Planet Stronghold - Staff Review  

Love in the Middle of a Fire Fight
by Sam "Nyx" Marchello

20-40 Hours
+ Tons of skills and sidequests.
+ Visual novel style works surprisingly well.
+ Multiple endings and replay value.
- Difficulty spikes can be unnerving.
- Combat is bland.
- Menus are clunky.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Winter Wolves is a company known mostly for visual novels. Its games stress the importance of narrative and choice, giving players options governing the ways in which stories can be told. Although Planet Stronghold is the second RPG from the company, after Magic Stones, the game doesn't entirely stray away from the developer's visual novel background. Winter Wolves has created an interesting sci-fi universe full of wonder and discovery, focusing on strong storytelling and non-linearity.

   Players take on the role of either Joshua or Lisa Nelson, the offspring of Planet Stronghold's greatest hero. After making this choice, players embark on a journey as new recruits set to defend Planet Stronghold from alien races that threaten it. On Nelson's first day, robotic training ants attack the colony, causing a massive uproar. The same day, Prince Cliff betrays his father and leaves Planet Stronghold to join an alien race known as the Marada with the hope of stopping his father from performing alien genocide. Caught in the middle of this conflict, Nelson must quickly make a dire decision: side with humanity or become a traitor in hopes of unifying all the alien races within the universe.

   The story of Planet Stronghold, though riddled with sci-fi clichés, is an interesting one. Multiple playthroughs are encouraged thanks to two drastically different potential outcomes. Siding with the Marada allows players to experience what it's like being a traitor to Planet Stronghold, while siding with the king allows for different expeditions to be engaged. Regardless of which side is chosen, the plot follows the familiar science fiction formulas, but multiple perspectives provide a lot of depth to the story. Players are able to change the way in which the story is shaped through their actions, choices and skills.

   Skill points are granted through level ups, and as players distribute points they can build their characters to fit specific roles. Since the game endorses using skills to perform actions as opposed to straight out combat, this allows for more skills to be obtained. There are many situations in which players will have the option to use skills, such as sneaking past enemies, fixing robots, or surveying areas. The higher the skill level, the greater the chance characters have of avoiding combat situations. For every successful skill action performed, characters are awarded more experience than if they had simply fought the enemy. The choices made in many of these situations can impact the story, so it's worth trying the various options to see what actually changes. Although it feels like metaphorical dice are being rolled during these choice sequences, it never feels unfair when the option chosen succeeds or fails.

Lisa seems conflicted. Better roll a dice under the table to determine what will happen next. Lisa seems conflicted. Better roll the dice under the table to determine what will happen next.

   One area that does feel unfair is Planet Stronghold's difficulty. Although it is adjustable at any time, the difficulty in terms of the game's combat system is all over the place, even on the easiest setting. Considering that combat is turn-based, this is a game where it's pretty easy to die if one isn't too careful. However, even great caution is often not enough to prevent death. Though there are three different attack types, combat feels static, without much room for maneuver. Players are often at a disadvantage, as some battles are lacking in balance, making combat trickier than it should be. Part of this stems from the Aggro-meter, which increases as a character attacks the enemy and makes that character more likely to become the primary target. Certain characters with inherently low hit points are always at a disadvantage under this system, such as the users of psionic skills. Using psionic characters, though not a requirement, pack a far greater punch than any of the physical attackers, making them incredibly beneficial to employ. Cementing the uneven difficulty is the tendency of enemies to regain HP and SP faster than the protagonists, making its combat portion Planet Stronghold's weakest aspect.

   While using a visual novel style is unique in its own right, it makes the combat and exploration aspects of the game fairly difficult. Exploration is similar in style to older DOS RPGs such as The Superhero League of Hoboken, using a grid-based map. Players can move around on the tiles to encounter enemies, secrets, plot points, and sidequests. Enemies can be avoided on the exploration map by skipping the battles if players do not feel confident in their current strength to defeat the enemy. However, once battle is initiated, combat cannot be escaped. Planet Stronghold's use of tile-based exploration, though archaic in most PC games, works surprisingly well here to incorporate the game's visual novel aesthetics in the best possible way.

   While there's some interesting uses of interaction, Planet Stronghold's horribly clunky menu system is a definite failing. Equipping items is more of a hassle than it should be. It is not enough for the game to remove access to equipment outside of the barracks: even there, the inability to shift stockpiled items out of an automatic mishmash proves infuriating. Making matters worse, changing equipment is not a simple swap process, but requires players to remove an item before entering the labyrinthine menu to find the replacement. In addition, healing items can neither be stacked nor replaced from the main inventory during combat, making it a pain when things get rough.

Dreden Shamans are cheap. Dredan Shamans are cheap.

   As mentioned numerous times, Planet Stronghold's graphics fit that of a visual novel. They're crisp, vibrant, and the character portraits have a fair number of expressions, something quite uncommon in indie RPGs. Characters and backgrounds share a great amount of detail, and although the results are impressive to behold, there is some occasional graphic recycling. Romantic options preformed in the game will net players beautiful hand drawn scenes and special quests. These romantic endeavors follow the visual novel format in that players will answer questions and interact with the crew, and the characters' romantic investment in Nelson are determined by the statements he or she has uttered. This aspect is done surprisingly well, as the character dialogue is interesting, though the game is sometimes misleading on how to please certain people.

   The audio in Planet Stronghold is mostly forgettable, as the music doesn't really stand out. The voice acting fits the job but doesn't really add much to the overall presentation. Players can expect to spend at least twenty hours completing the game, though that number can certainly double depending on the number of sidequests completed. There's a lot to explore and considering how non-linear the game is, it's easy and enjoyable to get lost in everything on offer.

   Planet Stronghold is an ambitious indie RPG in its presentation and non-linear gameplay. There's a lot to like about this title, but there're also tons of aspects that need improvement. If Planet Stronghold finds a way to create a more attractive combat system, and improve its clunky menu system and uneven difficulty, this game could have been a real winner. Despite the game's faults, it has enough to discover, and packs such a unique experience, in its presentation that it goes beyond the expectations of what it means to be indie. In the end, all Planet Stronghold needs is some fine-tuning.

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