 and it seem’s she’s lost her mind. Ah well!
PIXEL TACTICS approaches!
Right, that’s that over with. As you might have guessed if you speak the universal language of tortuous references and badly-transcribed video game music (and if so, good job – I can barely understand what I just wrote), Pixel Tactics, Level 99 Games’ semi-recent two-player card game, borrows a lot from classic Final Fantasy games and their ilk. (That’s the FF1 battle theme up there. Honestly.) But as a lifelong old-school RPG fan and devotee of the series (and if you think FFX wasn’t the best game ever, I will fight you*), how does Pixel Tactics stack up?
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Pretty well, actually. In the game, you and your new archnemesis each get a deck of thirty cards, each representing a typical JRPG character class, all the way from Knight to Dragon Mage, and the first thing you’ll probably notice, even before the great retro pixel art, is HOLY CRAP WORDS. See, each card has five different sets of abilities depending on how and where you play them, so they’re naturally kind of packed with text, which is probably the game’s biggest issue, since I’ve seen people look at a single card and immediately abandon the game in search of something that doesn’t involve quite so much reading. Which’d be a disservice to a good game, since Pixel Tactics has a lot of good features, chief among which is this proliferation of abilities depending on a card’s context. For example, take the aforementioned Knight:
Played in your unit’s vanguard, he’ll block ranged attacks and automatically damage anyone who hurts him, but in the flank he’ll constantly protect your leader from being shot at, and in the rear he’ll happily take hits to stop your other heroes getting damaged. Alternatively, you could play him as an order instead, and while you won’t get a shiny new knight in your unit, you’ll get to drop four damage on everybody that isn’t hiding behind another hero (easily a winning move in the right circumstance). Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed another set of abilities at the bottom, and this is a really neat piece of multifunctionality: at the start of the game, you’ll draw five heroes, and play one of them upside-down at the centre of your unit as your Leader. Leaders come with an impressive special ability as well as increased attack and defence stats, but these come at a price – if your Leader goes down, you lose. For example, play the same card as your Leader and this humble Knight becomes Cadenza, commander of the Clockwork Infantry Division, with twice as much health and an ability that means all your heroes take 1 less damage from attacks. And if you think that sounds really powerful, you’re basically right.
The genius of Pixel Tactics, however, lies in the fact that every single Leader’s ability is ludicrously powerful and totally broken, creating a weird kind of balance – it’s kind of like Cosmic Encounter, just with more magic and (presumably) terribly-translated dialogue, and playing in a third of the time. The playtime really works in its favour, too – any complaints about Leaders being unbalanced against each other tend to just turn into playing the game again with different ones, which you can totally do without getting tired of it. In fact, the game seems to acknowledge this, with the ludicrously huge rulesheet (it’s printed on the back of the playmat, which is a good way to save space but massively impractical when you need a ruling in the middle of a game) recommending you should play to the best of either three or five games before embarking on a 20-minute cutscene speech about your inevitable superiority. The only issue I really have is that, with only thirty cards each, you’ve seen them all after a few matches. If only there was some kind of…
What? There’s a sequel? Well okay then.
The unimaginatively-yet-thematically-appropriately-named Pixel Tactics 2 is essentially more of the same, but with a couple of new ability mechanics and an FFVII style science-fantasy theme as opposed to the original’s traditional fantasy. The game plays out much the same as its predecessor, with some differences in flow caused by the change in available abilities, although the game can slow down a bit when people start using some of the new complex abilities, especially with Leaders (NB: if I’m playing against you and you put up the Druid Leader, I will just flip the table and leave).
It really gets interesting when you succumb to the inevitable temptation and shuffle the decks together. Pixel Tactics International (as I irritatingly refer to it) is a prime example of combining two similar things together to make something very different – with more choice of heroes and Leaders, and some really strange combos being created by the interaction of cards from the two sets, PTI is a much longer, slower affair, with the focus shifted more to long-term strategy and defence than quick offensive tactics (although maybe that’s just how I play it) and games taking significantly longer. I don’t see this as that much of a problem, though, since the game’s balance issues are actually mostly ironed out by combining the decks, so a single game is much more satisfying.
Now, if we can just sneak out of this review without my references coming b-
PIXEL TACTICS defeated!
Emma grew to Lv. 6!
Pixel Tactics and Pixel Tactics 2 were both designed by D. Brad Talton, Jr. and published through the lovely Level 99 Games (who were kind enough to pass us a couple of copies for review). The beautiful pixel art is by Fabio Fontes who REALLY should be congratulated on his work – I think it’s very lovely indeed. Strictly for two players, games will take around 30-40 minutes, and should you want copies of either, they’re available through Gameslore for under £12 each! Oh, and don’t forget, you can follow Emma on Twitter where she’s @Waruce!