Fresh from my disappointing experience with Call of Cthulhu, I dusted myself off and stared straight back into the Lovecraftian abyss for a playthrough of Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, a digital adaptation of the well regarded tactical war tabletop game.
Taking inspiration from the same source as Cyanide’s underwhelming title, developers Auroch Digital promise all out action and strategic battles wrapped up in an occult take on the evils of Nazi Germany during World War II. This setting has fruitfully been explored in various media before, with the Wolfenstein series sure to be the most familiar to gamers, and so I was cautiously optimistic that this game would fall on the right side of maddening. To find out whether it did, roll 5 D6 (or just carry on reading).
Achtung!’s tabletop roots mean that the core strategy mechanics of the game are tried and tested. The transfer to digital keeps this core intact and inserts it into a streamlined, almost minimalist turn based strategy title that emphasises the camp potential of its setting, but doesn’t quite hang together.
It looks solid, with detailed characters and enemies, although the settings are a little lacking in variety. I could see the figurine inspiration in character design, and the user interface is well designed and didn’t feel overly cluttered on my desktop monitor. Environments are largely restricted to the ‘Forest of Fear’, where the game begins, and German bunkers with a mixture of narrow corridors and more expansive rooms. I was surprised to find myself reminded of third person cover shooters such as Gears of War or Uncharted, however, as the layout of combat areas too obviously signposts when a battle will take place. This is despite the effective use of fog of war (here called the suitably Lovecraftian ‘Shroud’) to conceal areas outside of your team’s line of sight.
Movement around the levels of Cthulhu Tactics involves spending Action Points. This AP only really comes into effect during combat, but does limit your team’s range of movement during the passage between fights. Exploring is limited at best, unfortunately, and feels like a real missed opportunity for this digital reason. The limitations of tabletop environments could have been expanded upon here, with areas full of loot or NPCs. As it stands, the level design feels too restricted for the game to reach the full potential of its setting and mechanics. This feeling is exacerbated by the group movement outside of battles. There is no way to strategically explore and set your team up to flank enemies before a battle begins. Even when the prospect of combat is obvious you have to move forward as a collective to trigger the fight and then position your troops after the enemies have had their first turn to set up their lines of defense.
That said, it is during combat that the game really shines, and is perhaps more in tune with titles such as Fire Emblem than the isometic tactical RPGs it visually resembles. Rather than a rock-paper-scissors elemental system, combat is clearly handled by RNG calculations in the background. Each move has an AP cost to perform, and attacks clearly show their percentage of success when selected. Attacks are divided into ranged, melee, and special/occult with more powerful and interesting powers initially locked behind level-ups.
Such special attacks also require a strategic use of the secondary movement resource – momentum. Built up each turn based on various stats, or awarded for kills and critical hits, momentum enables your characters to either move further than their AP allows or to unleash the aforementioned special attacks. Managing this resource is the real key to success, as the cunning use of an extra ranged attack, or a last-ditch rush to cover can be the difference between life and death.
When it works well, this combat system is intuitive yet deep, and there were some wonderfully fraught calls to be made between moving forward to push an advantage or hanging back in a defensive position. Much of the combat, however, feels very samey and doesn’t reach these heights. The somewhat limited range of enemy types doesn’t help, and their specific characteristics make their behaviour a little too predictable, or at least it does on the default difficulty setting.
Snipers and grunts attack from range, melee types run in and leave themselves exposed, whilst the squid-headed Servitors overuse their AP diminishing special attack to the point of annoyance, even through walls at times. Even Lovecraftian staples like the tentacle Shoggoth are overused to the point of losing their impact. This overall lack of variation can be mitigated by playing in shorter sessions, which is perhaps a legacy of the tabletop original. The narrative surrounding the missions doesn’t really help to push you along either, as despite being well written it’s restricted to mission outlines and there is precious little development within the levels.
Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics is akin to playing a tabletop game with an unimaginative DM who was going through the motions and throwing combat rather than story at my team. This may be an unfair criticism – after all the game sells itself on being a tactics game – but I found myself bogged down in combat situations that felt repetitive with little narrative drive to progress. The RPG aspects of the game are held back by the lack of real character allowed for your team members who were more like chess pieces than scripted individuals. There is so much potential for the four unlikely allies to be developed through dialogue and roleplay, but this potential is not realised here. As it stands, Achtung! is a competent tactical combat game with an interesting setting that promises more but never realises it.
Version tested: PC – Console versions release TBD