Turn based strategy games are a rare beast on consoles. Very much suited to mouse and keyboard in years gone by, the successful translation of X-Com and it’s sequel have proved that using a controller should be no barrier to enjoyable strategy experiences on the Xbox One.
But X-Com, in tone and theme, this is not. Numantia is your classic historical turned based strategy game. Here, we go to the south of Europe; to Spain and to Italy. You’ll know doubt know who the Romans were; all conquering dominators of Europe spanning half a millennia. What you will have heard less of is the small city of Numantia, based in the north-east of Spain. A thorn in the side for Rome for more than 20 years, they stood up to their would-be conquerors where others had surrendered, fearing for their lives. This is their tale.
The story is told via narrated nearly cel-shaded style cut scenes, no doubt in a nod to the budget developers Recotechnology had at their disposal. Stylistically, it does work. Of particular note is the wonderful looking settlement map in which you spend the majority of your time when not on the battlefield.
Conversations between characters are basic but as with art style, it more than does the job. Don’t expect layers of emotional impact, but the conflict within the Numantian tribe is clear to see and that adds to the desire to win once you come face to face with the Romans in the open field. These conversations often come with multiple choice options. Who should you side with in an argument? Or should you leave a small contingent of enemy soldiers to pass your settlement untroubled or engage them to prevent a larger attack further down the line? These choices played out with immediate consequences. And, as with the best of these kinds of decisions in games. – the right answer isn’t always at all clear.
But, what of the meat of the game? How does the strategy battle element actually fair? It’s a bit of a mixed bag in truth. Each conflict opens onto a gridded area where you’re allowed to place your troops in what you consider to be their best positions for the fight. There is some tactical element to this part as at the point of placing your troops you can’t see where the enemies will spawn. It’s a nice bit of freedom, but generally I followed the mantra of men with pointy things at the front, men with throwy things at the back and that didn’t let me down.
Battles play out on hexagonal tiles. Units types have some variety in the form of light and heavy infantry, cavalry and various ranged platoons but nothing to really get you out of your seat. Each type has it’s own strengths and weakness as you would expect. The heavy infantry can only move a couple of hexes at a time but really hits hard when you get there. Lighter ranged unit tend to flit around the map, grabbing turns a little more often, chucking their javelins and then running back to a safe distance.
The UI does a really good job of showing you what you need to know about a particular unit, it’s attack strength, movement speed and where it is in the pecking order in terms of actions on the battlefield. Furthermore a quick click on the right stick allows you swoop right in on your selected solider type for a more detailed analysis. Zoom on the battle map is mapped to the triggers (with unit selection on the bumpers) and you do need to pull in from the default overview regularly to have a better idea of what’s going on. It’s all easy to do and the control scheme soon becomes second nature.
As far as mission objectives go, I’m yet to find one that isn’t: kill everything that you see, which is disappointing to say the least. The lack of variety extends to your own strategy in the fights as well, I’m sorry to report. Enemy AI is not very clever. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Enemy units seem to become fixated on one of your combatants, even if it’s not the one causing the most problems for them. I had a ranged Slinger unit who the Romans had all but destroyed (meaning it was hitting them for little to no damage) and for the next entire turn, 2 of the 3 melee units in that area went after it, blood in mind, even though they had significantly more pressing concerns on all sides.
My other main concern is a dual one, with both the AI and the rules the game allows. Attacking from behind, suggesting it is by surprise, conveys a large bonus to your attack value. Numantia allows you to move behind an enemy unit from right in front of them and still get the same bonus – even if they had just been attacking you from the front. It amounts to cheesing the game as far as I’m concerned and the tactic made several of the later battles a lot more straightforward. Perhaps a disengagement penalty could have been implemented to prevent this? Or the enemy unit got a free attack turn as you were moving away? We make many allowances for games’s lack of adherence to logic, but imagine, if you will, a real battle taking place – would an enemy unit really allow you to turn your back on them, mid-engagement, and sneak around behind? I think not.
This flaw in the game’s rule set could be forgiven, if your opposition took advantage of the same of the loophole. But, it doesn’t. It just advances right into your line of spears like the dumb computer AI it is, rather than the vicious, canny Roman legion the developers surely aspired for it to be.
All of that said, I did enjoy Numantia. The style in the story isn’t reflected with quite as much panache graphically on the battlefield. Animations aren’t perfect and the overall presentation could do with a bit bit of work, but I still felt that pang of tension that you get in a decent turned based game as you wait to see how your decisions have panned out. Really though, the thought behind the on field action needed significantly more work to have the longevity to encourage repeated plays, or even plays through as the Romans – as is allowed by the game.