STAFF REVIEW of 8-Bit Armies (Xbox One)

Saturday, October 27, 2018.
by Royce Dean

8-Bit Armies Box art There exists a phrase you commonly hear in movies and entertainment which resonates with me. It goes a little something along the lines of “I love it when a plan comes together”. Of course you most often hear it in reference to a successful heist, or at the end of a wedding movie, but when I use it, it's usually more simple in scope and far less dangerous. When a shelf fits up against the wall, the plan has come together. When paying for gas, and I stop the pump at an even number, the plan has come together. When I use the last drops of milk the day before the expiry, the plan has come together, which leads to later plans coming together in a grocery store, where you’d better believe my plans for a well organized cart have come together. I love to plan things if it means i’m prepared for what is to come. This translates to video games somewhat.

Of course, there is only so much planning that can be done if you’re playing a platform title, where gameplay is more focused around fast and twitchy reaction time, but many other genres, like the RPG, let you plan things out for days if you really want to. Strategy is the key to victory after all. However, the king genre of planning in video games goes to the RTS, a genre whose name is itself; “Real Time Strategy”.

RTS games demand strategic thinking in a way that no other type of game does. You have to be tactical and fast, and above all else, you have to know what you’re doing and how to react to anything that could be thrown your way by being both aggressive, but mindful of your own fortifications as well. Personally, I’ve never been very good at these games, but I can recognize exceptional skill on a player's part when I see it. So, what is the big and trending new strategy game that's taking the world by storm? I don't know, but 8-Bit Armies exists.

Let’s start from the beginning shall we? 8-Bit Armies is, as I made loosely clear on my soapbox, a strategy game that has you taking command of large armies in a top-down isometric view to rout opposing armies. This is a formula that has been used, and largely unchanged, since the birth of the RTS genre, to a family one would assume wore exclusively camouflage as daytime wear. It's fast paced (mostly) and rife full of action.

How RTS games work is you start with the first structure of your base and some money. From there you build other structures, using this currency, that affords you to bring in more resources and currency faster, and then build your army. Broadly speaking, if you wanted to train a soldier, you’d typically have to build a structure such as a barracks to do so. These games escalate in a way that encourages you to strike at your enemies when you can to keep them distracted, or outright kill them, while you build up more powerful members of your team like tanks squads or aircraft squads. RTS games have taken on all manor of theme over the years such as futuristic and fantasy, but 8-Bit Armies goes for something new, and I think a first for its kind.

8-Bit Armies earns most of its points because of the way it looks and sounds. This game lays on a fantastic first impression, and it does so thick. The menu screen pops up with heavy rock and an art card that tells you immediately that this game is going to be all about 8-Bit visuals... almost like you are staring at a really angry Minecraft dude. The menu select options themselves are reminiscent of nostalgic games of yore, wielding blocky text and simple colors, but are done so in a way that feels more modern.

When you get into the game the visuals are even better. The colors are crisp and clean. Shading and shadows never muddy, nor what is happening at all times, and instead, you'll find the visuals help to accentuate everything on screen, meaning you never lose a member of your army into the visual ether. But, most importantly, the structures, environments and characters are all fantastic representations of what they are supposed to be; only in 8-Bit. All in all, 8-Bit Armies looks and sounds every bit as fun as the game should be. ...Should be.

Where 8-Bit Armies falls flat is in it’s control scheme. RTS games have a rocky history on consoles, and with good reason. There is very little that the RTS genre can’t do better on a PC. What I mean by that more specifically is how you both command and build your army. When playing an RTS title on a computer, you’d obviously be using a mouse and keyboard, and what that opens up for you is the kind of pinpoint accuracy that controllers just can’t replicate, no matter how precise they get. Additionally, keyboards have multitudes more buttons where which you can “hotkey” specific building instructions to a single press, as opposed to having to go through some kind of menu that you would with a controller. What this means is that RTS games on PCs are faster and more precise, and RTS games on consoles are cumbersome and slow. 8-Bit Armies approaches this issue with a unique, and albeit fantastic, sounding workaround on paper that seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth in actual gameplay.

When playing 8-Bit Armies you’ll notice that each your left and right bumper buttons open up comprehensive lists for each of the structures and units you can build in your army, which would be great if the cursor wasn't so hard to see. All you need to do hold down the left or right bumper, then with your thumbstick, press and hold in the direction of the thing you’d like to create. Easy. But, to take it a step further, when ordering more troops you must choose to do that with one of three buttons in mind. See, when ordering troops you can press either X, Y or B. When doing that you are permanently assigning that unit to one of three parties. Later, when you press the X, Y or B buttons, you’ll instantly select all units on the field that are a member of that party.

As far as quick selection of units goes, that sounds like an acceptable solution to the traditional click and drag methods utilized by the Command and Conquer and/or Starcraft type games of the world. However, unless you are exceptionally gifted at keeping all members of a particular squad together at all times, this method of selecting units gets both messy and detrimental fast, with different units running across the screen in different directions through what is usually hazards like lava or the enemy, just to get to where the rest of the group is. God forbid you accidentally select something you don't want. That's a one way ticket to restarting a mission. The only other option for moving units is individually. One at a time. It’s hard to explain to somebody that has never played an RTS game why that’s bad, but imagine cutting your lawn with nail clippers. Yeah, that isn’t an option.

Content wise, 8-Bit armies is respectable. There are four main modes that make up your play options. First is the campaign, and it's here that you play through the story of your chosen army by doing what an 8-Bit army does best. This is also the way to go for new players... because as these story missions progress, you’ll be able to build more and more unit types and become more and more familiar with both that specific army and the game as a whole. As you would expect, these missions start off relatively easy and work their way up in difficulty. For those of you with friends, there is also a Co-Op Campaign mode. As the name implies, you'll be firing through story missions, only this time with a partner. Unfortunately I didn't get the opportunity to play this mode because everyone I knew was busy, so I'm unclear if the missions are the same or different from single player campaign.

Next is Skirmish mode. Skirmish mode is the closest 8-Bit armies gets to having an online quick match function. When you select Skirmish you’ll have to build your own match by selecting a map, filling it with as many or as few players as you'd like, changing which player is which army and even team colors. This mode screams “post game” for when you are done with the campaign, which is a-okay by me. Some of the best RTS memories I have are from custom matches. And last on the modes list is Multiplayer. More specifically, Multiplayer means online multiplayer. Selecting multiplayer mode gives you a few different styles, including quickmatch and online with friends. If strutting your stuff for fake internet points is your jam, then this is where you'll be spending most of your time.

As it stands, 8-Bit armies is a decent overall package that gets held back tremendously by its awkward controls. As with anything, despite my displeasures, I did improve my game with time and effort, but at no point did playing ever start to feel natural. 8-Bit Armies is a game best played by the most passionate gamers, and even more specifically, ones that have a deep love for RTS games. It's fun art style makes it a standout member of its genre, that while not necessarily appropriate for all ages, is much more in line with something that older children and young adults may find more appealing than it's typically darker, more melancholy or even violent cousins. It's hard so say that I’ll personally ever want to go back and revisit this title for the reasons I've outlined, but 8-Bit Armies is hardly an unpolished travesty and certainly contains fun if you're up for a challenge both in game and while playing it.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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