US: 15 Sep 2014
Reprisal Universe has a great start. Its Populous-with-modern-pixel-art style is instantly attractive, and the overarching narrative is intriguing. It has a simple and slick interface, the music and sound are wonderful, and the first few levels suggest a grandiose game is to come. Reprisal Universe only half delivers on that grandiosity. The scope of the game does grow and is impressive, but the mechanics don’t grow with that scope. This is a strategy game where you only ever have to use one strategy, and as such, it quickly grows repetitive.
You are Thallos, a god who was removed from power by his sister and brothers and who now has to work his way back into power. You do this by “reprising” other tribes in the world, thus growing your influence until you can travel to other worlds.
It’s a grand idea, but the execution is less grand. There’s no single, large, world. Instead the game is split into levels, each a different map (again, like Populous). Sometimes that map is a mountain region, sometimes a snowy range, sometimes a desert, or sometimes an island chain. Each map has a couple other enemy tribes inhabiting it for you to reprise, i.e. take over.
This small scope, while a little disappointing at first considering the premise, is not a bad thing. It allows for a nice ramping of difficulty as the game takes its time explaining the controls and interface. It’s nice to play a civilization building game that doesn’t just dump me into the deep end.
You create settlements that automatically spawn workers after a set amount of time, and you can tell those workers to either make more settlements or to go pick a fight with the enemy tribes. Your settlements begin as little huts, but you can raise and lower the ground in order to make room for them to grow (again… like Populous). The larger the settlement, the more workers have to attack it in order to take it over. The one limitation is that you can only modify the land around your own settlements, so if the enemy starts entering your domain, they can halt or even reverse your constructions plans.
In addition, you have multiple destructive powers. This is where Reprisal Universe becomes brutal. The only real strategy is a literal scorched earth policy. You can summon a lighting storm to burn the land, destroying settlements and making it uninhabitable. Fire does the same, or a whirlpool can destroy all land near water. This destruction can be reversed with more terraforming, turning the scorched earth into a minor setback. You race to build and destroy faster than your enemy can build and destroy, and the winner is whoever takes over every last settlement on the map.
This race makes for some fun and intense games as you try to balance construction with destruction, but after a few levels, you’ll realize that there’s only one strategy for success: overwhelm the enemy. The intense games become boring as you repeat yourself over and over and over again. Every level is the same; play one and you’ve played them all.
However, the worst part of Reprisal Universe is the way that it hides information from the player due to the bizarrely small screen. Whether it’s because of technical limitations or a blind adherence to the Populous aesthetic, Reprisal Universe has a maddeningly small screen. The game is only available on the PC (and Macs), but it feels like it was designed for mobile devices because it artificially limits your view of the world.
For example, on a 60x60 grid map (or bigger) you can only ever see a 10x10 plot of land at once. Scrolling can only be done using the WASD or arrow keys, not the mouse, which is inefficient at best, and in a fast-paced game with so much going on at once, efficiency is integral to success. It often feels like I make mistakes simply because I can’t see things as they happen, so I’m not able to react accordingly. The game becomes fairly hard, not because of any interesting or challenging design tricks, but because it forcibly handicaps the player. There is simply no good design reason for this limitation, and it ruins the game because as maps get larger and more complicated, more essential information is hidden from you. What starts as a minor annoyance becomes increasingly damning.
It also doesn’t help that the pixel art and low angle of the isometric view make it hard to see behind buildings and to see how the land is slanted. You need to make the land level in order for your settlements to expand, but often times you’ll be up against some edge and you won’t know whether you should lift it or lower it. I’ve lost many a settlement by accidentally raising or lowering land too much, creating either a valley or a mountain that destroyed the settlement I was trying to grow.
After a few levels the “universe” part of Reprisal Universe opens up, and the scope it presents is genuinely awesome. Space exploration is determined by your influence on a planet, which is represented by a circle that expands out from any planet you control. Play enough levels on a world, reprise more tribes, and your influence expands. If that influence encompasses another planet, then you can now travel there and continue the process.
It’s a neat idea, but like everything else, it’s underwhelming in practice. The worlds all look the same, you’re always in one of the same four environments, and your tactics for success are always the same. Reprisal Universe starts with a lot of promise, but that promise quickly turns into annoyance, which then turns into frustration, which then makes you wonder why on earth the game is designed the way it is. Reprisal Universe could have been great, but it only has itself to blame for its failures.
// Moving Pixels
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