eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Antihero

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I first heard about Antihero and its 4X-ish underpinnings over at Pocket Tactics a mere three years ago (2014 for those counting). I was immediately struck by the general design of the game for three reasons:

1) it had 4X elements (duh)

2) it looked to be a rare member of the “compact” world of 4X games with short playtimes

3) it had a completely original theme  

Instead of erecting a mighty fantasy kingdom or a sprawling galactic culture, this little game tasks you with building something else entirely: a thieves’ guild syndicate. Needless to say, I’ve been anticipating this title for a quite some time.

While Antihero took a bit longer than originally planned to launch (and we’re still waiting on the mobile version), the game did finally launch on Steam this past July, whereupon I was able to put it through its paces. So then, how did the theme turn out? Does the compact nature of the game really work? Is this really a 4X?

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Preliminary scouting operations underway.

Antihero bills itself as a game where you “run a thieves’ guild in a gas-lit Victorian underworld.” The game features a campaign mode that stretches across 10 levels/missions, and has you managing a master thief and his/her network of thugs, street Urchins, and other unsavory characters. There’s a loose storyline, told via cute narrative interludes between missions, that tells of your master thief’s shenanigans and confrontations with rival guilds. There are some fun quirks to the story line, but nothing that really anchors the experience.

From a gameplay standpoint, the overarching goal of each mission requires you to earn a certain number of victory points (typically five or six depending on the size of the map) to claim control over a city district. Victory points are earned in a number of ways: fulfilling assassination contracts, infiltrating the local churches, and buying bribes. In addition, each mission has a special objective that can also net you victory points. For example (and in keeping with the Victorian vibe), there’s a masquerade ball that your thugs can infiltrate for a victory point. In the wharf mission, sneaking Urchins onto the boats that periodically pull into port let you snag cargo for bonus points.

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Victory by any of these specific means necessary.

The big question, of course, is how do you do all these things. How does your thieves guild empire actually work? The game itself uses a turn-based, “I go, you go” structure, with one player performing all of the actions they can on their turn, before flipping to another player. On a player’s turn there are quite a few mechanics in play which meld together rather nicely.

First, is the master thief itself, which you have just one of in each mission. The master thief has a certain amount of actions they can take each turn. These include exploring the city street network, robbing estates, scouting special buildings, and attacking other units on the map. After the master thief has performed their actions, they slink back to their thieves’ guild headquarters to sleep the day away… Or do whatever thief guild masters do when not prowling the streets.

The second component of your empire are the Urchins, a.k.a. the young and unassuming riff-raff of the street that you use to control key assets in the district. You hire Urchins with gold and then send them off to infiltrate the special buildings scattered around the city. There are only five different special buildings in the game, but each can be vital to securing victory. For example, infiltrating three Urchins into a church (look at those nice innocent altar boys!) will let you control that particular church, netting you a victory point. Sneaking into a bank lets you siphon off extra gold each turn, and ditto for the lantern houses.

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Even thieves guilds have technology trees these days…

Speaking of gold and lanterns, those are the two primary resources in the game. Gold is mostly used for recruiting new units into your organization. As for lanterns, I’m not sure exactly what they are supposed to represent or why they are so valuable (something about Victorian times?). Nevertheless, lanterns are used to advance along the technology tree in the game, which in turn lets you unlock new units and abilities. For instance, you can access extra action points for your master thief or additional damage on attacks. New units include thugs, which can be positioned at key points on the street network to control your turf, or gangs, which can be deployed in a more offensive manner to eject opposing Urchins out of buildings or rough up thugs.  

There are a few other clever twists in the unit roster as well. One is the saboteur. This unit can lay a trap in one of your buildings, providing a degree of protection against hostile gangs. If a gang tries to eject your Urchins, they’ll get stunned by the trap, giving you a window of opportunity for a counter-attack. Then there is the exceedingly creepy truant officer, which you can hire to round up all the little orphans in a building, hauling them off to god-knows-where to never to be heard from again. The stuff of nightmares really.  

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Run little Urchins, run! The truant officer cometh!

Another interesting wrinkle in the game has to do with the geography of the city. The network of streets creates a variety of chokepoints where you can strategically position your thugs to try and ward off the opposing master thief. More interesting is that you can see a trail of footprints on the ground in places where the opposing master thief has already scouted: information which you can use to determine where safe and controllable territory might be. It’s a clever and subtle mechanic, but important.

So what is the overall experience like?

The game sells itself as a fast-paced, 4X-like experience. The fast-paced aspect is certainly true, as most missions only take 30 or 40 minutes to complete. You’ll spend the early turns scouting the city streets, stealing lanterns from estates, and getting Urchins deployed in key buildings close to home. By the mid-game, you’re using thugs to try and secure territory so you can safely build up your economy (controlling banks and lantern houses), so you can work up the tech tree. Of course, you need to be responsive when assassination contracts come up so you can hit the target before your opponent does. The mid-game often has a nail-biting game of cat and mouse between you and the opposing gang units as each jockeys for the upper hand. By the end, you’ll find yourself in a pitched street war over the last few victory points.

I really enjoy Antihero’s pacing and how the relatively simple mechanics in the game come together. There is very little bloat in the game’s design. For example, each item on the tech tree has a clear purpose. And while the tech tree is quite small, it nonetheless foces tough choices and opportunity costs on the player. Likewise, each of the five special buildings plays a vital role in securing victory, and which ones you prioritize at each phase of the game is critical to managing the flow of resources that you need.

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An imminent brawl in the shadowy streets.

As for the “4X-like” experience, that is less clear-cut. The game does have familiar 4X elements. You explore the city and its buildings, you expand your empire of skullduggery by placing Urchins, you exploit those same buildings for resources, and of course you seek to exterminate the opposing thief’s guild. It does have a sense of progression via the technology tree.

Yet the overall experience of a session of Antihero doesn’t feel much like a 4X game. The scope and scale is just too small, with much of the gameplay feeling far more tactical in nature. This isn’t a bad thing mind you – and perhaps it’s unfair to judge the game as if it were aspiring to be a 4X. But since it’s been talked about as a 4X-ish experience, the point felt worth addressing.

Despite not being a full-fledged 4X game, Antihero definitely exercises your strategic prowess.  The AI can be downright merciless (and quite clever) at times. Even on normal difficulty, there were a number of campaign missions I had to play multiple times in order to beat, requiring me to employ entirely different strategies and approaches. The first campaign missions were straightforward and served more as a tutorial. They serve to introduce you to all of the mechanics and units, but the later missions provided daunting and multi-faceted challenges.

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Late game with just one victory point left. Who will snatch it first?

Beyond the campaign, there’s a skirmish mode where you can play randomized versions of the campaign missions against the AI at various difficulty levels. There is also a multiplayer mode – which I unfortunately haven’t tried yet. I suspect it could be a real joy with the right opponent. The clever mechanics in the game – and the way different systems play off each other – seems ripe for a human vs human battle of wits.

Despite all the great things Antihero delivers, I wish it offered more. I’m not convinced, after having played the campaign and a half a dozen skirmish missions, there is enough additional challenge or variation to keep me coming back for more. While I absolutely enjoyed my experience with Antihero, I don’t see this as a game where I could spend dozens upon dozens of hours playing it. But as a satisfying diversion from heavier and more involved strategy games, I feel it is worth the price of admission.  

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Who’s the best thief in town now?

TL;DR: Ultimately, Antihero delivers a charming and concise turn-based strategy game. The theme is a breathe of fresh air after the usual fantasy or sci-fi trappings – and the artwork and sound effects complement this nicely. The artwork, with the bobblehead-looking characters, has a cartoony feel, but I found it endearing and differentiating. The game doesn’t appear to take itself too seriously, but the gameplay can be absolutely cutthroat at times, thanks to a competent AI. While there isn’t a ton of replay value, the experience was unique and enjoyable while it lasted.

You might like this game if:

  • You are tired of the same old fantasy and sci-fi worlds and want something original
  • You are interested in compact, dare I say “boardgame-like,” strategy games that still retains depth and tough decisions
  • You think bobbleheads are cute
  • You’ve always wanted to be a master of your very own thieves guild

You might NOT like this game if:

  • Unless you play multiplayer, the content will wear out quickly
  • Any sort of “cute” aesthetics repulse you
  • You are looking for a complex and highly involved strategy game
  • Directing street Urchins to infiltrate well-meaning establishments creates an internal moral conflict for you

Game Information: Oliver Kiley has played 15+ hours of Antihero on a Microsoft Surface Pro 2, with Windows 10. A key for Antihero was provided by the publisher for this review.

Categories: eXcursions, Featured, Strategy Game

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