Ah, the simple addition of the word ‘Tactics’ to the end of a title. With those seven letters, you can get me handing over wodges of cash, with a nostalgic warmth in my belly. Who knew that one word could have so much power?
‘Tactics’ is gaming shorthand for a turn-based RPG. But more than that, it means pixel graphics, isometric viewpoints, fantasy characters carrying swords that are too big for them, and long, drawn-out evenings as we attempt to ‘perfect’ a given battle map. Oh, to be sixteen again.
Live by the Sword: Tactics isn’t misusing the suffix. It’s a game that’s just as in love with Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre and Vandal Hearts as we are. It’s not a trap, concocted to separate older nerds from their cash. This is very much the tactical RPG that we hoped it would be.
Things start simply with two brothers, William and Edgar, clearing the kingdom’s forests of thieves. It’s the years following a long and damaging war: the armies are decimated, a young king is on the throne, and ne’er-do-wells are causing trouble. So, you do what you can, clearing out the thieves and pirates who are making their move.
It’s from these simple foundations that a narrative develops. The group accepts new blood (a boxer who can’t keep his top on, a wizard with a dark past, and an assassin who seems to be in it for the kicks). The brothers become separated, and the roving brigands seem to be more united than first thought.
As plots go, it’s as creaky as a wooden submarine. We don’t think we’ve encountered a more telegraphed betrayal than the one in Live by the Sword: Tactics, nor have we sleepwalked through as much dialogue. It’s not strewn with errors or anything like that: it’s just unremarkable and devoid of anything that might look like humour, surprise or interest. But it – just about – glues together the battle-sequences.
The tactical-RPG stuff immediately made us feel at home. We rubbed our hands with glee and immediately got stuck in. It’s all the basics that we love: elevated ground to fight over and hold; varied classes to master; complementary and synergising abilities; and the chin-stroking strategy of managing a turn order and killing trouble-makers before their turn crops up. There’s enough of the outline of Final Fantasy Tactics to make us feel utterly welcome.
It’s also very simple at heart. When it’s a character’s turn, they can pull off a movement and an ability in any order. There’s your first bit of strategy: do you deliberately park up next to an opponent, so that you can bonk them on the next turn and then run away? Or do you use the movement first, gaining the optimal ground and then taking your shot?
The turn order is important. A handy bar sits on the bottom-right of the screen, and shows who will attack and when. Some characters are faster, appearing first in the order, and enemies will often move in clumps. Anticipating these clumps and getting to safety, or killing the troops before they can get to you, is often the optimal strategy.
Arenas are boxy little things, never more than twelve squares or so in any direction. And when it comes to obstacles and topography, Live by the Sword: Tactics is extraordinarily limited. There are two heights of block – you need to spend a turn climbing up or down if you want to stand on them – and, very rarely, there are water tiles that you can’t walk on. But that’s it. As a map kit, it’s possibly the thinnest we’ve encountered, and it has the exact effect you would think it has. The maps become exceedingly similar, and the same tactics can be used on them all.
Redemption comes from the characters. You unlock seven of them over the course of Live by the Sword: Tactics, and they are gloriously different. There’s the conventional, including William, who’s the quintessential tank (Taunt ability included), plus an archer and a wizard. But there are also some cute riffs on established formulae. The boxer has abilities that use his left-hand and his right-, meaning that you can pull off two attacks in one turn if you get your hand combos right. An assassin is a joy to play, as he can lock onto people he’s previously hit, and an alchemist chucks potions about the arena like he’s playing Splatoon.
There’s enough imagination and differentiation in the classes to make it the standout element of Live by the Sword: Tactics. Finding the classes that work and those that don’t is a metagame unto itself, particularly as you can only bring five of the seven characters into a fight. We soon ditched the archer, and flitted between keeping and dropping the alchemist and boxer. There are a few synergies to be found, including an assassin ability which forces an opponent to use an ability before a move, and a boxer move that pushes the opponent back, so that they conveniently don’t have anyone to use their first ability on. Tinkering in Live by the Sword: Tactics can be fun.
But while Live by the Sword: Tactics scratched most of our Final Fantasy Tactics itches, it left one that we couldn’t reach. Because, for all of it’s overtures to being an RPG, Live by the Sword: Tactics doesn’t actually have any levelling or character progression at all. Not a single XP number will increment. No loot will drop, and no character will level. Now, this might seem brave and bold, but it has a couple of consequences that critically damage Live by the Sword: Tactics.
The first is difficulty. By fixing the player’s power levels, Live by the Sword: Tactics has an easier job than most in terms of pitching its difficulty balancing. It knows full-well how powerful you will be in a given encounter. You would think, then, that it would aim high, giving you a perfectly pitched skirmish that needs every last drop of your strategy and focus. Instead, it opts to make everything frustratingly easy. We waltzed through Live by the Sword: Tactics without failing a single battle. The only times we skirted failure were when RNG fluttered its eyelashes at us, causing our attacks to miss and splash, rather than hit. Yep, Live by the Sword: Tactics includes dice rolls that can lead to no damage at all, which is a potential negative on its own.
The second issue is a sense of inertia. Once you have found your ideal starting team and their chosen abilities (like the character-selection, you have seven abilities but only five slots, so you must choose wisely), then there’s nowhere else to grow. The arenas aren’t different enough to warrant a second thought, and the enemies are similar enough that they won’t factor in either. Soon, you will play turns in the same way, buffing Will with the alchemist perhaps, before taunting enemies and leaving the rest of the team to carve up enemies like they work in a kebabby. The levels began to blend into each other, and our eyes glazed over.
Again, two steps back are followed by one step forward. Because Live by the Sword: Tactics justifies its £19.99 price tag by including a surfeit of game modes. While the campaign is stale, there is a fair amount of enjoyment to be found in its Tactician, Adventure, Skirmish, Multiplayer and Board Creator modes.
You get the sense that Live by the Sword: Tactics’ designers knew that they had a reasonably cookie cutter tactical RPG, and then leaned into it with some systemic modes that had fun shuffling those basic building blocks. Our favourite was Adventure, a roguelike mode that had us rolling a randomised group of three (abilities also randomised), which included some of the enemy classes, like Pirate and Thief. We then wandered node to node through a board game map, killing enemies in procedurally generated arenas and earning enough coins to buy improvements in villages. It’s the game’s best mode, and part of us wondered whether Live by the Sword: Tactics should have led with it.
Multiplayer does the obvious, putting up to four players, two on each team, into a customised battle. Tactician hosts a series of challenges – turns and deaths are often limited here – to sharpen your skills, and Skirmish is the custom game mode, allowing you to fiddle with whatever settings you want. And the Board Creator does what it says on the tin, giving you a vault of pieces to play with.
But while the variety is astonishing, they all hit their head on the same ceiling: the lack of versatility in the number of board pieces, enemies and abilities. And while Tactician offers something that looks a bit like progression, with increasingly difficult challenges to defeat, there’s a lack of reward for everything you’re doing. No one is massaging your ego with a level up, a cool-looking sword or access to a new dungeon. The game merely shrugs at you and asks if you want another game.
You could cut up some Christmas cards, put Santa and snowmen onto some square paper, and then tell us that you made a turn-based tactical RPG and we’d probably be there with bells on. We love the nuts and bolts of the genre that much: it’s a formula that just works.
But Live by the Sword: Tactics skirts too close to doing that bare minimum. It spends its resources in all the wrong places, focusing on game modes rather than developing the board pieces, abilities and game mechanics that would have made it sing. It needed a stronger core before it started adding fancy armour on top, and – while we had a good time reliving Final Fantasy Tactics glories – this really wasn’t a patch on the genre’s best.
The ending implies that a sequel may be on the way. That opportunity to build on simple foundations might be the best thing that happens to Live by the Sword: Tactics.
You can buy Live by the Sword: Tactics from the Xbox Store