iOS has rightly been cited as the platform that defines casual. Not that there aren’t hardcore titles to be found, some of them in obscure genres like “card based strategy RPG.“ If your eyes have glossed over now, Lost Star Tactics isn’t the game for you. This is the sort of rabbit hole that one ventures into when they are intrigued by games that usually require dice and graphing paper. Lost Star Tactics is the perfect game for that sort of aficionado. If you liked Disgea or Persona, this might be your cup of tea.
The first hour with Lost Star Tactics is underwhelming. The graphics aren’t great; this game fits somewhere in the Genesis/Mega Drive era. Its art style is reminiscent of the TSR Buck Rogers RPG on Genesis. The iPhone has plenty of examples of pixel art games that are retro but play up style to still look modern. Looking at the developer’s previous title, Tactical Warrior, Lost Star Tactics is a huge step forward, but could have still used a bit more polish.
What hooks you beyond that first hour is the gameplay. The initial stage hand holds you through five battles, but the AI doesn’t take it easy on you. You will need to figure out how to manage your team, as well as the card deck, as each is incredibly important to how the battles go. Beginners are going to have some trouble getting the battle system down, as there aren’t many tutorials. If you can get through the first five battles and you aren’t frustrated, press on as there is something rewarding here.
The game breaks down into two separate strategy elements: deck building and tactical combat. The former is just as essential as the latter. At the outset of the game you choose one of three captains, each with different strengths, an initial team, and starting items. You also get a deck of “cards,” which are the only attacks that your captain can use. The rest of the characters are all given a specific set of attacks that will grow as you level up specific characters.
The cards are broken down into three types: attacks, support, and summons. The attacks take different forms, which is how you can customize how you fight in battles. After the initial stage you are able to trade in cards for new ones at a shop, but it seems pretty random as to what comes up. I found that I had to get all of the cards in the shop to get new ones once I was stuck with a set I didn’t want. You also get new cards as rewards for some battles.
Lost Star Tactics‘ battle system should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played strategy RPGs. You place your characters on a set of spaces on one side of the grid, and the enemy characters start on the other. Each character has HP and Stamina. Each attack and movement costs a certain amount of stamina, and you only generate a certain amount of stamina per turn, which inevitably leads to an idle turn to refresh for your attacks. This means timing and health are important; while health regenerates in idle turns, it often isn’t enough to save a character outnumbered on the front line. This isn’t a game to leap in head first; that often leads to a pretty swift loss.
While Lost Star Tactics is a well-crafted game, it seems to be missing quite a few obvious things. The story is pretty weak, and even though it is pretty much just text and still pictures, I felt this medium could have still done more to suck me in. If it wasn’t there at all, I wouldn’t know what I was missing. Instead I get these three or four lines of text that just seem to be there out of an obligation. When that text is something like, “You find a crashed ship that’s similar to your own,” you can see why it just shouldn’t be there in the first place.
The difficulty curve is also pretty aggressive. You run up against a wall pretty early, and your only option is to go back and repeat earlier missions. I don’t mind grinding through a game, but I wish that I didn’t feel like I was being forced backwards to do so. Even if it is just adding more throwaway missions, the game would benefit by making the grinding feel like it was its own content, and avoid pushing the player backwards.
The art style was another area I felt could have used some improvements. The character models are overly generic, and nothing seems sharply detailed. I get this game is supposed to look retro, but it should be far more stylized so it doesn’t look cheap.
Lost Star Tactics is the sort of game that already has a limited audience. That’s a double edged sword: RPG fans are underserved on iOS, but also your game is going to need to impress. There was a lot of work put into Lost Star Tactics’ battle engine and card system. On the other hand, the rest of the game seems to lack polish. Graphics, story, and content all seem to have gotten the brush off.
That doesn’t make this a bad game, but it does make it a rough one. This is one of those places where a low price tag is used to defend putting out a game that’s stripped down, and I don’t feel that’s defensible at this point. iOS is a real platform, and people sell games for ten or twenty dollars all the time. Make a game first, and worry about what to charge for it when you’re done. Lost Star Tactics could have been a ten dollar game with a bit more polish.