Access Granted - Acaratus

By Alex Connolly 11 Mar 2016 0

A baroque milieu - check.

Brass and steam mechanica - check.

Front Mission-esque turn-based combat - check.

Collectible cards - check.

And so, Acaratus. It's a pleasant creation, channeling some of the finer things in life. Tilting for a rich and robust procedurally-generated campaign in addition to a strong online multiplayer showing, Acaratus is nothing if not aspirational.

Set against a high-medieval-but-thankfully-low-fantasy backdrop, campaign players oversee a clutch of mismatched renegades build up a force of steam-powered waddlers to push back against a tyrannical regime. No great surprises, and while the writing and cutscenes are deftly conveyed, it's not a hugely exciting premise. The campaign unfurls across a series of nodes, featuring towns where shops and blacksmiths can upgrade and expand the player arsenal of machines and cards.

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The core of the game revolves around the crafting and combating of these steampunk contraptions. Starting with a basic core part, players snap on a variety of ambulatory parts, offensive and defensive measures and certain buffs to measure. Each part sports statistics that feed into a machine's operational capabilities and limits as you'd expect, so tooling up with roles in mind serves a lot better than bolting together a jack-of-all-trades. 

Combat takes place on a grid, playing to the Front Mission inspiration. Leg type, base weight and capacity of a machine dictates movement capability, though this can be augmented and buffed with cards like 'Dash', extending range as expected. The card element injects flavour into an otherwise workmanlike IGOUGO AP-metered combat system. Cards don't have a huge amount of flair at the moment, but it's a necessary layer in making the clashes exciting. Though grid-based, machines can engage enemy units diagonally in addition to the fore. 

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As you accrue a larger deck, working out what you'll have in your combat hand is integral to the machine design process. Riveting together a ranged sniper unit makes better use of enhanced damage output than cards that favour a frontline tanker in defense bonuses. When the squad grows and diversifies, so to do the decisions made at the card bank. No great secret to veteran card sharks or SRPG grogs, but the choices are well-represented.

But for now, I just don't find the combat hugely engaging. For one, the scale is not capitalised on. Instead of hulking, smoking messes of cranks and gears, the battlesuits of Acaratus are effervescent little bounders. They clomp over the landscape in an accelerated gait, firing off weapons that don't convey weight or size or firepower. This being Early Access, there's still time to get the animations right, but in the face of turn-based action being seen as too slow, Acaratus is simply too fast in moving its pieces about. They need to feel like dirty, cog-driven constructs of iron and fire. Right now, even with the player requirement to engineer, iterate and edit, every legged machine totters around like Baxter Stockman's Mousers. I want to be sold these immense feats of firepower and destruction. Right now, they could be clockwork and tin. 

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Feeding into this is a pedestrian map design. I love the sense of strategic scale in the map screen, where the nodes and lanes are draped between township and fortress, inferring a grand imperial scale. That sense of distance doesn't seem to trickle down to the combat arenas, where those flighty mechs appear the only points of interest. A few more detailed assets scattered around the maps would help to highlight height differences. A little more visual spice to paint the abstract world away from 'fortress' or 'icy vale'.

It may seem petty to focus largely on the visuals of a strategy game, but in Acaratus, the confused scale really undermines a damn solid concept. The AI is great, perhaps even a little too savage on higher difficulties. Customisation is clean and efficient, with stats to crunch never hidden or obfuscated. Combat brims with numbers to track; proving Acaratus a perfect game for the modifier pedant.

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I just can't parse the scale, and feel greater combat world-building - for lack of a better phrase - needs to occur to truly bring home the art direction. Foot soldiers, open cockpits, something tangible to effect these mechanical brutes.

Despite these grievances, I do have faith in Acaratus possibly being the next Battleworlds: Kronos or Massive Assault. With increased clarity in depicting the weapons of war as anything other than chintzy, and furnishing the world further to relay scale, this blend of card-driven combat could very well stoke a good few boilers.

Acaratus is currently available via Steam Early Access for PC.

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