Coming from developers Sixth Vowel, Element Space is, on paper at least, a great idea for a game. Taking the turn-based and tactical gameplay of a game like X-COM and mixing it with the space opera story-driven approach of something like Mass Effect provides all the ingredients for something special. I loaded the game up with high hopes and launched into the galaxy.
I’m sorry to say, but first impressions are not brilliant. Element Space opens with Captain Christopher Pietham, Rear Admiral Jun and a third character who has “Star Trek red jumper guy” written all over him. As the game opens, our heroes are on board a spaceship that is going to be decommissioned and become the scene of galactic peace talks, but surprisingly not everyone in the universe seems to be happy with that idea. The ship is attacked by saboteurs, and it’s down to our three heroes to drive them off.
So far, so exciting, right? Well, hold on there. The animation of the characters in the cutscenes looks pretty amateurish, whilst the voice over work is, if anything, even worse. You’ve heard about people phoning in some of their voice work? Well, this is more like they emailed it. Even when they are under attack and the future of the galaxy appears to be in peril, the characters talk to each other with as much animation and vim as a stoned Krogan. And just to put the final nail in the coffin, the localisation seems to have been done by someone who read about the UK in a book, as some of the turns of phrase are very strange indeed.
Still, once the actual fighting starts, things do improve, and if you have played any of the X-COM games, you’ll be immediately at home here. On each character’s turn, there are two basic actions that can be performed: the character can either move a set distance, hopefully taking cover behind an obstacle, and then attack, or do it in reverse. If you wish, it is possible to get your character to sprint, which allows them to move further, but takes away the option to attack at the end of their headlong flight. Other actions are possible as well, including manually reloading a weapon, setting a unit in Overwatch mode where they will shoot at anything that crosses their path, or even working with some special attacks. These range from using Zero – a mechanical robot dude – and his shield break move to Pietham’s grappling hook, which can either move him across the map or be used to drag an enemy from out of cover into a place where they can be more easily shot. Tactical placement of your units, and the use of their special abilities at the correct time, go a long way towards trying to make combat as efficient as possible.
There is more to do as well. As you go through the missions, the number of people you can recruit to your cause increases, even though you can only bring three along on a mission at once. Choosing the right team with the right weapons (which again can be unlocked by completing missions) and the right skillset is part of the whole tactical planning you need to think about. As team members complete missions, they get points to put into their individual skill trees, which allows them to unlock new abilities, again feeding back into the team selection mechanic.
So, the actual gameplay when in a fight is pretty good, fairly deep and requires you to plan ahead. However, it’s not all great, sadly. There are a number of design choices that make Element Space just that little bit more annoying than it needs to be.
The first, and most frustrating, is the way the team moves around between fights. You have to select where they go, then press A to get the team to run there. Sounds not too bad, right? Well, the frustration comes when it appears that the team can’t be told to go anywhere more than about ten yards away from where they are. There’s no way to click on the exit of the level and ask them to just go there – you have to move and click 10 or 15 times to get them to go where they need to be. The next annoyance comes from the way the team seem to really dislike one another, as it’s practically impossible to get two team members to share a piece of cover, despite it clearly being big enough. What happens instead is that if you move the pointer too close to another unit (as in, within about 10 feet) instead of moving the guy that you want to move, the game assumes you meant to select the other character instead; if you aren’t paying attention, you can end up wasting moves. A few times, instead of someone coming to reinforce a character in a precarious position, I’ve ended up moving the wrong character one square and the game has taken that as his movement phase being complete.
All of these things would be okay, if the difficulty wasn’t so, well, difficult. Element Space happily provides ratings at the end of each encounter, from Perfect, to Good, to the lowest I’ve got in Fair. Now, the game clearly has a plan of what it requires you to do in order to get the hallowed Perfect rating, and any deviation from this template is harshly punished. With enemy characters that seem to have been taking lessons from Usain Bolt, sprinting further in one turn than my guys can in two, trying to keep the enemies corralled in the killing zone soon turns into a full time job. If one character went into Overwatch, would it stop Dave the baddie sprinting all the way over there? The only way to find out is to try it, and in a battle where there is a strict time limit – as there is in the mission to stop people drinking poisoned wine – then any missteps usually result in a failure. And with retries also limited, the game soon descends into a case of trial and error. There just doesn’t seem to be any reward for out of the box thinking, and no flairs of tactical genius that you can employ to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Honestly, Element Space seems like a chore to play, and not a great deal of fun. And this is just on Normal mode, not Extinction mode, which is more challenging.
In conclusion then, what we have here with Element Space on Xbox One is a game that apes two of the giants of sci-fi gaming – X-COM and Mass Effect – and instead of using this as inspiration and building on them, instead tries to ride two horses and ultimately ends up falling down the gap in the middle. The actual fighting mechanics are fine, but the way the game clearly has a plan it wants you to execute and punishes you for trying to go your own way makes it less appealing. The story is suitably grand, and with multiple endings to achieve, there is a bit of replayabilty built in, but honestly it is a slog to just reach “an” ending; the urge to go back and try again is not strong. What we have here is a game with a lot of good ideas, but poor execution that spoils the fun.