(The following review is also posted on The Well Red Mage)
Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics reminded me of some truly great games – the elegant rebooted XCom, the engaging storytelling of Shadowrun: Dragonfall and the intricate design of 2018’s Battletech. With each turn, I thought of those games more and more, until with one fateful turn I could stand it no longer – I rose suddenly to my feet, and with my arms outstretched to the eldar gods themselves I cried:
“WHY, OH WHY AREN’T I PLAYING ONE OF THOSE GAMES INSTEAD??”
I exaggerate. Slightly. It’s not that Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics is bad, it’s just insipid. It has some nice individual ideas but taken as a package, it adds nothing new to a well-mined genre. Frustratingly, while it has a great licence and premise, it has absolutely no idea what to do with it.
But first, some background.
Mechanically, what are we looking at here?
Considering what this website, I’m going to assume that you know what a turn-based tactics game is. This particular version has no broader metagame like XCom, and it’s not an RPG like Wasteland 2 or Divinity: Original Sin. It’s a tactics game, pure and simple, with a little RPG-style progression with powers/levelling up, but that’s it.
Ok, so what’s “Achtung! Cthulhu”?
“Achtung! Cthulhu” was originally a pen+paper RPG setting for both the “Savage Worlds” and “Call of Cthulhu” game systems, as well as a miniatures game. It’s a pulp-WWII-adventure take on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos – it’s a straight up Nazi-occultists vs Allied-occultists story. The pedant in me must immediately point out that this is about as Lovecraftian as the Easter Bunny, but what the hey – it’s a fun idea. Apparently it’s had some success on Kickstarter.
I’ve never heard of Achtung Cthulhu before, but the inherent silliness of the idea appealed to me. And I like tactics games, so it seemed like a match made in heaven. But looks can be deceiving.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
The UI borrows an awful lot from XCom, which is mostly a good thing. It’s a very clean aesthetic, which is impressive considering that it’s a fairly complex system. Unit facing, cover, flanking, AP costs – all neatly and simply conveyed. It’s also got a pretty good tutorial, so if you’re new to the world of tactics games, you’ll be able to pick it up quite quickly.
There’s a few neat additions to the standard “tactics” formula. My personal favourite is that powers are powered by a shared resource called “momentum”, rather than individual MP or cool-downs. This doesn’t sound like much but it forces you to co-ordinate your soldiers, especially as some powers increase momentum while others cost it. The net effect is that a functioning team feels like a perfectly-synchronised machine – some members get the momentum while the others use it.
Naturally there’s a sanity meter (oh sorry, “stress”. Thanks Darkest Dungeon) or it wouldn’t be a Cthulhu game. If a soldier’s stress bar files up they’ll behave erratically for a turn, then stress returns to zero. It sounds nice but in practice it’s utterly vestigial – it feels like it’s been tacked on because “Lovecraft games have sanity meters”. The problem is that it doesn’t require the player to adjust their playstyle. You get stress from being shot or seeing monsters – you can’t stop your PC’s from seeing monsters, and you’re already trying to stop them from getting shot, so its strategic significance is very low. Pretty soon you’ll ignore it completely, especially considering it resets to zero at the end of each combat (that’s each combat, not each mission).
A slightly more interesting failure is the luck meter. When your soldiers get hit, all damage is applied first to their luck-bar and then to their health. Health generally doesn’t replenish during a mission, but luck (like stress) re-fills at the end of each combat. The result is that the game is quite forgiving to “full charge”-type strategies that would get you killed in X-Com, but unfortunately I didn’t fully appreciate this until I was about 50% of the way through.
I suspect that the game had intended that I would adopt “full charge” tactics as a result of its last unique gameplay addition – an unusual “fog of war” setting. Unlike most games, Acthung! Cthulhu Tactics has a half-way house in its fog of war, where you can see that there is AN enemy, but you can’t make out what it is. Enemies in this half-light are called “shrouded”, and while you can trade shots with them, you do so at a big disadvantage to hit. I think the idea was to encourage me to charge into the darkness to uncover the shrouded enemies, and I suppose it succeeded to an extent, but it wasn’t enough.
The wheels start to fall off
My first and biggest problem with Achtung! Cthulhu is difficulty. It’s gone out of its way to use XCom’s UI, and X-Com’s difficulty is notorious. So when I booted up the game and saw XCom, I played it like XCom: very carefully and cautiously.
It wasn’t until mission 4 that an enemy even got a shot off at me. In mission 5, they finally landed a hit. It was about this time that I realized that I may as well just charge, guns blazing, across every battlefield. In mission 7 one of my men finally fell to the Nazi’s eldritch horrors and became…incapacitated.
Incapacitated? Am I fighting Cthulhu or Pokemon??
He wasn’t even out of action for the rest of the mission, one of my other soldiers could just run over and bring him back to life with a full luck bar (and zero health). At this point I gave up on strategy – all of my earlier covering of sightlines and flanking was for naught. Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics requires precious little by way of tactics.
The problems continue
So the tactics angle was a wash. But what about the story-telling? Achtung! Cthulhu was originally an RPG, and it’s a story-rich set-up. Surely they could pull something off in the story department?
Not only does Achtung! Cthulhu not really have a story, the story it has makes no sense.
Story in this game is told entirely through your mission briefing and a closing/ending cinematic at the start and end of the game. There is almost no in-game text. Even that can work…Starcraft told some pretty decent stories through mission briefings. Except here the mission briefing is always a letter being read out to you by a commander – zero dialogue, zero characters, zero story development.
You start off fighting Nazis in the forest for…reasons…and next thing you know you’re told that your mission is so important that it can’t fail now. When I heard that, I assumed I’d fallen asleep and missed an entrance by the exposition fairy. WHAT mission? I’d been randomly killing Nazis in the woods for several hours by this stage, and had long ago assumed that my sole motivation was filling in time until I found the teddy bear’s picnic.
Good writing constantly raises the stakes. Bad writing tells you that the stakes have now been raised. This was definitely the latter. And also nonsensical.
The last ditch effort
So there’s no story, there’s no challenge. But is it at least “fun”? Can it live up to the campy romp implied by the premise of “good Cthulhu occultist vs Nazi Cthulhu occultist”?
Oddly, yes. A bit. The game engine is tight and efficient, and the UI makes the moment-to-moment gameplay quite enjoyable. There’s a decent range of weapons and powers, and there is fun to be had in figuring out effective combinations of powers and tactics. Unfortunately it’s nowhere near enough to carry the game off by itself. Perhaps if there was more variety in enemy types you’d at least get a feeling of progression, discovery and a periodic “shove” to force new tactics, a la X-Com. I don’t think it’s an accident that by far the game’s most engaging battle is its final one – “Shoggoth in a Tank”.
I would like to acknowledge that, if you know anything at all about Lovecraft’s works, the phrase “Shoggoth in a Tank” is utterly ridiculous.
The lack of enemy variety is particularly bewildering when you consider the licence they were working with. The Cthulhu Mythos has a bewildering array of unique beasties – a Hounds of Tindalos can teleport, but only through sharp corners. A “Colour out of Space” drains the life-force of any nearby living creature. Byakee’s can fly, Deep Ones can swim, and there’s countless beings who can possess people or drive them mad. So why does this game ignore all of them and give us either Nazis or blobs? (alright, “Shoggoths”).
The most bewildering thing about this game is that it takes a really good IP and then does nothing with it. Nazi-Cthulhu-Turn-Based-Tactics is a great idea! I signed up to review it based on that premise alone! But this really feels more like tactics Wolfenstein than Cthulhu – if it weren’t for the stress meter and the word “Shoggoth” you would have no idea that there was supposed to be a Lovecraftian influence at all.
The final word
So do I recommend it?
It’s a shame, because a lot of work and a surprising amount of polish has gone into it. But it falls flat because it feels more like a game-programmer wanted to use their neat game engine, rather than a game-designer wanted to make a neat game. Or to put it another way, it’s too similar to XCom to be unique, but not dissimilar enough to be interesting.
Release date: October 2018 (for PC)
Purchase date: December 2018 (free review code)
Complete date: 28 January 2019
Time spent: 23 hours
Developer: Auroch Digital
Recommended for: People who want a non-taxing tactics game, who are interested in some interesting additions to the tactics formula or who are fans of the Achtung! Cthulhu licence.
Not recommended for: People who want a challenge or a coherent story.