Review: Chroma Squad

While the soundtrack and art design can subjectively leave something to be desired, the "tactical RPG" at the core is fun, and Chroma Squad is a love-letter to the sentai shows of yore.  It's rough around the edges in production values and some of the humour falls flat, but the actual core game is an enjoyable romp through sentai sensibilities and a solid tactical RPG to boot.
Review: Chroma Squad
Date published: May 1, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Chroma Squad is a "tactical RPG" taking after the old Sentai shows produced by Toei in theme and subject matter, developed and published by Behold Studios.  I have to admit, given that it was kickstarted and had a rather troubled development cycle, I was somewhat surprised to see this game make the light of day, albeit in a pleasant way.  So naturally the question becomes whether this is an actually-finished product or it's a half-arsed thing pushed out as an obligation to appease backers.  Well, I'm somewhat pleased to say that while it has it's faults, Chroma Squad is the complete package - rough around the edges for it's indie roots, and with a few problems, but it's got plenty of merit.

The tactical combat at the heart of Chroma Squad is tight, if repetitive

The finishing moves you can execute get repetitive - Don’t get me wrong, they’re a neat idea that tie in well with the sentai theme of the game, but there’s less than a handful of different animations for them, and they each are a decent length.  They’ll get old before you’re done the game, chances are, and it’s a bit of a shame as there’s a missed opprotunity for each squad member to have their own animation.

There are essentially three game modes: the studio management mode, the tactical squad combat mode, and the "mecha combat" mode that has you fighting kaiju-style with skyscraper-sized monsters, but the heart of Chroma Squad, and where you'll spend most of your time, is the tactical squad combat.  It bills itself as a "tactical RPG" - although the actual RPG progression is pretty much non-existent since you can switch between skills on any given character pretty freely and the actual progression is basically that of the story "seasons" of the show.  The premise of Chroma Squad is you are controlling a group of actors as they make their own independent "sentai" style show, and while we'll touch more on the themeing a bit later, the premise is played through well in the mechanics of the tactical combat.  Passing a turn (via the space bar) is counted as "posing" and some group members confer bonuses doing so.

Most of the time when you begin combat you will be in street clothes, having to perform enough attacks to fill up a certain amount of the "audience bar" (essentially score bar) to transform into the sentai fighters.  The nod there is obvious enough, and the amount required is never that hefty so you can get into the real action quickly.  Each of the sentai has a few different abilities available to them according to their role (which again adheres to sentai tradition) and how far into the seasons you are, as that is indeed the banding that occurs here in terms of progression.  After the initial season one ability however, each group member has two abilities you can select from, so there is a very small amount of customisability there.

The element of teamwork also gets a mechanical nod: you if you attack an enemy while one of more adjacent team members are posing, you will execute a joint "teamwork" attack on them, either by hand or, if you use a weapon power then a weapon joint attack.  The more complicated attacks such as these, provide more "audience points" and as such the game rewards skilful play, though I'd say the cap on the audience bar is often fairly low, or I found it so anyways.

Altogether, the game design element of the tactical combat is sound, it is in the technical aspects it falls apart somewhat, but in small, mostly-manageable ways for the most part.  The most severe problem I had was a somewhat intermittent but not rare crash when the game was switching from the tactical combat to the "end of show" screen in the studio, dumping me out to windows with a crash screen indicating "too many heap sections" - seems like probably a write protection fault or some other memory-related issue.  In either case, however, it happened enough to be frustrating, but it wasn't common per se.  Switching music off seemed to fix it.  There's a few other technical imperfections: the enemy turn actions don't always centre the character being attacked on screen so sometimes enemy attacks happen off-screen, and the game sometimes interprets you as telling a squad member to go to the square behind an enemy, rather than attacking it - not registering you clicked on the baddie - though this only seemed to happen with a scant few enemies.

Enemy variety is pretty decent, with a few particularly funny and interesting ones

While the "common" enemies are pretty .. well, common, there's a good variety of varied uncommon ones as well, employing some different mechanics to keep the game fresh, and each episode has it's own boss monster with its own ridiculous costume and powers, which keep things changing up quite a bit by themselves.  Each of them play tongue-in-cheek at the ridiculous enemies that sentai would come up with, and references abound.

If there's any complaint I have about the boss enemies here its that most of them come and go in a single "episode" or mission and only a few ever get expanded upon in any meaningful way.  No central nemesis like Rita Repulsa of Power Rangers fame or the like appears until later in the game, and it feels more like "shit, we need to have a primary antagonist now?" sort of a thing than anything else.

Mecha/kaiju sections are an interesting idea that doesn't really get capitalised on

The other combat mode in the game comes when you assemble a mech to fight the kaiju-sized big bosses you come across, and while there's the potential there for something greater, it sadly never really gets realised.  This is essentially a mash the attack button and occasionally defend, turn-based affair that usually just takes the momentum of the flamboyant and usually fast-paced (for a turn-based affair) squad combat into a slow slug-fast in the mecha combat, something not helped by the pace of the actual animations either.  The bosses are all variations of "just bop them over the bonce until they fall over" with only the occasional requirement to use the defend ability, and the super attack if you're impatient or want a flashy finish.  There's other abilities that you can get through the crafting system upgrades (more on that below) but I found myself never really needing to use them, I only really used them to experiment.

The studio aspect meanwhile is pretty decent
and balances complexity and depth versus ease well

The studio mode is the connective tissue between episodes, and its primary function is to allow you to upgrade in various ways - buying new equipment from the store, crafting similarly new equipment from drops during missions (or from materials recycled from breaking down old ones, or bought in packages), advertising companies you can hire for X-episode long contracts that let you use your accumulated "fan power" to gain various bonuses to the episode missions, upgrading your studio with various gadgets, and upgrading the mecha.  Additionally, you can select between the available skills for your group, and change their equipment.

Studio upgrades tend to be the most immediately-pressing when you first start out, since they offer percentage bonuses to various aspects that are best maximised by getting them earlier, when you can - but each comes with a maintenance cost per episode that deducts from your earnings, so there is some mild skill in ensuring you don't overspend.  Other than that though, there are no "bad" upgrades, so the thing here is making sure you don't end up with too high a maintenance per episode and have more than you can handle in costs.  One element here that isn't well-explained (or explained at all unless I missed it) is that these aren't fire and forget purchases - you can actually upgrade some items like the camera and microphone more than once for a progressively-higher bonus.  Not a bad idea, don't get me wrong, but the fact the game doesn't tell you about it is somewhat of a problem.

The hero item upgrades from the shop or crafting both have basically the same effect, giving bonuses to one or more stats, with the shop having a price tag but more reliably "good" while crafting only costs materials that drop frequently anyways (or can be bought in lots) but are generally fairly poor in quality, relatively speaking, but with a chance to be pretty amazing that one time.  It plays a little too much into gambling with numbers for me to care to do it outside of what I get from drops, but there was nothing game-breaking in there which I saw, so it seemed relatively balanced.

The mecha upgrades a bit more of a mixed bag, in that as I mentioned above, I found the mecha combat sections fairly unchallenging, so I only occasionally upgraded the mech.  There's some interesting ideas of different abilities in here, which only makes it all the more lamentable that those sections weren't that hard and didn't really make me use them, because I'm sure there's some pretty interesting things in there.

Marketing is basically trading in the "fan power" you get each episode for various bonuses.  Different agencies have different price tags, and each of them has three set abilities and one "wildcard" ability which you can use from the studio to get bonuses such as generating more money per episode, getting more fans, or getting more money per fan, and so forth.  Fan power is accumulated by giving good performances in the shows - you'll gain fan power cumulatively if you're doing well, and lose it if you fail or do very poorly.  My only real problem here is you can make the game pretty easy for yourself if you have the four abilities all active (its limited only by available fan power) and there was a feeling the challenge in the game wasn't incrementing as fast as my abilities and bonuses were.

Production values are a mixed bag, unfortunately

Some of the set locations and set pieces look pretty
neat, to be fair to the game’s art team - While the character art is for the most part bog-standard pixel art fare, some of the locations - such as the pictured base of the heroes, are very nicely and stylishly rendered indeed, and it wouldn’t be fair to the game not to note that.  Many of the different scenes are quite interestingly backdrops, and look good.

My complaints here are by my own admission much more subjective, but while the pixel art style here on offer is serviceable, it really just doesn't feel all that great to me.  It feels like it tries to straddle a line regarding retro graphics that it doesn't quite figure out how to do properly, with modern visual effects such as a CRT monitor effect and the like to evoke that image, and not staying true to actual pixel grids, but it doesn't really do it in such a way as I feel it's stylish and instead it feels kind of lazy to me.  That's .. a fairly weak criticism, I suppose, at the end of the day, but the art style on offer here feels like basic pixel art graphics with a few filters over it in places to make it look better, and I'm afraid I don't feel it does look thus, especially when the game gets into big, chunky pixels for the mecha fights it gets frankly rather cheap looking.

The soundtrack is a much more mixed affair of chiptune, with a couple tracks I found even kind of catchy, but while those two do exist, there's also some not really great ones either, and I certainly couldn't recommend the soundtrack DLC.  The Xenoverse-esque chiptune in the studio sections is something I've joked is now playing in the elevators of my personal hell, and I'll be damned if that isn't the case, it gets grating and annoying pretty fast.  One of the big things here is even the tracks that are melodic and pleasant to my ear are short, and get repetitive quickly.  I suspect that the soundtrack DLC are probably extended versions of what's actually in the game.

One pretty good spot in this for all my griping about the rest however is the interface design, both in terms of presentation and design - it fits seamlessly with the game's aesthetic while still offering a pretty easy to navigate interface that makes most of the information you need at any given time very easily-accessible.  My only complaint there is there are probably a few too many clicks to get from any given point in the studio-management mode to another, which can make it more of a hassle than it really needs to be.  It didn't really detract all that much from the game for me, but it might for you, if you're not fond of the management aspect and just want to get through those sections as quickly as possible.

Most importantly to some, the sentai sensibility is there in spades

There's always a risk with these niche games that the theme is used only as a coat of paint, or it panders to an audience it doesn't really understand.  While I could still see validity in the argument that it is pandering, this isn't a game that does so without knowing its source material, with a some very dense and obscure references along with the much more obvious ones, and plenty of jokes made at the general format in good spirit, as well as an actual understanding of that format in how the mechanics are structured, as I mentioned above.  It's all fun, above board, and it doesn't really overstay the welcome of any of the references.

Except for the elephant in the room: the social commentary.  While I wasn't as down on it as many were, and I can recognise a lot of it is intentioned to make jabs at the various issues of the day in a light-hearted fashion, to me it mostly falls flat unfortunately.  That's kind of the risk of hanging your hat on the coat rack of humour though - it's very subjective.  And given the subjectivity of that complaint, dear reader, I'd urge you to take it for what it is.

The Final Word: Recommended - Chroma Squad is a love-letter to the sentai show genre in indie tactical RPG format, and while it could have used much more even production values and done more with the mecha/kaiju sections, the core game is very solid and a lot of fun if the ham-fisted jabs at social commentary or cheesy humour don’t turn you off.  In other words: if you like sentai, and you like tactical RPGs, then you’ll probably be right at home with Chroma Squad.