Sentinels of Freedom Review - Superhero Xcom?
Posted By: Ryan - May 06, 2020
A superhero-themed tactics game that nails the comic book feel, for better and for worse.
Right from the start, Sentinels of Freedom (named for its titular superhero team) is a treat to look at. Cell-shaded panels of static images and text take the place of animated cutscenes and the character models are vibrant and varied enough to pop from the detailed backgrounds. This is a game that embraces the comic book aesthetic that has fuelled other entries in the Sentinel Comics property and, largely, makes it work without requiring any foreknowledge of the lore involved.
Sentinels of Freedom hits the nail on the head for the comic book feel.
Each named character has an easy-to-read silhouette and stands out enough from the maps that I never lost my heroes during the approximately fourteen hours it took me to complete chapter one of Underbite Games’ entry into the 3D tactics genre.
The superheroes are brightly coloured (even Expatriette, a gun-wielding former assassin, has bright red as a spot colour on her costume), the summons are distinguishable enough and the UI is relegated to the edges of the screen. Everywhere you look, colour is liberally splashed around and constantly toeing the line of being a distraction. Everywhere, that is, except the hostile NPCs.
I was beating the tar out of large numbers of nameless minions dressed in olive drab or black fatigues on pretty much every map. Sure, it helped me figure out who was hostile and who was an ally, but several times I lost track of enemies among the shadows of the darker maps.
Thankfully, that was the only presentation problem I had. Attack ranges are clearly displayed, the selection cursor is clear when aiming, moving or just clicking around, the UI (whilst busy) is easy enough to parse, and hovering over an enemy with the cursor brings up a list of symbols above the action bar showing which of your attacks will be the most/least effective against that enemy, whilst also conveying any bonuses/penalties that are being applied and the target’s current health.
This is a game that delights in showing you the numbers being tossed around in the background and I love it for that. The main problem I had was that the font used for describing the mechanical effects of the abilities (damage, duration etc.) was so different from all the other fonts that it was a bit jarring, BUT it was easy to read and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.
I wish I could praise the sound as much as I have the graphics, but this is a game fuelled by stock-sounding effects. Whilst not a bad thing in, and of, itself, I found the audio mixing a little off in places. Some explosions seemed to quiet compared to other effects and the vast majority of my time spent playing the game was without hearing any voice acting. The sudden appearance of voices in my last play session leads me to conclude this was a bug and the characters’ barks are well-written and averagely (but enthusiastically) delivered.
Sentinels manages to look great not only with the models but also in the story overlay.
I did find one character’s lines were louder than the others, as one character’s were quieter, but as it fit with those characters I didn’t find it too distracting. On the other hand, the soundtrack is easily one of the best I’ve heard in a LONG time and I wish it were purchasable separately for when I need to feel like a superhero out of the game.
Whilst this is no AAA-title, it is a very enjoyable, well-made tactics game where customisation is king and the superhero-genre is embraced whole-heartedly. The facing of each character, the range to the target, even the damage type of the attack (presented in-game through a damage/defence-type matchup chart) all play into the hit and damage calculations in a largely challenging experience that overwhelmed me twice: the first boss fight and a map comprised of a time limit and a LARGE number of mooks. The former beat me resoundingly, the latter I somehow scraped through at the last moment.
Some maps do favour certain character types and I found some exploitable strategies that helped with otherwise overwhelming numbers but that’s the joy of the genre, isn’t it?
I click and they die.
Whilst the gameplay encourages playing to each character’s strengths and exploiting the enemies’ facings/weakness, the characters themselves are far more static in terms of development. Each has the choice of three stances (loadouts) and each stance has a variety of skills in it. Use a hero enough and they level up, gaining access to a new ability for each stance. That’s it though, there’s no character progression here so look elsewhere if that is what you want. I found there were plenty of options to keep me satisfied and I wasn’t looking for a tactical rpg, but your mileage may vary.
What it does have though is a tongue-in-cheek action story of heists, arms deals and a rising villainous threat all told through comic panel-style cutscenes and largely well-written dialogue, including branching dialogue options for your own custom hero (although I do not believe your choices affect the game). Yes, you make your own hero here, but you are not obliged to use them. The hero creator is robust and, whilst you don’t get the extremely flavourful abilities of the named heroes (each one taken from Greater Than Games’ Sentinels Comics line of games), the sheer choice available to you more than makes up for it (in my opinion).
I opted for a support/leader who could heal and buff allies whilst summoning a drone for backup if needed, but, with the number of options available, you should be able to create any hero you can think of. I should note though, changing your heroes’ stances is a bit awkward. If you read a mission description and want to alter something, you have to back out of the mission select screen, load the training screen, select the character, change the stance and then navigate back to the mission screen. At least, I didn’t discover another way to do it.
Each background, theme and power source alters your character in some way.
All this said, however, I felt the writing at the end of the chapter fell into a common comic book trap: padding. There were several places that I felt the final, climactic battle could have happily taken place. There is also a jarring shift in mission length from around 40 minutes to two hours that happens in the middle of the chapter, one that comes out of nowhere and introduces a reserve mechanic that is never explained; be warned that sometimes a mission will take far longer than you expect it to.
I was happy to note that I didn’t encounter any noticeable bugs, save for the voices one mentioned above, and the devs are still updating the game and polishing aspects of it. As this is chapter one, I wouldn’t be surprised if the updates continued for a while as polish is applied for chapter two. That said, this is definitely an indie game. AI pathing is sometimes a little off and the game has an aggro system (the higher the aggro, the more likely the hero is to be targeted) that sometimes leads the AI into making interesting decisions where it ignores the weakened hero in front of it and spends its activation (determined through an initiative order clearly displayed at the top of the screen) trekking across the map, all of which are largely well designed.
Replayability here is limited to restarting the campaign over and trying out new hero builds and team compositions. As of the time of writing, there is no mission select, but I’m happy that I would have got my money’s worth (it currently retails for £19.49 on Steam) had I not backed the game on Kickstarter for a reduced price. In fact, I’m giving serious though to buying it on the Switch when it comes out on other platforms later this year.
Ultimately, this is a game with enough jank that you never quite forget its an indie title but enough heart to make you forgive it its quirks. If you’re looking for a tactics game, you could do far, FAR worse. Even if you’re a casual player of the genre, like me, there is a lot here to enjoy (I played through on Standard and failed only one mission).
Custom difficulty really is customisable.
That said, this isn’t XCOM. There is no cover mechanic and your allies will block your line of sight as if they were concrete pillars so hardcore fans of the genre might find this entry lacking.
Myself? I’m eagerly looking forwards to the next chapter and can’t wait to return to the world of Sentinel Comics again.