If you’ve been keeping up with this series, or if you’re not so suspicious of your tech that it takes more than a couple years to lower your guard enough, you know that the utility of smartphones has expanded over the years to encompass some pretty decent, fulfilling games for dirt cheap. In a bit of an ironic twist, cyberpunk is sure as hell getting in on this trend. Of course, there are PC and console games that fit the criteria too, but more on that later. This week, I’ll be focusing on a genre that I find somewhat hit-and-miss: turn-based strategy. These games have been ported from PC, you can get for under $5 on iOS or Android devices, and you might be surprised how well they translate to the mobile device format. You know, in case you a little something-something to get you through the long wait times accompanying the unfortunate reality of corporate bureaucracy.
Don’t lie. You know about Shadowrun Returns. Harebrained Schemes‘ continuation to the famed RPG series takes place decades after an event known as the Awakening–an unexplained phenomenon that marked the return of magic and warped much of the human population into elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, etc.–occurred. The campaign that comes with Returns, “Dead Man’s Switch”, begins with the player character (you) receiving a message from an old friend, Sam Watts, post-mortem. On the condition of avenging his death, Sam offers you a large sum of nuyen (Shadowrun’s main currency). Since you’re about one bad day away from being out on the street, you agree, flying out to Seattle to track down the Emerald City Ripper, a notorious serial killer that steals their victims’ artificial organs. Following a treacherous trail of leads, you overturn the Sprawl’s seedy underbelly, where the streets are walked by cyberized thugs and vigilantes alike, a better life is just a simulation chip away, and you can find anything you need, from illicit implants to spells to good old-fashioned firearms, as long as you’re willing to pay the price.
At first, I was resistant to the concepts behind Shadowrun Returns–which is my first exposure to the series–due to the juxtaposition of science and magic in a single, contained narrative. And while I’m still not super on-board with the concept, they’re presented in a manner that I find digestible. As is typical of tabletop genre games, Shadowrun Return’s scope is broad, covering a good many concepts that have found a home in cyberpunk fiction, such as cybernetic augmentation, virtual reality, and corporate dominance, and does it in such a way that doesn’t make the game feel over-saturated. In that regard, at least until the third act, the role of magic is somewhat downplayed–it, like everything else at your disposal, is a tool, not a way of life. People are the same as they’ve always been, regardless if they’re human or metahuman. In fact, the matter of race in Shadowrun is handled quite well–except when, y’know, it maybe isn’t. Unfortunately, the final segment of the game revolves around a conspiratorial cult that dips maybe a little too far into the realm of the mystic, which took me out of the experience a bit. But other than this, Shadowrun represents a sort of bridge between classic D&D and the dystopian vision of the future that cyberpunk is so very chummy with.
The combat, while rather orthodox, is not punishing, and the amount of options that you have as a player when it comes to customization is almost staggering, but not overwhelming. There is far less choice, however, in the game’s structure. Your dialogue options are limited to a few alignment-based lines per interaction, and the plot is driven in a particularly linear fashion. You have no choice of where to go at which time, and “side quests” are more or less mandatory and immediate. But that’s just the nature of the game. I’m not there to play in a sandbox–although Seattle’s hand-drawn environments are painstakingly detailed and do well to immerse the player in its atmosphere–I’m there to find my dead friend’s killer and get paid, dammit. Unfortunately, the momentum the game builds is largely self-motivated, and if you don’t keep playing through to the end it’s somewhat difficult to jack back into the game’s world.
My only qualm in regards to the user interface is, for those of you who would play this on a smartphone, that the text is super tiny and it’s difficult to make selections in the game without the use of delicate fingers or a stylus. Fortunately, the game safeguards against mistakes by making the player confirm their choices by double-tapping. There’s also the matter of community-made campaigns that can’t be accessed via mobile, if that’s what you’re into, but you have access to a 10-hour game for the price of a 20-ounce bottle of soda. And considering the sequel, Dragonfall, can also be found on Android for only a dollar more, it might be money well spent. That’s 20% of the cost of the PC/Mac/Linux version–but sorry, Apple users, both games are suspiciously absent from the App Store. But don’t worry, Harebrained Schemes is making it as easy as possible to pick up your very own copy–you’ll just have to shell out a few extra bucks.
Oh, and in case you can’t get enough Shadowrun, turns out there are a bunch of Harebrained Schemes sequels that exceed the $5 limit, but they’re there.
Don’t say I never did anything for you.
Shadowrun Returns – 7/10
Frozen Synapse Prime
The city of the future, Markov Geist, is your backdrop as you take the role of Tactics in Frozen Synapse Prime, the remake of Mode 7‘s mind-wracking procedural strategy thriller. Tactics, an AI designed for its namesake, is commandeered by Petrov’s Shard, a resistance group leading a crusade against Enyo:Nomad, the city’s suffocating corporate overlord. There are two layers of Markov Geist: the Shape, which can best be compared to augmented reality, or the internet of things; and the real, which can be manipulated through the Shape. Case in point: in each level of FSP, Tactics (who is a Shapeform, or a being that only exists in the Shape) has the ability to control vatforms or expendable fusions of cloned organic tissue and mechanical enhancements that bear limited cognitive abilities. But in this world that craves control over all other things, you’ll come to find that control is an illusion.
Unfortunately, as far as turn-based strategy games go, Frozen Synapse Prime didn’t quite hold my attention. Its player turns require meticulous planning; each pawn’s movement must be mapped out beat-by-beat before the turn is executed in real time. The fun in this is, of course, is anticipating the enemy’s moves–after all, your team’s movements play out at the same time as the enemy’s. It’s only a little bit more complicated than chess; if the player doesn’t rightly anticipate what will happen, there is no course correction. While this is certainly an interesting take on the turn-based strategy genre, it was a little too high-effort for me. This, coupled with a lack of interesting visuals and a story that is largely dispersed through text wasn’t nearly enough to keep the interest of someone with a modern day post-adolescent attention span. But I know there are those of you out there that would leap at the chance for that kind of thoughtful strategizing, to which I heartily recommend this game.
If you don’t have an Android device, Frozen Synapse Prime can also be found on PS Vita ($19.99) and PC ($24.99). But beware, Steam users–the original is seen as superior, as it has a keyboard-friendlier user interface, and can be purchased for Linux and Mac as well, at $24.99. Also available through Humble Bundle, Green Man Gaming, GOG.com, and of course, the home website.
Frozen Synapse Prime – 6/10
Following an ambush by the world’s most powerful mega-corporations, espionage contract group Invisible, Incorporated finds its members scattered and hunted by its former clients. Fortunately, you, as the Operator, your director, known only by you as Control, and your agents aren’t going down without a fight. You have 72 hours to break into corporate facilities, gather resources, and strike back before the jig is up. With the assistance of an AI known as Incognita, you have the ability to hack, sneak, and occasionally shoot your way out of every situation you might find yourself in. Every second counts; use them to get out of this mess before they’re gone.
And I’m not kidding when I say that. Invisible, Inc. tracks your time while you deliberate which mission to take in this turn-based procedural spy game. The issues I had with Frozen Synapse Prime are not present here: I felt as though every order I gave to my team of spies had weight to it, and any missteps or mistakes I made would be costly. Klei Entertainment (whom you might recognize as the developers of Don’t Starve) did well to make sure that it’s quite the task to get the player’s team in and out of every situation alive. Couple this with the game’s unique stealth elements–the player can’t barge into every facility guns a-blazing without casualties–and the stakes feel very high. To top it all off, while Invisible, Inc. might take place in 2074, it has a slick, Cold War-era spy-movie sensibility. While this is unconventional for the cyberpunk genre, I found it fun and unique. But if you’re expecting another XCOM, don’t. This is the world of corporate espionage–be a shadow, not a stick of dynamite.
Invisible, Inc. – 7/10
Red is in deep shit. After an attempt on her life, the famous singer-turned-fugitive finds her voice stolen and herself doggedly pursued by an artificial intelligence network known as the Process. All she has as a weapon is a mysterious sword, which appears to be inhabited by the consciousness of a man who once knew her well. As Red and the Transistor navigate the enchanted, shining city of Cloudbank, tragedy, and conspiracy unfurl in one of post-cyberpunk’s freshest stories in years.
Honestly, there should probably be an entirely separate article on this site devoted to this game. Supergiant is well-known for the care that they take in crafting their stories, to the point that the gorgeous artwork, the spectacular sound design, and extensive world-building all tell deeply emotional stories of their own. For instance, the player will occasionally come across the body of someone with a glowing cube hovering over it, which will become absorbed into the Transistor. The player will find later, at access points, that this cube is the AI profile of a successful, intelligent individual in Cloudbank’s metropolitan sectors. Like Invisible, Inc., Transistor‘s art style takes deep inspiration from past eras; this time, it draws upon the lavish extravagance of the Jazz Age. And yet, cyberpunk concepts like artificial intelligence, social media, virtual reality, and the internet of things not only remain intact, but feel right at home.
Veterans of the game might find my claim of Transistor’s status as a turn-based strategy game dubious; it’s certainly not as conventionally-structured as Supergiant Games’ most recent release. The strategic elements in Transistor are certainly more akin to those of Frozen Synapse, wherein the player will plan out their attack and watch them unfold in real time. However, not only is this an optional method of playing the game (the other method being more similar to more typical action games), it’s also more fluid and natural, in my opinion. Movement is not tile-based, so turn execution is much more free-form, which is especially liberating when playing on a mobile device. If that’s not enough to sweeten the pot, then just take another gander at the iPad version’s price tag. For those of you who are a little more brand-averse (as you should be), Transistor can be picked up on Steam, GOG.com, and for PS4 at $20 a pop, but still worth every penny.
Transistor – 9/10
That’s all. For now. You know of a cyberpunk game for under $5 you want covered? Post it in the comments, we’ll be sure to feature it in future posts.