Final Fantasy Tactics nailed so many things so exquisitely that, despite plenty of sequels, spiritual successors, and fan homages, there’s never been anything quite like it since. Arcadian Atlas is the latest indie strategy RPG to try and channel its greatness into something familiar but new, and sadly, it mostly flounders.
Created by Twin Otter Studios, Arcadian Atlas came to Steam on July 27 after first getting funded on Kickstarter way back in 2016. Despite the years of waiting, it feels like a rough first draft that needs more work. Set in a kingdom thrust into civil war over a succession crisis and royal family in-fighting, it follows two romantically involved soldiers, Vashti and Desmond, onto the battlefield as their conflicting loyalties and principles threaten to unravel their lives. Every scene is rendered with beautiful sprites reminiscent of Square Enix’s classic, and each new plot point is punctuated by a turn-based fight on a chessboard-like grid between competing squads of archers, medics, magicians and knights.
I’ve played about four hours so far, and the story can be compelling when it doesn’t feel barebones or clumsy. Star-crossed lovers thrust into the chaos of a civil war is a fine crucible for interrogating what makes characters tick and how far they’re willing to go to fight for what matters most to them, even if the dialogue sometimes feels undercooked, “Listen, I’m not happy about it either, but you know how much dark magic damaged my village,” Desmond tells Vashti early on. “As much as I hate to say it, he has to be put to death.”
But the real issue with Arcadian Atlas is that it’s a chore to navigate and play, and there’s no real creativity or depth in its RPG systems to make battles exciting or make it satisfying to grow and level up your crew. Skill trees are brief and mostly revolve around earning damage upgrades. There are a dozen unique job classes, but you can’t mix and match abilities. Combat also heavily favors ranged units, which have good damage output and little risk of ever missing their target.
The battlefield also feels wonky and incomplete. Animations for unit movement and attacks don’t feel fluid, and terrain has no real impact on strategy. Fireballs and arrows can pass through obstacles and comrades unimpeded, while melee units can strike anyone next to them no matter how much higher or lower the adjacent squares are. It makes for very unbalanced encounters with little in the way of tactical trade-offs to consider or competing priorities to weigh.
In isolation, none of these shortcomings would be that big of an issue, but taken together they slowly add up to a simplistic and tedious experience that’s hard to recommend to even the genre’s biggest fans. Eventually even the mildest frustrations become hard to ignore, like having to press the accept button to progress every finished loading screen, and the fact that navigating the battlefield grid requires repeatedly flicking the thumbstick on the gamepad rather than simply holding it. The game supports mouse and keyboard as well, but I actually found the cursor controls to be even more finicky and sticky.
One of the few points of pleasure for me in each battle was the soundtrack. Instead of dramatic horns and violins, Arcadian Atlas’ jazz-infused soundtrack by composer Moritz P.G. Katz is dominated by saxophones and guitars. The standard combat music in particular is so oddly unexpected but catchy, I still found it playing inside my head days later. I wish I could say the rest of my time with the game felt as memorable.