Live by the Sword: Tactics Impression
…a game for fans of its genre that is obviously designed by fans of its genre.
Labrador Games’ Live By The Sword: Tactics promises political intrigue and tactical delights against a backdrop of fantasy world warfare. It sounds good on paper and looks good in screenshots, but for the moment all we have to go on in regards to the game itself is an Early Access version on Steam. This still gives us some material to work with.
The Early Access version gives a good overview of the game’s main parts, with sections for the tutorial, sample story battles, combat challenge, and multiplayer. The tutorial gives the scene of a dad taking his sons out into the woods for a lesson in how the world works, with plenty of fatherly encouragement and approval. It works well both as a refresher course on general TRPG mechanics and as a glimpse into the backstory of the game’s presumed protagonist. Though it does not give up many details, still it manages to convey a good deal in a wholesome manner.
The first act takes place some years later, as those two young boys have grown to become the men who protect their part of the country from bandits and marauders. References are made to political unrest and interpersonal issues that are sure to cause drama later on, but for this part the battles are still the main attraction.
Combat is, unsurprisingly, inspired by classics of the sub-genre such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts. There’s the isometric grid, the attack ranges and percentages, the height factors, the turn order, and other standard mechanics one might expect. Tutorial Dad talks his boys through each item, from move actions to camera angles, before bringing the lesson to an end. For a more thorough experience, the player will need to move on to the next item on the main menu: the story battles.
The initial Early Access release came with two non-canon battle maps, making a point to state that these were not actually in the main game. It also said that they were made easier than normal battles in the main plot, which may or may not be something to worry about. The two battles were not difficult for anyone with experience in the genre, but that someone felt the need to point this out implies that this is a studio that takes its challenge levels seriously. These non-story demo battles were standard “mow down the enemy force” affairs, but with enough base choice variation that they were worth playing through several times. All seven standard unit classes were available in battles with a party roster of five, and all party members had more ability options than they can equip at one time. This is where Live by the Sword: Tactics begins to show some ingenuity.
Every unit type possesses a base attack, either melee or ranged. On top of that, the player can choose up to four special abilities for them to take into battle. Most of these are active, such as a warrior’s combat maneuvers, a rogue’s dirty tricks, or a wizard’s spells. Others are passive, like an ability that lets the unit ignore movement restrictions on climbing. Every unit in the original non-story stages possessed six special abilities, so it was possible — even encouraged — to experiment with the loadout. On top of this, each unit also possesses an inherent class ability, either active or passive, that often contains meta-effects on other abilities. Any active ability has a cooldown period before they can be utilized again, which must also be taken into account.
In point of fact, the Early Access version got an upgrade partway through the initial writing of this impression, removing the original demo stages in favor of story stages and other items. With the first chapter made available, the Early Access experience lost some of that flexibility, as the battles are now to an extent restrained by the necessities of the plot. Two character classes are not present at all, while another gets a big introduction by way of a special battle between a named character and two mooks.
Another significant addition is the Tactician Mode, wherein the player is presented with special maps and enemy line-ups with the goal of beating the scenario with the best time possible. It also now includes a Skirmish Mode against AI opponents, plus the promise of being able to create personalized maps in a future build.
The graphics are very reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics, though to be honest they look a little zoomed-out. The character sprites are detailed enough to deserve better visibility and presentation, which comes when two units face off for an attack and the entire map view squares to focus on them. The different abilities have their own animations — quite humorously in the case of the knight’s Taunt skill. Musically, this game has a good backdrop of tunes going for it. Different themes play for allies or enemies, and they all have a good tempo to get the blood moving and the excitement building.
There are some negatives to address, however. First is the overall speed of the game. While the background music may be fast-paced, the action is not. Enemy units take several seconds to cogitate a move, and then precious more seconds actually moving. Walking speeds in general could stand to be increased by a factor of two, though the attack animations themselves are not so bad.
The other issue has to do with attack accuracy. Most physical attacks have a trait called High Accuracy in their stat block, but this does not hold up against the reality, where even for basic attacks a fifty percent hit rate is the norm. This is more painful for the special attacks, since they have a cooldown period that only adds insult to pain of missing. It is notable that the enemy units do not seem to have as many issues with hitting their targets.
As it stands, Live by the Sword: Tactics is a game for fans of its genre that is obviously designed by fans of its genre. While this can be a good thing, there may be drawbacks in regards to perceived balance. However, most issues are things that can hopefully be ironed out before the final version goes live. It will be interesting to see where Labrador Studios takes this when the game fully launches for PC at the end of the year.
Disclosure: This article is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.