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Strategy puzzler Absolute Tactics scratches my XCOM itch, until the characters start talking

Absolute Tactics: Daughters of Mercy (opens in new tab) doesn’t waste any time when you press start. Smash through a simple tutorial and within a few minutes you’re an amateur general, frantically issuing commands to your motley crew of D&D archetypes. Combat plays out as a dance, lunging forward to deliver crushing blows and recoiling back to pass out combat buffs to your squad. Unfortunately, that dance can lose a lot of its momentum when knock-off Edward Elric protagonist Huxley flips his shounen switch on and takes you back to 2005.

When I muted the music, ignored the story, and threw up an episode of The Rehearsal (opens in new tab) on the other monitor, I found Absolute Tactics' groove: it's a comfort game, ideal for when you want to move units across a chessboard battlefield and knock down some knight-shaped pins. 

There’s a cozy battle-flow that makes Absolute Tactics difficult to put down. You don’t face a crisis building up over several turns here⁠—there are no stressful XCOM 2-esque turn limits or the constant threat of enemy reinforcements. Stygian goons diligently march at you in formations that are basically puzzles to be solved, and knocking down a squad of enemies evokes the same feeling as clearing four rows in Tetris with the perfect I-block placement.

Your mages and wizards dole out powerful attack and defense buffs, numbers which can be pushed ever-higher through skills like "pet the dog" (the most mechanically busted ability I’ve found so far). The chessboard levels funnel enemies towards your party in tight, aggressive formations, exposing a particular vulnerability and begging you to exploit it. There’s a nice tabletop skirmish game energy behind Absolute Tactics, bringing some commonsense design principles to combat⁠—like how every unit in the game, friend or foe, can be attacked from behind for nearly double damage. So, yeah, the direction you face when you end a turn is extremely important, which I learned early on when my squad was pin-cushioned by crossbow wielding-goons that punished my exposed flank while I greedily snatched some tempting chests.

This is my weakness in this sort of game: an obsessive need to have the best gear, the ultimate loadout, the perfect party⁠. Absolute Tactics caters to my cravings by expanding your party and toolkit through mid-mission progression—you’ll often rescue a new party member or have one join you every other mission, unlocking a slew of new combat options and teasing you with potentially devastating gear combinations. The flow of currency from enemy bodies to your wallet is steady enough to give you free run of the item shop between missions, so you’re encouraged to play around with different loadouts.

Progression is largely linear. You’ll rarely be making in-depth decisions as your primary focus is pushing attack, defense, and magic attributes ever higher. That feeling of chasing the perfect party is the game’s biggest draw for me, and progression is quick enough to ensure you’re getting a constant stream of upgrades and skills to test out on the bevy of side content⁠, but it’s a tall ask that you stay immersed in Absolute Tactics long enough to see all of it.

Absolute Tactics’s high-medieval setting doesn’t take itself seriously, but it expects your attention nonetheless. The dialogue is a cocktail of Whedonisms and soulless quipping from characters who act like they want you to click "play now" on one of those old Evony ads that once blanketed webpages. We’re talking real bottom of the barrel stuff here: calling out a murderous, blood-drunk berserker for being a "chump" and having the disembodied voice of the captive princess in your head call him "cringe" when your dog tears his throat out.

The main quest has me defending my home from an invading army, but the narrative never feels rooted in place, like the Triangle Kingdoms and Great Houses of contemporaries Triangle Strategy and Fire Emblem. What little plot Absolute Tactics has to offer doesn't much worry about motivations—some baddies named the Daughters of Mercy are killing people to use their blood in magic rituals, and that's that.

Absolute Tactics attack

(Image credit: Curious Fate)

Backgrounds are sharp and colorful, evoking a high production tabletop style, but experienced DMs and wargamers know that you have to sprinkle a little grimdark tragedy into your story of a brutal occupying army⁠. You know, strewn about bodies, refugee camps, signs of plague and pestilence, that sort of thing⁠, all completely absent here. The result is a narrative that feels light, fluffy, and devoid of substance, and Absolute Tactics's quips aren't good enough to get away with that.

Combined with the repetitive stock music (there’s one battle theme that you’ll hear for the majority of the first major act), stiff animations, and an early 2010s browser game feel, it was an uphill battle to pull my attention away from the excellent second season of Better Call Saul.

Mechanically, Absolute Tactics delivers. Narratively, it’s got the same energy as the Borderlands 2 "Assault on Dragon Keep" DLC (before they found their groove with the fantasy setting). The game's at its best when it’s not your sole focus, when you want to sling spells and chop heads while powering through a more engaging TV show. It does not leave me pining for its world, yearning for its characters, or pondering the mysteries and intrigue of its main quest, and I really would have preferred if it didn’t aim to do any of that in the first place.