Fire Emblem with Seoul
Sometimes there is just nothing going on at work or in my life, so I go and check out the upcoming section on Steam to see if there is anything I can get excited about. I saw a bright yellow rectangle with a plucky anime girl on there, so why not? The videos and screenshots showed it off as a tactical RPG, a genre I am becoming increasingly in love with after some exposure to Disgaea, a deep seated love of Final Fantasy Tactics, a love hate fling with everything XCom, and a switch favorite of Fire Emblem. This game looked like those with maybe an XMen spin. I held off for a while on purchasing because, despite good reviews on Steam (currently Overwhelmingly Positive), I hadn’t heard anything from an outlet I trust on it.
Troubleshooter (not using caps lock or the subtitle from here on out) really does belong as a distinct entry into the TRPG genre as I mentioned, doing things that a lot of the other games do with its own unique spin. You feel the influence of each of the other games, but this doesn’t feel like a rip off or clone, largely thanks to its charming dialogue coming from a roster of fleshed out characters.
The game was in Early Access for about two years, but finally released in April. I didn’t play it when it first came out, but I have to say that I am incredibly impressed by the amount of features and polish that this ‘budget’ game has.
TROUBLESHOOTER: Abandoned Children (PC)
Released: April 23, 2020
If you are at all familiar with one of the games I listed above, you know how this game is going to play out: you have a squad of allies which you move across a grid turn by turn eliminating baddies. Each main character has a set of unique abilities - throwing fire, raining down lightning, slashing like the wind, and throwing … spray cans? Sure, why not. They also each get an ultimate ability which is capable of dealing large amounts of damage across multiple foes. For a long time at the start of the game you only have access to one or two characters, so the rest of your team is fleshed out by (overpowered at times) police squad mates. A pattern is going to emerge in this review, and that is that Troubleshooter is just plain “extra” - In battles, there is a climate and temperature that may change abilities, so in rain, lightning is more effective, fire is less effective, and you see less through the fog of war. Missions at night have less vision, but you can equip characters with abilities to mitigate that, or use light abilities to blind enemies, unless they have sunglasses. There is a button that lets you see what your field of view will be if you move to a certain location, along with your attack range for any of your abilities. The game highlights your cover, if you are exposed, and if the enemy is exposed when you move. The mechanical details of the game stand equally to the artistic detail of the characters.
One of the things that separates this game from games like Disgaea or XCom is that there is so much story in the game. You could almost qualify it as a visual novel tactical rpg at times there is so much dialogue and story telling. Even basic fetch quest style missions involve paragraphs of backstory as to why you need to open a box on the battlefield. It is all pretty well written and helps to establish a world with likable characters, interesting gang members, and a cult that worships spoons. I would say that it’s the Phantom Crash of its genre, and if you understand, bless your soul. As for the story beats, you play as Albus, a new Troubleshooter in the city of Valhalla. The city is overridden with crime to such an extent that local police aren’t able to keep up, so they rely on the help of what basically amounts to PMCs to help alleviate the pressure. You begin to recruit more and more cast members to your Troubleshooter company and try to help out the city.
As I mentioned up above, the game is Korean so every once in a while there is some text that doesn’t quite fit right, but everything works in context for the most part - some abilities are a little hard to decipher and there are some straight up incorrect works in there. I still don’t know exactly how to read a star in a sentence, but it comes up pretty often and ultimately works. All of the battle chatter is in Korean (I think, I can’t say with 100% certainty), and every once in awhile a character says something in English and its always the highlight of the battle - Sion’s “hhoookayyy” is just delightful. Unfortunately, there isn’t an option to change the chatter to English, and oftentimes the squadmates you get have blown out audio. As for the rest of the options in the menu, they are pretty bare bones so don’t expect to be able to tweak too much outside of a few gameplay quality of life options like disabling chase camera when attacking.
The game is an incredibly slow burn, which is probably for the best as the mechanics are a little obscure, and at times are muddled by the mostly OK translation. You have your characters, each of which has their levels. Leveling up gives you stats. You have your own company, and completing sidequests levels up the company. You also have gear which can increase your stats, and gear levels a lot of stats and could probably do with a Diablo 3 style scoring system to help evaluate apples and oranges. Then you have Masteries. Each enemy has a set of masteries that can ‘drop’ after you defeat them. These can be equipped to your character to further specialise their role, or to fill out where they are weak. Your character only has so many slots for masteries, and so many points, so you can’t just jam 50 overpowered masteries together. As you level up, you get more slots, and more points for your character, so you can make even more tactical adjustments. If you do manage to find a ‘set’ of 4 masteries you can unlock a special bonus mastery for having those equipped that stretches the power of those masteries even further. The game will tell you once you have ¾ of the masteries required for a set, and will give hints if you own or can research the last piece. These sets can provide crazy bonuses (counterattacks never miss, draining MP from enemies, providing regeneration when you heal an ally), but finding them can be very complicated, and getting more than a handful becomes very restrictive on what else you can equip your character with.
As you reach higher levels, enemies get better Masteries, and you can unlock masteries for your class that have to be researched. In order to do that, you can use other Masteries as components to create new ones, but some of them have prerequisites that you may or may not have unlocked. If it sounds complicated, it is - enough so that Troubleshooter has a tracker on the top of the last few Masteries you looked at, so you can wind your way back if you get 4 levels deep into crafting a sweet new ability. That same helper appears in the crafting menu (of course you can craft and break down items). Items, naturally, can also be upgraded as well as being sold. Also, you get to pick a unique mastery for your character that provides a fairly strong boon to specific playstyles.
Does that sound like enough, because, guess what? There’s more! You also have a class you can level up, and once you level your classes and levels high enough, you can unlock more classes. These provide additional skills and additional masteries exclusive to the class, but you do keep whatever skills you unlocked from other classes. As you change classes, you also gain or lose ability slots where you can equip those before heading into battle. As the game progresses, there is a mix of finding the overpowered Masteries that the enemies have (like if you take more than 50% of your health, you only take 50% damage instead), and enemies having your overpowered Masteries (always counter attack, and counterattacks always crit). This can feel frustrating because it is hard to tell which Masteries enemies have, leading to situations where you set up overwatch against an enemy that can avoid the first overwatch shot, or attacking an enemy who is guaranteed to kill you in the counter attack. There are, naturally, Masteries that let you nullify those which bring things back into balance, but it does require some trial and error.
One of the things that is different, but maybe not better, is the game doesn’t have any sense of urgency that so many tactical games have. There is no overall mission timer like in XCom, there is no permadeath, and you are not only free to repeat missions, it is actively encouraged to grind levels or materials. In a basic RPG, replaying a fight can take 20 seconds, but in Troubleshooter each mission probably takes at least 20 minutes. There is an extra setting for your unnamed squadmates to automatically take their turns how you like (explore, defend, proceed with caution) that can speed up the flow a little bit, but oftentimes it doesn’t make the ‘correct’ decision on what to do. The missions are ranked in difficulty, but they don’t seem to update as you level up so some basic missions still show as being very hard hours after they are completed, and you can also change the difficulty to get better rewards.
The game also includes a ‘mana pool’ of sorts called Vigor. Using a basic ability barely depletes it, but using a stronger ability can drain it substantially. I can’t say that I cared for it overall because it felt very restrictive on abilities that already have turn based cooldowns, and hampers the use of overwatch, as it costs the same as actually taking a shot. Nevertheless, it is another strategic element that you have to keep in mind at all parts of the game. You can recover vigor each turn through itemization and Masteries, or you could use a consumable. The final option is a default ability each character has that recovers all Vigor, but takes an incredible amount of time.
Later missions get incredibly complicated in scope - it isn't uncommon to be outnumbered 5 to 1 or more by enemies that have similar abillities to your own. There are several fights that take place in a city block that feel like grand battles where multiple teams are playing different roles, or where you have to have a fire line advancing through cover while throwing down smoke. In these missions when one ally goes down, theres a pit in your stomach because it has already been ninety minutes into the mission, and your ranks are thin. But then you watch the turn order slowly turn blue as your team goes from being outnumbered 5 to 1 to a mere 2 to 1, and you get that feeling that you turned the corner. It feels so good to conquer the mission with your remaining three units out of your starting 16.
Overall, the game feels well executed even though it has quite a lot going on for it. The characters all feel genuine, the writing maintains a light Saturday morning cartoon like tone, and the gameplay is representative of its genre. I often found myself playing another 20 minutes to tweak my character just right, discover hidden set bonuses, or playing just one more mission to get to payday. The game is also insanely long for its genre and price point, taking me about 85 hours to complete, which included a lot of sidequests and item crafting. To continue on its depth, even at the 50 hour mark it was still throwing new mechanics, new party members, and new enemies at me. It is easy to get burned out on the late game tutorials because you are so far along. The ending does feel a bit abrupt, but leaves things open for sequels which I am anxiously waiting for. I can heartily recommend the game to anyone who is a fan of Fire Emblem or XCOM, but it definitely has some excess depth and strangeness that others may shy away from.
As a final touch, I left a review on Steam and within a day the developer had responded with some very kind remarks, so they are definitely someone I want to support. Troubleshooter is a game that is listed as “first season of a turn-based strategy SRPG that takes place in the world of Troubleshooter”, and after that interaction and how well everything was implemented, I am definitely hungry for more.