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Vanaris Tactics Review

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It’s happened again: someone’s put ‘Tactics’ in the title of their game, slid some isometric screenshots into our DMs, and – like a moth – we’ve helplessly hovered towards it on the Xbox Store. Vanaris Tactics has unashamedly lifted the Final Fantasy Tactics template off the wall, and we’re more than happy with that wholesale theft. It’s a genre that we could exclusively play for the rest of time and we would be happy. 

Vanaris Tactics clearly doesn’t have the budget or resources of a Final Fantasy game, however. It’s clear from the very start that everything is more constrained. The art is a little scrappy, but does the job; there’s a minimalist approach to strategy, in terms of the options in the heat of battle; and it’s short enough to be a novella rather than a full-blown novel. Even when rinsing it of every possible secret, Vanaris Tactics is over in eight hours.

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Again, we were fine with that in principle. Vanaris Tactics is an affordable £8.39, and we have enough big games to get on with this year without it demanding thirty hours from us. We would happily live in a world where games like Vanaris Tactics left us satisfied but not over-full, and released episodically if needed. 

Vanaris Tactics has a particularly simple plot: too simple, in fact. It’s the tale of Morgana, a prisoner of the Kingdom of Vanaris, who is sprung from jail by her son, her brother, and her nephew. She’s on the lam with her family, but the group soon grows beyond the familial. As she travels from region to region, she acquires more hangers on, until her gang begins to look more like a rebellion. They are rushing to the border of Vanaris in an effort to escape, but that escape is destroying strongholds, defeating enemy leaders and leaving a destabilised state in its wake. 

Sounds great on paper, doesn’t it? We will admit to airbrushing it a bit, as it never comes across as this coherent and exciting in the game. That’s because each arena – and we really do mean each arena – has the same template for its opening story. Morgana and her ruffians arrive in an area where they’re not expected; the defenders get a bit flustered, shouting “they’re here!” and Morgana shouts some variant on “damn right we’re here!”. Remix the words appropriately, and you have what constitutes a story in Vanaris Tactics. There might be the odd person or beast who is already there and needs protecting, but the formula fits. 

The writing is, if we’re being polite, functional. There’s no one here who can muster up an ounce of personality or uniqueness: everyone talks in the same earnest, ‘let’s get the job done’ tone. There’s mistranslations and typos aplenty, and we found ourselves skipping through dialogue  by the end, when we normally consider that to be heresy. 

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But Tactics games live and die by their strategising, and Vanaris Tactics does a little better here. If you have any interest in the turn-based tactics genre, then you will have played this a million times before, but it’s competently done. You and the enemy take turns, depending on the characters’ speed stats, to move and perform an action, in either order. So, you are moving your fastest unit into battle, hitting an opponent with a sword, crossbow bolt or spell (or bite them, should the character allow it) and then leave yourself open for a potential enemy attack. 

There is a decent spread of characters with an equally decent allocation of moves. As the characters level up from battle to battle, they can unlock actions, which gives you the usual mix of debuffs to your enemy, buffs to your characters, healing, long-range attacks and close-range melee. Managing your team – as you can only choose from five per battle – and synergising their skills is a pocket joy, even if it is one that you expect from this brand of game. It’s a table stake, and we’d expect it, but it’s done well enough here.

There’s even a nice riff on the norm with the ‘Berserk’ skill, and a few allied characters that have Berserk baked into their basic makeup. These characters are controlled by AI, not you, so they wander off to do their own thing. But Vanaris Tactics makes this interesting by ensuring that Berserk characters are also the most effective. A dog character that you unlock is both powerful and speedy, but will die if your enemy breathes on him. So, you find yourself following in his slipstream, protecting him where you can. It’s a neat riff on the usual tactical strategies, and completely optional to boot. 

But the rest of the gameplay has the stale whiff of an old sock. Take the way that Vanaris Tactics uses its environment, for example. Looking at the screenshots, you’d expect differences in height, multiple paths of approach, and other environmental factors to come into play. You’d expect to be managing the landscape just as much as your team. But it barely registers. There’s no line-of-sight when it comes to projectiles, as you can fire through pretty much anything (but not your allies, bizarrely). There’s no benefit to being on higher ground, other than an accuracy improvement. And characters can nimbly jump up and down gaps and cliffs without much problem. So, you soon stop using locations as natural barriers. Battlefields could have been flat expanses, and it wouldn’t have changed too much. Which obviously isn’t great for variety. 

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With the odd exception, enemies bleed into each other. There’s the odd distinction you’ll make: some enemies are fast, while others can kill you in one hit and should be dispatched quickly. But mostly they’re the same unit with different haircuts, and that gets old pretty darn fast. Combined with the generic arenas, you can see where Vanaris Tactics is heading.

Vanaris Tactics keeps knee-capping itself. Latter levels kill you if you don’t pay attention or grind to level yourself up, yet restarting a level means unskippable, torturous dialogue. You can return to arenas to play different enemy layouts – effectively getting more bang for the level’s buck – but Vanaris Tactics keeps removing paths to them, effectively denying you their enjoyment. And Vanaris Tactics flipping loves randomness, which has always been Marmite in turn-based tactics games. Your best-laid plans will fall apart when an enemy simply dodges your attack,leaving you suddenly helpless. There’s so many of these stacking frustrations that amount to a larger problem.

You need to have the deepest love for turn-based tactics games to get much out of Vanaris Tactics. Only a mother would love its looks, and everything else has been stripped back a little further than it should have been. It really puts the minimal in minimalist. 

We felt like we were playing the bare bones of a tactics game – from story to strategy to replayability – and those bare bones had sharp edges that kept stabbing us when we least wanted it to. If you’re bubble-wrapped by love for the genre then Vanaris Tactics might (emphasis on the might) be enough to keep you going to the end.

You can buy Vanaris Tactics from the Xbox Store

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