It’s as though the developer knows me. I’m not in the habit of quoting press releases, but when one opens with the statement that “this is not a half-hearted port, an ultra-casual time waster, or a beat-to-death genre like tower-defense, angry birds clones, or doodly-jumpers”, it’s liable to get my attention.
Handily, SpellShip Tactics lives up to its promises. Superficially, this is a game of interstellar chess: two forces are laid out across a grid, with spaceships analogous to chess pieces placed on the board. Each moves in a manner similar to their abstract counterparts – so rooks move horizontally and vertically, bishops move diagonally, etc. The main difference is that each piece can opt instead to move one space in any direction – meaning that bishops can alternate between diagonals, and ships can attack any adjacent enemy, no matter their orientation. Beyond this, the similarities end.
For one thing, the attacker does not automatically win: attacking gives no direct advantage besides being able to dictate the nature of the battle. Instead, combat results in the game switching to a real-time action mode, with the player controlling their ship directly and trying to destroy the enemy. Each ship type is different – pawns are tiny, agile starfighters, bishops are support corvettes, and the queen is a lumbering battleship, bristling with defences. Each individual ship in your force can be upgraded and outfitted – so a rook can be equipped with area of effect weapons like torpedos, effective against more agile foes, or plasma cannons for taking down capital ships. Upgrades are unlocked slowly as the campaign draws on, with each ship and piece of ordnance costing gold, earned through completing missions efficiently.
More importantly, ships can support one another, meaning that forming a synergistic force is important: when a combat starts, any ship in movement range of the targeted unit will join in, on both sides of the battle. This can lead to large-scale rucks, with multiple ships on both sides joining the fray. In these cases, the player chooses a single ship to control, with the AI controlling the supporting craft. This makes positioning on the grid all-important: the player must maximise the number of ships taking part on their side, minimise the enemy’s forces in a battle, and at the same time maintain a system of mutual support on the defence. This, combined with asymmetrical forces in each level, and grids which are often broken up by physical obstructions such as asteroids, makes for a pleasingly complex tactical layer.
Unfortunately, the combat system itself is a little less elegant. Controlled by an analogue stick of sorts, and buttons for each installed weapon system, the screen is cramped, and not helped by a narrowly focussed perspective. The combat does at least feel as though it is in space, with inertia playing a big part. Avoiding ploughing into asteroids – and, more dangerous, the occasional sun – is half of the fight. The combat between fighters can be tense and frantic, all dodging and weaving, with space debris proving both a menace and blessed cover from attacks. However, combat between the larger, slower ships can degenerate into little more than both ships ramming one another, slowly whittling each other’s defences down with constant, wearying attacks. Meanwhile, watching your AI companions be outwitted by an asteroid, or head straight into a suicidal attack, is a source of regular frustration.
Nevertheless, the overarching campaign and absorbing tactical layer save the game. Setting up massed attacks to hammer your way through the enemy’s defences is satisfying – almost as satisfying as luring the enemy defences away from your true target, allowing a quick, lethal strike to end the game with minimum loss of life. Meanwhile, the sheer amount of content means that there’s a lot to do – while the combat may not be perfect, unlocking new weapons and ships is always compelling, and with the three species having very different approaches to combat, there’s replay value too.
The production values may not be brilliant –the graphics are okay, the looping orchestral music grates quickly – but the ambition shines through. The developer could have rested on his laurels, but instead he opted to make a sprawling, ambitious game of strategy and combat. The combat may not be perfect, but to have made the attempt is admirable, and the £2.99 asking price pays for an awful lot of content. I would love to see what the developer could do with a larger budget.
SpellShip Tactics Gameplay Video
SpellShip Tactics Screenshots
Version Under Review : 22.214.171.124
There is a trial version available and the full version is available for $3.99, the trial mode allows the user to play through the 7 stage tutorial and the first six main stages (out of a total of 66 stages).
Our Rating for SpellShip Tactics