Version tested: DS
Did you know that about 80 percent of all of the world's species are insects? Or that there could be anything from 2 million to 30 million different types of insect on the planet? Or that, at the time of writing, there are about 10 quintillion individual insects alive across the globe? Yes? No? Either way, don't worry, it's a rhetorical question. I'm just wowing you with my Google skills in a bid to start this review with a topical fact or statement, in the hope that I'll be able to end it with another one to show how clever I am, and to make the review go by with a bit of snap and zing.
And with that mention of snap and zing, it's on to Drone Tactics, which is a snappy, zingy little insect-based turn-based strategy game which could easily fly under your radar on account of the fact that it doesn't really have the fanfare, or the pedigree of some of the finer examples of the turn-based strategy genre.
Like plenty of other Japanese turn-based strategy games, the actual turn-based strategy is wrapped up in a sort of RPG-lite, with a story that proceeds via (lots of) talking heads, involving a party of characters who stick with you from beginning to end. That story is actually one of the reasons that this game might otherwise go undetected, because it is basically childish and silly (though, once you accept that, it's certainly not without its charms, or sophistication if you're prepared to look deeply enough).
On first glance, the core mechanics are equally childish and unsophisticated, compared to games like Advance Wars or Fire Emblem. But that's because the game only reveals itself carefully and gracefully. In fact the carefully moderated difficulty curve is one of the game's greatest strengths, and if you stick with it beyond the interminably simplistic starting stages, you'll discover a game that has plenty to offer.
The game's premise is that two teenagers have been transported to a planet even more full of insects than ours is. Except these insects are able to transform themselves into massive insects, known as Drones. It's your job to guide some good Drones against various bad Drones (called the Black Swarm) in order to save the planet (see - childish and silly).
Like any self-respecting turn-based strategy game, different terrain types affect movement and combat; there are various (well, three) types of weapon; and there are different types of movement, including wheels, legs, and wings. One of the neat things about the game is the range of insect-based units, from slow-moving, heavily armoured rhino beetles to fragile but fast mosquitoes. Some personal favourites include the snail that dispenses all of your units at the start of each battle, and the curly-uppy woodlice.
But the thing that really elevates Drone Tactics above the level of just another turn-based strategy title is the deck of cards that you gradually acquire over the course of the game, which can be used to trigger various special abilities, from enhanced attacks to teleportation. After choosing your deck at the start of each encounter, you get to use each card once during the ensuing battle, with many cards triggering a stylus-based mini-game.
These mini-games range from swatting flies to simply tapping the screen as fast as you can, and while not all of these games work as well as the others, they all spice up the turn-based strategy by adding an extra tactical dimension to battles. On top of that, you've got customisable weapons, multiplayer battles, and optional maps where you can earn experience and items. Oh, and a host of snazzy logos for your insect warriors (my own choice was the skull and crossbones, obviously).
The upshot is a game that, in spite of its apparent simplicity, is actually pretty sophisticated. Perhaps the best thing about it is its sublimely graduated difficulty curve. Along with the funky card mechanics, it renders the game almost soothingly absorbing and if Eurogamer had any extra decimal places to play with I'd be using them all to indicate that Drone Tactics is as close to an 8 as is possible without actually being an 8.
Unfortunately, we don't have those extra decimal places, and it's not quite an 8 because it doesn't quite trouble the upper echelons of turn-based tactical excellence. Nevertheless, it's definitely a superior example of turn-based strategy, and certainly the best insect-based example of the genre. And, in a slightly tenuous attempt to tie the end of this review back in to our opening trivia, it's definitely more fun than counting to 10 quintillion.
7 / 10
Drone Tactics is out now in the States.