Superheroes have probably never been hotter or more mainstream. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominates at the box office and a myriad of shows dominate on TV, the games industry was not slow to follow this trend, with the triple-A title “Marvel’s Avengers” leading the way. Is there room in its considerable wake for a superhero game that has neither established comic book properties or flashy action?
Sentinels of Freedom is a turn-based strategy game with gameplay somewhere between Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM. You control a very small team of superheroes who take on swarms of bad guys, as well as the occasional battle with the big-name baddies such as Fright Train or Ermine.
You may just have said “who?” to those bad guys. That’s because Sentinels of Freedom is not based on an existing comic book or movie, but instead on the board-game Sentinels of the Multiverse and its associated properties. Sentinels of the Multiverse is an excellent, sprawling card game where these characters exist within the invented comic book series, of which panels and quotes often appear on the card artwork and in the rules. The story-lines are nicely thought out, with lots of cross-overs and a broad church of heroes ranging from the “super-human” Legacy to the ninja crime-fighter Wraith.
With most of these heroes you can easily find a Marvel or DC character to match them, with Legacy being Superman and Wraith being Batwoman. For veterans of the board games, these characters will be familiar, but for newcomers they may be wondering who these characters are – but it won’t take long to figure it out.
You also get to create your own character with a rather nice, in-depth character creation suite. You’re given a broad range of elements to build your chosen hero or heroine with, and then you can assign their powers, constructing builds from brawlers to tanks, shooters or a support character. There are plenty of elements to play with here and to mix and match; once created, you can still amend things to fine-tune your character.
The game is run from a hub section, referred to as the Plaza. You can amend the characters’ moves and costumes, and even take part in practise missions. Then you can take part in missions to push the story forward, as well as the odd side mission to allow you to grind up your characters, unlocking new powers, though there is a limit to how many powers a character can use.
Once you’re on a mission, your characters move one at a time. There’s no grid so you can move your characters wherever you like, with action points depleting the further you move. These action points are also drained by carrying out moves such as melee attacks, ranged attacks or supporting moves. Then, once the character’s turn ends, you have an option to change stances free of charge and set your direction. It has to be said that at times it can be hard to tell what is in your way with movement, which can lead to characters moving but stopping just short of a bad guy; that can be a bit frustrating. Othertimes you can accidently click on a space that they cannot reach and end up going out of your way, wasting AP and potentially putting your characters in jeopardy.
All characters in Sentinels of Freedom have a vigilance mode, which essentially compares to XCOM’s Overwatch, so if opposing characters move into their line-of-sight then they will trigger a move which could range from opportune fire to just running away from the enemy!
There’s also a rather nice system where if you attack an enemy while they are in an ally’s vigilance zone then they can aid you, leading to some nice synergy at times. This isn’t a sure thing; it depends on various factors and gives the fights a bit more motion. Otherwise your characters carry out their attacks, such as punches or shots from range, wearing down the enemies’ HP until they are knocked out.
Attacks are rated for various elemental effects, somewhat strangely named like “thwack” or “sneckt”, which I generally forgot and instead relied on their colour codes. Some baddies have a resistance to some types of attack and then vulnerabilities to others, giving you another element of strategy to your attacks.
However, on screen the game’s somewhat busy UI clashes here, as there is a baffling range of symbols and factors to look at. Luckily, for simplicity, when you choose an attack and highlight an enemy, their level of resistance is displayed above them. Unfortunately, at times it feels like this idea hasn’t quite been baked in properly.
There’s also an issue with the initiative of characters, which is somewhat opaque and hard to tell why characters will move in what order. When the AI moves its characters, they often shift several characters one at a time, and turns can be quite slow. It can also be tricky at times when there are friendly NPCs such as cops or medics who run around too. The AI for the characters can sometimes action some rather odd pathing, with rescued civilians running back towards the enemy and danger.
Another issue is that there are times when your characters don’t feel quite as powerful as you might have hoped. Fighting hordes of faceless goons is fine, but some foes can take multiple hits before being taken out, which also makes battles and turns go on a little longer than they might have. It may have worked better to either deal more damage, give the faceless goons lower HPs, or just have fewer of them.
Fighting the bigger bad guys become battles of attrition as they have tonnes of HP, but fewer attacks. That said, some of them do have nice area of effect attacks. There’s usually pots more of the faceless goons to support them and force you to break up your attacks too.
Of course, how the fights turn out often depends on the balance of your team. Bunker, clad with heavy armour and equipped with guns and bombs, is great at crowd control and excels at overwatch. Meanwhile Tachyon, the super-fast scientist of the team, does well in brawling and actually inflicts more damage the further she moves. She can also sacrifice HP to do more damage by increasing her speed. Changing stances with your characters gives you a nice way to change things up: for example, Wraith can throw razor ordinance at enemies from range but then change up into her martial artist mode when goons close in on her.
You can also swap around potential stances and their moves to give you more options in combat. It has to be said that whilst the various provided heroes have their own theme and feel, often your own created heroes can feel a tiny bit generic compared to them. The dialogue and story-lines, shown in caption form with speech-bubbles – with many a bad pun – do the job, setting out the next battle. Your created character’s dialogue options are set out for you but don’t really make all that much difference, and can come across a bit generic too.
In terms of Sentinels of Freedom’s graphics and the models are generally quite nice but at times the backgrounds and maps can be rather hard to figure out, coming across a bit muddled. There are also issues with the somewhat counter-intuitive camera controls, which can take a fair bit of getting used to. Zooming also possible, but you will need to scale through all the zoom ranges rather than in and out, making it a bit harder to use.
In terms of the sound, there’s a jaunty soundtrack which does okay but gets a bit tiresome after a while. There are simple sound effects for the various attacks which are functional and the character’s audio cues are fairly good, with Tachyon sounding like she’s speaking very quickly. Again, your generic hero can come across as bland compared to these established heroes.
It also has to be said that grid-less movement is probably more of a problem than a benefit for Sentinels as it can lead to a lack of clarity; this in turn makes it hard to predict who can move where and what characters may be able to attack you.
To be fair to the developers at Underbite, they are a small indie team using Kickstarter funding to create a game which perhaps works a bit better on PC, leaving the console port needing a bit of help. There’s a lot of text on screen and at times it can be quite small. The game does need a bit more polish and possibly some more content too, with more missions, stories and characters to play around with.
However, Sentinels of Freedom on Xbox One has a lot of charm and there are not a huge amount of turn-based tactical games with a superhero theme out in the market. For fans of Sentinels of the Multiverse, it’s lovely to see these beloved characters brought to life. Much like your hero in-game, there’s raw potential here – but a bit of help and some polish is needed to make Sentinels of Freedom really super.