I often wonder to myself whether it is better to write a review in a calm, considered frame of mind, or whether a truer impression of the particular game that is being reviewed could be given when you are in the grip of your emotions, whether those be good or bad. I have elected to try and write these words while still in the grip of the frustration that 1971 Project Helios has engendered in me, and so you should, frankly, hold on tight. Coming from RecoTechnology, 1971 Project Helios is one of the latest entries into the genre of turn-based strategy, where XCOM holds the crown. So is this a pretender, albeit a frustrating one, or is it another also-ran?
1971 Project Helios is set in a world where things have taken a decidedly apocalyptic turn. In 1942, meteors crashed into the Earth, causing a new age to begin, pretty much ruining everyone’s entire year. Now the world is a frozen lump of ice, and being outdoors for any length of time is a death sentence. Violent storms lash the place and extreme temperatures can kill. As the game opens, we are found in charge of a group of people who are about to go and raid a convoy, little knowing the chain of events that are going to be set in motion.
The convoy that Emile and Hanna – our two starting characters – was carrying included some very valuable cargo; cargo that the duo had been hired by an anonymous employer to obtain. It turns out that the cargo was in fact a woman – a scientist by the name of Margaret Blythe – who was working on a way of mending the world, which seemed to involve a substance called Fulgor. Now Fulgor, as it turns out, is very useful stuff, and like very useful stuff everywhere in video games, it is in very short supply. Anyways, in the confusion Margaret escapes or is kidnapped, and in return Emile’s family are also taken hostage until Margaret is recovered. In the meantime another party – led by Wilhelm – are also looking for Margaret, in order to bring her back to Nova, the lab she ran before she was taken. Of course, these two groups cross paths and decide to work together to find the scientist, and what happens after that will have to be sorted out at that time. This does add a good tension to the group dynamic, as everyone wants Margaret, but not for the same reasons.
1971 Project Helios plays out as a third-person isometric-style affair, with the up-to-four characters that you choose for each level running about the place trying to achieve the various objectives every level throws at you. These can range from simply finding a key and escaping, to meeting up with certain characters, some of whom can be added to your party. Exploring the levels fully is certainly recommended, as the place is just littered with not only collectable documents, but also useful items to pick up. These range from Fulgor charges, which allow you to revive fallen comrades, through to comparatively everyday items like telescopic sights or Fulgor infused oil. These items allow your characters to either equip new skills in their respective skill trees, or to upgrade existing skills. As an example, a guy called Renzo has an ability of Bleed, which does damage over time. If you equip him with a sharpening tool, it upgrades the Bleed skill so the damage lasts an extra turn. As you can imagine, in later levels the ability to hurt enemies without having to attack is incredibly useful.
This is half of the game then, exploring the areas and finding all the things; but as you explore, you will come across enemies who don’t want you stamping all over their turf. It is here where the other half of the game comes in – the combat.
If you’ve played XCOM or any of the other myriad of turn-based strategy games, you’ll feel right at home here. Every character has a set number of action points that can be spent in any manner you choose. A character can move, attack, enter an overwatch state, heal their allies and so on. It plays out in the usual way too: you can move, then attack, attack then move, or stay put and attack and then use another ability.
Characters are split into two basic types: you have the melee characters, who have to get up close and personal to do damage, but make up for it by being very much stronger than the other class, ranged. As the game is set in a post-apocalyptic world, firearms are in fairly short supply, so there are a few variations on the ranged theme. We have Domi, who can throw grenades (although if there are no guns, how he can find a seemingly endless supply of bombs is beyond me), there are a few guys that use firearms, be that pistols or rifles (Hanna and Alexei among others) and then we have Ame, whose weapon of choice is a dog. These guys are squishier than the tanky melee lot, and letting enemies get close to them is usually a very bad idea.
So far, so normal, at least as far as the turn-based bits of 1971 Project Helios goes. What is a little different is the cold, which plays a part in the battle just as much as the characters. At the end of each pair of turns – yours and the enemies’ – the cold will also attack friend and foe alike, and if a character is on low health this will usually finish them off. As such, this causes you to adopt a much more aggressive playstyle than usual for these type of games. If you sit back, you will die. The only way to win these encounters (except for in level 6, which will get a paragraph all of its own!) is to kill the enemies. All of them. As the game goes on, these foes get harder, and it’s not unusual for it to take an attack from each of the four characters in order to kill just one of the baddies. If a character dies and you don’t have sufficient Fulgor reserves, you lose and have to start the combat encounter all over again. This is quite upsetting if one of your guys dies from the cold at the exact same time as the last enemy (and yes, this does happen) only for the game to show a failure screen as you are left to start over again.
The last segment of the game, and it’s is only a small percentage, takes place at the campfires. Here the various characters can play out scripted conversations between themselves, allowing you to get a flavour of the backstory and the history between the different people. You can also check your stats, view the enemies you’ve faced, and utilise each character’s skill tree to make sure they are equipped for what is coming. If I can offer a little bit of advice here, make sure you have at least one person in your team of four that knows how to heal. Having your guys attack, then run back to the healer to be patched, is a tactic that has saved me no end of times.
1971 Project Helios looks pretty good, with a decent representation of frozen wasteland portrayed on the screen, and the different levels you have to explore, from snow, to labs to military facilities, all looking pretty. The animation of your guys as you run about the place is also pretty good, but there’s really nothing earth shattering here… it’s just alright. The running about does get annoying if you are trying to explore, as the lead guy that you control seems to find every loose bit of scenery to get hung up on, and there are more dead ends that look like you should be able to run past than I can shake a stick at. And then in terms of the audio and I’ll be honest, the music made absolutely no impression on me at all, playing so quietly that I was able to completely ignore it. The other sound effects are fine though – gunshots, dogs barking, the thud of a club on an enemy cranium – are all present and correct.
Now we come onto the traditional moaning paragraph, the bit where I state what I don’t like about the game. And I’ll start with asking the question concerning why there is no map? On levels as big as some of these are, it’s very easy to get lost, and the game does not come with a map, a mission indicator or anything to help. There is one level that looks almost like it is set on an oil platform, with a series of identical looking rooms and lots of interconnecting areas. I spent an age here looking for the exit because I had no idea where to go. You normally only know you’re on the right path if the game suddenly either throws a fight at you, or it states that “You will not be able to come back after this point”. Stumbling around, looking for the one area you haven’t been in, is not fun.
Level 6 is even worse, as not only is the map large, it’s set at night, and finding your way to where you need to be is nigh on impossible. When you do stumble upon the end, you have a special battle where you need to run away from the guards that are swarming towards you. This sounds fine, but in actual fact the cold is a killer, and with only one healer not everyone can be kept alive, and I don’t have sufficient Fulgor in my tank. This stage signalled the end of my first playthrough, as I couldn’t get past this level, left to start over again in order to try to hoard the Fulgor.
Another issue with this same stage is that if you do die in the final encounter, the game spawns you back in in a location miles away from the place you succumbed to your untimely end, leaving you to struggle your way back, without a map. To be honest Level 6 is a proper mess all round. Add in cultist enemies who heal every turn, meaning you have to kill them in one turn or see all your damage undone, as well as the way that there is no tactical play possible at all due to the frostbite effect, and there are a lot of drawbacks to the combat in 1971 Project Helios. The camera is also quite contrary, allowing you to choose any one of four fixed viewpoints. This leads to enemies being missed because they are in a corner, and difficulty in finding specific doors to enter until you spin the camera into the right location. I feel that being able to position the camera so you can see what you want, not what the game wants you to see, would be a better choice.
1971 Project Helios on Xbox One has a lot of good ideas, but the execution of those ideas is not quite as good as it could have been. The story is very immersive indeed, and the tension between group members is a high point. Sadly, the lack of basic things like a map to check where you’ve been, the chance to enjoy any tactical possibilities save all out attack, and generally poor controls and visibility make it more frustrating than it needs to be. This is a game that promises much, but sadly can’t deliver on all that potential. In fact, 1971 Project Helios left me cold – in more ways than one.