Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire – Review
12 Sep, 2016
Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is a tactics game in which you must save your people from an invading empire. Here’s what we think about it.
The kingdom of Avestan is in peril, besieged by the Astral Empire and its arcane artillery. With the king of Avestan killed, it’s up to the princess Tahira to save the people from the onslaught of the Empire. She also gets a rather sick staff to do it with.
Tahira is aided by three commanders, who lead her forces. Baruti, whose words I will always read in the voice of Keith David, leads the Avestan troops, who rely on strategic positioning and strength in numbers. The Claw leads a band of mercenaries whose expertise lies in ambushing enemies and chaining abilities. The Hammer, a strong blonde amazon, leads another band of mercenaries, who excel at dishing out raw blunt force trauma on their enemies.
Tahira is a tactical turn-based strategy game with melee combat—not very far from the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, The Banner Saga or Fire Emblem. Rather than having individual soldiers fill up the turn queue, the game has you controlling one whole group at a time. You control a number of groups, each containing a bunch of troops. This means that when the clock strikes Baruti, you control all of the Avestan troops under his command.
That combat system mainly relies on three statistics: your units’ health, “Guard” and Will. Health works as you’d expect, although it’s worth noting that there is no healing allowed in Tahira. Guard represents your units’ armour and ability to dodge, and can be replenished by using either the limited-use “Supplies” scattered on the map, or by performing a special ability called Guard Boost. Abilities like Guard Boost or the other, more offensive ones, are powered by Will, which is replenished by killing enemies.
There’s something that’s important to know about Tahira. For a game with some rather inspired worldbuilding, it has a somewhat abrupt end. I say ‘somewhat’, because in retrospect, the game never alluded to being more than what it delivers. The scope of the story is set early in the game, and the game is careful not to overstep those bounds. The world, however, is far greater than the game can contain. Tahira feels lacking as a result, and its ending comes across more a comma than a full stop. It feels like the first act of something much bigger, but if that ‘much bigger’ something does exist, developer Whale Hammer Studios has been mum about it.
The battles of Tahira have been constructed keeping the game’s length in mind. There are no filler battles, and each battle you face has a unique element to it, forcing you to adapt to unpredictable circumstances. The game’s design presents a number of interesting tactical dilemmas: will you spread your units thin, or stack them together? Should you split them up to get the objectives, or move them together? Should you mix and match groups, or keep them discreet? Should you bring heroes into the fray and use their superior power, or keep them away from harm?
Tahira does not permit save-scumming in the least. By auto-saving the game after every turn, even on the lowest difficulty, the game effectively eliminates any room for mistakes. If something goes wrong, you cannot simply roll back to a previous save; instead, you have to restart the whole battle all over again. This makes for thoughtful, methodical play, while punishing rashness.
The high-wire tactical gameplay might seem overwhelming, but the game offers four difficulty options, with the easiest difficulty option even allowing you to skip battles. Without the ability to replay battles in a ‘Chapter Select’ mode, however, you’re forced to start a new game to have another shot at a skipped battle. Even on the second difficulty option, however, mistakes were punished without mercy. Higher difficulties than that are clearly made for truly tactical minds—and masochists.
The Astral Empire may think you’re nothing but a savage animal to be tamed, but they certainly don’t underestimate you. Enemy troops are present in staggering numbers and are regularly reinforced in most levels, forcing you to rely on guerilla warfare and to stay on your feet.
One advantage aiding you in this is the game’s Ambush system. You can set troops to hide in certain ambush locations, which grants them a free turn whenever you desire, even in the middle of an enemy turn. That you initiate an ambush turn by unsheathing a giant sword in the game’s user interface was my favourite part of it.
Outside of combat, the game has brief adventure section where you move Tahira about on a map and talk to your comrades, as well as the people you are trying to solve. These sections aren’t very long, and don’t have very complex interactions or quests, but they’re welcome breaks after the game’s lengthy battles.
It’s refreshing to see a game that prominently uses a Middle-Eastern aesthetic, when it could have been so easy to stick to the safest fantasy setting there is: Western and Northern European fantasy. Don’t expect a profound examination of Middle-Eastern society and culture, however, as the aesthetic is mostly skin-deep. The loyal leader of the guard, the drunk wine-seller on the run, the doubting soldier, the vain mercenary revelling in sexual innuendo, they could all really have come from a game inspired by almost any culture. Still, and sadly so, it feels fresh to find Arabic and Persian names used in a video game for characters who are not demonised as militant villains.
The game’s writing mainly comes in three varieties, I found. There’s political and historical banter, which serves to flesh out the game’s world, but gets boring rather quickly. There’s the cryptic, mystical prophesying, which is either too cryptic or too predictably rote. And finally, there’s the character building, which works rather well. The relationships between each of the characters feel genuine, and the subtle use of humour goes really well with the reality of perilous situation our heroes find themselves in.
Once again, however, the game’s shortness rears its head. With where the game ends, much of its history and politics feels like little more than set dressing: props to add some context to the tactical skull-bashing you’ll do. The threads never really go anywhere, leaving me to wonder if I even needed to know so much about the game’s world.
I encountered a number of bugs in the build I received. Some were temporary, like characters glitching out of position, while others made me play with handicaps, such as a unit becoming nearly transparent, a unit becoming unselectable and the unit stats display disappearing. The worst bug, of course, was when a plain black screen hindered my progress, forcing me to Alt+F4.
Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is a well-designed game, despite its brief length and limited scope. Its morose story is illuminated by characters who laugh in the face of death. Every battle is hard-won, and every victory feels like the result of a heroic feat, even if it leaves you with little to celebrate. All in all, the game is a fine little indie game of tactical decision-making, just don’t go in expecting depth and length rivalling a Fire Emblem game.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the developer. Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is now available on Steam and GOG.com. It can be played on Windows, Mac and Linux, and is priced at $14.99.