[Review] Spaceland – Nintendo Switch

Written by Abram Buehner
  • Publisher: Ellada Games
  • Developer: Tortuga Team
  • Release Date: 30/10/2019
  • Price: £17.99 / $14.99
  • Review code provided by Ellada Games

Introducing: Spaceland Switch Review

The Nintendo Switch is home to some truly stellar turn-based strategy games. From Mario + Rabbids and Fire Emblem: Three Houses to Wargroove and Valkyria Chronicles, the system has built up quite a reputation for quality in this genre. For as many great tactics games have graced the system already, though, there is always room for another. Spaceland from Tortuga Team hopes to be that next, great title, taking cues from established SRPGs such as XCOM while framing the experience around a pick-up-and-play design philsophy. While it falters in some key areas, Spaceland is a largely solid strategy title that feels right at home on Nintendo Switch.

Interstellar strategy gameplay

The game’s setup is fairly simple, allowing its turn-based strategy combat to take center stage. Some narrative does exist here as you take command of a rag-tag group of military soldiers, miners, and space farers brought together by a distress signal and a mysterious, alien cult. The overarching storyline isn’t anything to write home about and falls flat. However, its characters all have colorful, distinct personalities and designs that keep dialog before and after missions fresh and upbeat. The game never takes itself too seriously, instead relying on trope-filled, referential banter that pulls the player from mission to mission. Stepping away from the game, I have trouble remembering plot points or character names as each fits into a familiar archetype, however the quips and conversation play out like comfort food. I found myself consistently smiling during these narrative sections, even if they didn’t leave much of an impression. Having a stronger narrative thrust would’ve improved Spaceland overall, but as it stands, the game’s personality props up its story.

The gameplay, on the other hand, packs more of a punch and is undeniably the focus of Spaceland. For those who have prior experience with the strategy genre, the nuts and bolts of combat aren’t going to be that hard to grasp. In fact, jumping into Spaceland, its mechanics felt immediately familiar, and I didn’t have to spend much time learning the ropes before I was able to get into a rhythm. Each of the game’s chapters plays out as a grid and turn-based affair, with the player strategically guiding a team of heroes to victory—whatever form that may take. In some chapters, the goal is as simple as to reach an exit, whereas others will pit the player against a boss enemy or require the player to accomplish an objective within a certain number of turns.

Tactical triumphs and troubles

Each mission unfolds as an exchange attacks, bouncing from the player’s team to the enemy force, as one would expect from the genre. Turns are dictated by action points, which can be spent on movement, combat, and each hero’s unique abilities. There is a lot of freedom in how they’re used, as the player has the freedom to use an action point or two with one character, swap to the next, do a partial turn there, and swap back. This allows for varied strategy in the player phase, and when paired with the sheer number of options in each hero’s kit, creates a core combat system that feels incredibly nuanced and flexible.

In other regards, though, the game doesn’t hit the mark—particularly in regard to its map design. Unfortunately, a good deal of trial and error can be present in Spaceland’s battles. This is largely a function of the game’s strange Fog of War effect that shrouds the battlefield, only revealing the map in the areas that immediately surround the player’s team. As such, there are often moments where a hero will advance a little deeper into the map where the fog previously obscured it, only to be face to face with an enemy who can attack and kill the player on the following turn. It is rather frustrating to be hit with surprise attacks of this manner in a strategy game—particularly one where health and ammo are extremely limited. This sort of design simply isn’t conducive to turn-based tactics, and it puts a damper on an otherwise very polished experience. For as dynamic as the player’s turn can be, and for as many tools as they have at their disposal, this Fog of War effect keeps the player at a remarkable and frustrating disadvantage in many missions.

Bite-sized battles

Many SRPGs choose to layer these base mechanics with leveling systems and customization, yet Spaceland largely circumvents this tradition. There is no level-up system to speak of, and while there is some room for customizing the heroes, it isn’t particularly deep. Largely, it involves simply spending coins on gear that is objectively superior to what came before, leaving the strategy to how coins are managed and where they’re allocated. These metasystems largely feel under baked, which is a shame, as being able to customize the heroes would’ve not only deepened the gameplay, but the personal, narrative connection to the characters as well.

Even with that issue in mind, though, the game isn’t striving for this sort of depth. Spaceland is an experience best suited to handheld play, as it is designed to be easily digestible in small bursts. A chapter can be completed in no more than twenty minutes, and the fast pace of the narrative combined with its relative simplicity makes this an experience that is suited to on-the-go gaming. I largely experienced Spaceland on the train to and from PAX each day, and this felt like the optimal way to progress through the game. Operating in these bite-sized chunks, Spaceland offers the perfect counterpoint to a title like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which demands prolonged play sessions to make meaningful progress. In this sense, Spaceland is very successful.  

The bottom line

While Spaceland is rough around its edges with some strange design choices and underwhelming customization, it is a largely polished and effective strategy title. It certainly didn’t blow me away, and in contrast to games such as Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Mario + Rabbids, it lacks a strong identity to grab a hold of. That said, it is a largely satisfying gameplay experience with nuanced combat, and as such, fans of this gameplay style will find a lot to like in Spaceland, especially in shorter bursts.

Pros

  • Polished gameplay
  • Plenty of room for nuaced strategy
  • Enjoyable characters and dialog

Cons

  • Trial and error map design
  • Shallow customization
  • Forgettable narrative

Verdict

Spaceland’s design issues hold it back from tactical greatness, but its fundementally polished, engaging gameplay make this title worth picking up.

3.5/5

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