By Neil Merrett
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by BonusXP & Vandal Hearts, released on the Sony Playstation in 1997, published by Konami
As is the case with listening to some music that we love or watching a favourite movie, seeking to recreate some cherished experience of playing through a videogame is a perfectly human thing to do.
After all, it is possible for software to be preserved either physically or digitally so that it can relived time and time again.
Yet this experience doesn’t always account for the impact that a life of small and seismic changes can have on that most complex and changeable of hardware – the player themselves.
What if a game you once loved wasn’t as satisfying or rewarding as memory suggests? What if the things we loved haven’t changed over time, but we have?
The alternative therefore is to try and discover something new that can still hark back to the look, feel or even basic play-style of that treasured experience.
However, hoping to evoke the feelings of being a teenager playing through a beloved turn-based fantasy strategy game some 23 years later with an entirely different game is arguably a doomed endeavour.
Despite being two games that share a fantasy setting and genre, the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics and Vandal Hearts have their own unique traits, mechanics and flaws in terms of guiding a player through their story.
A story of nostalgia
This then is a story about a recently released turn-based strategy videogame, but also about the joys and perils of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a companion we all have throughout life. Something that allows us to reevaluate and give meaning to the events – both big and small – that have defined us..
Nostalgia can show us who we once were by invoking feelings of the things we have loved or that got us through a seemingly tough time. It is a way of trying to go back to a past that may or may not have existed – an imperfect kind of time travel.
In a theoretical sense, videogames – barring some licensing or technical snafu – allow players to go back to the titles they once loved and play through the experience just as it was.
Whether this is advisable, or even a rewarding endeavour, is down to personal preference.
23 years after the release of Vandal Hearts on the original Playstation, a wide variety of turn-based strategy games have been released with different takes and innovations.
Turn-based strategy is a genre where the player takes it in turns to move different characters around a grid-based level. Usually it works by allowing the player to move each character a set number of tiles and perform a certain task each turn. The opposition then repeats the process.
The challenge of these games is based on planning ahead and deciding how best to position a character to avoid reprisals from your opponents, while also making sure they can take advantage and perform the most effective attack possible.
It is like a form of chess with dramatic light and sounds, not to mention the ability to blind an opposing piece or set them alight en masse with a blazing fire dragon or awesome weapon.
Innovations to the genre have come in various forms, such as the use of time travel plotting and rogue-like elements in the critically acclaimed Into the Breach, or allowing for a more third-person shooter game to be playede within the turn-based format with Codename S.T.E.A.M.
The storied Nintendo series Fire Emblem combines the turn-based fantasy genre with dramatic storytelling, a marriage and relationship system, as well as the inclusion of a ‘permadeath’ mechanic where any character that falls in battle is permanently erased and prevented from being used again – regardless of their sentimental appeal to a player.
Vandal Hearts is itself an atmospheric fantasy turn-based strategy title that sees the player control a growing band of knights, mages, mercenaries and daring warriors across a diverse fantasy world created through several dozen colourful battle grids.
On a surface level, any gamer seeking to recreate the feel of playing through Vandal Hearts could do worse than picking up a recently released turn-based strategy game, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics.
Dark Crystal should be something of a double whammy of potentially nostalgic experiences by combining a traditional fantasy turn-based strategy game with puppeteer Jim Henson’s obtuse, visually arresting 1983 film, the Dark Crystal.
More specifically, the game is based on a sequel series from 2019 that once again used cutting edge puppetry, combined with computer generated effects, to create a story that, while effectively suitable for all ages, touches on the darker aspects of power, politics and family.
Puppetry is used to imbue personality into every inhabitant of the world, from angry furballs to crotchety sages, ancient warriors and grotesque, puss-filled monsters bored with ultimate power, yet unwilling to relinquish their grip on a dying world. It offers a somewhat timely political take on the everyday ways our structures, societies and even well intention familial love can be corrupted by cynical leaders.
As a videogame adaptation, the Dark Crystal squeezes many of the show’s characters and settings into a somewhat generic, playable turn-based strategy title. Yet many of the characters included could be replaced a a generic menagerie of knights and warriors without any major change to gameplay.
As a genre, the world of the Dark Crystal does lend itself to turn-based fantasy battles where your army of tiny Gelfling must use magic and brute force, combined with environmental advantages to battle and outsmart the physically intimidating Skeksis and an army of bugs and brainwashed warriors.
This experience is often delivered on a basic, if entertaining level, with the occasional addition of environmental factors such as sandstorms and the occasional parasitic creature that can take over the player’s characters when in close proximity as soon in the source material.
Unfortunately, it does reduce the show’s sometimes evocative storytelling and puppet performances to perfunctory cut scenes that fail to capture the score and feel of the Henson Company’s latest work.
As a turn-based strategy title, the Dark Crystal game is much rougher around its edges in terms of gameplay mechanics and character when compared to Vandal Hearts, which told its own generic fantasy story with a unique feel, sound character and game mechanics.
Gameplay-wise Vandal Hearts was designed to offer a satisfyingly linear game with an evocative score and a clear sense of challenge and progression whereby you controlled a pre-defined army of unique characters with their own set range of abilities and powers that all complement each other quite well.
Playing through Vandal Hearts, traditional fantasy character types were clearly defined through very unique abilities and play styles for the player to make use of. As the game progressed, the personality of your mysterious wizard, or noble monk were reflected in their ability to summon powerful flame dragons, or heal and protect vulnerable players respectively. Your brash pirate character was a blunt, axe-wielding lunatic with effective, if simple close range attacks that told the player all that was needed to be known about their personality.
Over the course of the game, you can choose one of two different sets of additional abilities for each character, but there is no drastic set of choices that can threaten to undo all your hard work.
The Dark Crystal has a much more challenging and uncertain path to progress. Here attempts to play through each of the game’s story missions will suddenly see a sharp rise in challenge that will likely require the player to return to previous levels and take on increasingly harder challenges in the same few old levels.
Each success in these ‘training’ missions allows the player to slowly build up the skills of any characters they have used against an ever more challenging set of enemies to earn money and experience.
How long you choose to avoid your main quests and hone your skills against these existing levels is defined only by a player’s patience and the ability of your squad to rise to each new challenge.
From both a technical and playing side, Dark Crystal is a much messier and complex game to play through, and in many ways less dramatic than Vandal Hearts – where every battle encounter drives the plot and character stories forward in the ultimate quest to put down the forces of evil. There are limited opportunities to grind up and play any additional levels, so the challenge is about using the characters you have to the best of their ability.
Dark Crystal meanwhile requires the player to decide when they are ready, if ever, to take on the next chapter of the story. Do you move to the next cut scene and battle, or spend several more hours returning to the same few levels time to slowly level a character up to gain some new class type that may ultimately prove underwhelming?
You can only see what new abilities that come with a class after it has been unlocked, and this requires using a character in different roles they may not seem suited for and that may not match your playing style for a number of missions. Compromise is required to succeed and beat the game in its terms.
After hours and hours of play, it may ultimately transpire that it would have been better to stick with an axe wielding warrior than transforming them into some strange mix of healer and scout that the player has spent a large portion of the game unlocking.
In the game, as in life, knowledge and abilities do not come without sacrifice. It’s a good lesson for life, but not always a satisfying way of building a game.
Whether intended or not, the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance tactics asks you to make difficult in-game decisions on how to develop your squad, forcing you to mix-up and change comfortable or satisfying strategies for new approaches.
Suddenly your treasured warrior will have to renounce combat for defence and healing in order to gamble on obtaining a satisfying new class of character down the brick road.
Like a lot of nostalgic experiences from yesteryear, Vandal Hearts, in comparison to the new Dark Crystal game, seems so much neater, simpler and satisfying to play and battle through. Rarely does the game ask you to choose a small number of your overall squad to take into a specific battle, when you can take in your whole beloved crew that you have spent the game getting to know.
Whether intentional or not, the Dark Crystal – perhaps fittingly for the more complex narrative of its source material – forces a lot more choice on the player around the characters that they use, and in how you chose – or not – to develop their abilities.
A failure to pay initial attention to every new game mechanic can lead the player to have to painstakingly learn the game’s mechanics and level system over gruelling hours of gameplay, often realising that you have been playing with your hands tied behind your back.
Yet this need to grind, to experiment, to go outside of one’s comfort zone in order to succeed feels somehow more complex, frustrating and just more….. real to life.
It is arguably less atmospheric with a more limited sense of character and progression.
However, it is no longer 1997 and perhaps the Dark Crystal is much more a game of its age for people in their near to middle ages.
Its choices are much more complex, and do not always pay off in a satisfying or conclusive manner. The player can find themselves questioning their decisions and wishing they had spent time working on a range of other skills or approaches to play, and having to push on with the consequences – even if they make the overall experience a little harder.
Yet for people at least two decades from the youthful zeal of teenage life, it’s a life lesson that can be a little bitter to swallow, if much more essential to getting through the real world.
“There’s nothing of the past. It left. This is it now.”
– Lazarus, written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh