I love it when it snows. The joy of an impromptu snow ball fight, the thrill of tobogganing down an icy hill with no real way of slowing down, the beauty of an entire world clad in a coat of fresh snow. Do I wanna build a snowman? Absolutely, I’m already grasping my carrot in anticipation! So, please take my love of snow into account when I tell you that 1971 Project Helios has far too much snow in it. And that’s snow joke.
1971 Project Helios is a decent turn-based strategy game with one massive problem; you simply can’t see what’s going on most of the time. The real issue is with the character designs, with every character in the game attired in dull and muted shaders of grey, making them barely visible against the snow blanketing every level. This, as you can imagine, makes tactical planning rather difficult.
Clearly in real life this would simply be very effective camouflage, but in a video game it made my eyes ache as I desperately spun the camera in an effort to try to figure out where everyone was, and then deciphering who they are. Good luck trying to figure that out at a glance; it’s like having a pair of beer googles covered in greasy finger smudges stuck on your face. The indoor levels aren’t much better because, funnily enough, characters wearing grey also don’t stand out against gun metal corridors. It’s a huge miss-step that massively hampered my enjoyment of the game. It’s also an issue that could have so easily been resolved with a bright and intuitive HUD, but everything is dull, muted and utterly indiscernible.
It’s a shame, because this strategy/RPG hybrid had some potential. Set in a mysterious, post-apocalyptic world, Project Helios follows the adventures of a team of eight distinct individuals as they attempt to track down the mysterious scientist Dr Margaret Blythe. In a neat touch, each character in the group has their own motivations for wanting to find the good doctor, and let’s just say their goals don’t always go hand in hand. This is a group barely held together, fraying at the edges as each character’s secret machinations and hidden agendas add genuine tension to the story. It’s a compelling yarn then – admittedly told through some fairly dodgy text based dialogue – and kept me pressing on through issues I had with both the visual and game design.
The game breaks down into two segments: exploration and combat. You’ll be wandering around fairly linear environments to reach an end goal, giving you an opportunity to pick up items that will unlock new abilities for your ragtag band. Unfortunately, the murky visuals rear their blotchy head again. Trying to find items, even mission critical ones, feels like a lucky dip. I spent my time clicking the pick-up button constantly as I explored because it wasn’t always obvious if an item was interactive or simply screen furniture. One mission early on had me traipsing back and forth for a good half hour in a desperate search for a Fulgor tank. Now, at the time I didn’t know what a Fulgor tank was, and with so many items that could have been a Fulgor tank… let’s just say it was not much fun.
You’ll often bump into a cadre of ne’er-do-wells and this is where the game switches into turn based tactical combat. The battles take place in very restrictive settings, often locking you down in the compact combative confines of just a single room. This is one aspect of the game I initially enjoyed.
The combat is up close and personal, forcing the player to make daring choices. A quick feint or a desperate last-minute flanking manoeuvre can be the difference between victory and defeat. The enemy AI is ruthless, cruelly combining their attacks to wipe out your team one at a time. Then there’s the fact that the cold landscape puts a timer on the combat, with damage incurred each turn as they slowly freeze to death. This is not an easy game by any means, and the difficulty serves to enhance the sense of jeopardy. One wrong move could spell disaster.
However, these confined combat zones often really stretched my sense of belief. My team is stuck in a room filled with gun-totting baddies and very little cover, so surely the most sensible course of action would be to retreat to another room? There’s literally the room I just entered from, and it’s stuffed with obstacles to hide behind that would provide much better strategic options. Unfortunately the computer says no, and it never provides a good enough reason for this. It’s an odd design decision that constantly brought me out of the game, confusing and frustrating with a design decision that could so easily have been rectified.
There’s also the issue that the majority of the abilities your characters have are just plain useless. Overwatch, a staple of the genre, is a waste of time and skill points here. Due to the tiny spaces the battles occur in, the enemy barely needs to move, which leaves your perfectly positioned elite sniper with their finger resting on the trigger, looking completely inept for the entire enemy turn. An ability that launches a big fluffy wolf to treat a foe like a chew-toy does so little damage it’s pointless, and I’m still not sure why I would want to push a foe. It’s not as if there’s anything to push them off or into.
These lacklustre abilities mean that your tactical options are actually pretty limited. You’ll find one or two effective strategic combinations fairly early on and then simply repeat those throughout the game. The initially thrilling combat became dull and repetitive long before the end credits rolled.