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The aliens -- they're everywhere! Run for your lives! Nobody is safe -- women and children first. Interstates are jammed, there's no place to go! We're all going to die! Now that I've got that out of my system, let me quickly mention H.G. Well's famous novel titled The War of the Worlds. The recitation of it on public radio waves by the similarly named Orson Welles temporarily plunged the country in a panic -- reportedly, the reading was so serious and the writing so grave and realistic that many foolish Americans believed our country actually to be under an alien invasion. But nowadays, such a sci-fi setting has become popularized to the point that the "alien invasion" convention is so stale and overdone that it honestly is no longer even remotely enjoyable. The sleeper hit Rebelstar: Tactical Command, however, is about to change that...
Admittedly, Rebelstar does start out with that same cursed "plot: that's been used a kajillion times before: alien invasion! This time, however, something somewhat unique has been done with the classic premise: yes, there's an alien invasion on Earth, but everything's not as clear-cut as it seems. You've got the Arelians, the evil alien overlords who abduct every human over the age of 30. But you've also got their huge, brutish henchman, the Zorn (who, incidentally, are the beings that you'll fight for most of the game). And further in, you'll uncover another race -- independent of everybody else, and looking to seize power from the struggle between the rebel humans and the Arelians. It's actually a pretty cool set-up plot-wise, and it's a real pity that the story couldn't have been better expressed via some good writing. My point: the dialogue is absolutely horrendous: it's contrived, trite, and an absolute bore to read. Characters, as a result, get very little development, despite the fact that the overarching plot is so well-conceived.
And interestingly, the complexity of the storyline (sans pathetic character development and feeble writing) really sets the stage for the rest of the game, at least in terms of the title's core game play mechanic. As the game's title indicates, you're going to take command of a squad, each with members with their own unique abilities, naturally, and send the Earth's invaders packing for good. The game employs a basic, straightforward grid system as well as standard turn-based combat. Beyond that, however, Rebelstar is a huge departure from what you'd regularly expect from a strategy title. If you're thinking "Advance Wars clone"...then think again.
Because while Rebelstar is indeed a strategy game, it is an incredibly ambitious one that really attempts to push the boundaries of what we handheld gamers consider acceptable and conventional in handheld title in this genre. And, I'm happy to announce, for the most part Rebelstar succeeds in a very big way, and I'm honest in saying that I find it somewhat difficult to go back to playing a title like Advance Wars or Fire Emblem (not that I say somewhat), and I honestly can't bring myself to even pick up Final Fantasy Tactics Advance after playing Rebelstar. Essentially, Rebelstar has you playing through a series of maps (there are 25 missions when all's said and done), each with a specific goal in mind and each with a cap on the number of turns -- an interesting convention that doesn't quite work out. Let me digress momentarily and run with the point regarding the turn cap: the idea behind it is clearly to promote a sense of urgency and make sure that the gamer doesn't just sit around during missions. The problem? Well, each cap is ridiculously high, such that there's no way that anybody with a brain could possibly take that freaking long to beat a mission. For example, you'll have 35 turns to find and destroy 20 enemies with 6 characters. In principle it could have really benefited the game, but in practice it just didn't work out.
For each battle, you'll have a set number of characters at your disposal -- during the game's first several missions, however, you'll only take control of the main character, Jorel, as you work you way through a nicely-done tutorial that teaches you the ropes of the game. The game's action essentially revolves around each characters Action Points, abbreviated APs in the game. Everything -- and I mean everything that you could do requires the expenditure of Action Points. Of course, you've got your typical actions like moving and shooting that require the use of these points, but even such mundane actions as reloading, picking up items, and even turning your characters also requires APs. While it might seem a bit annoying at first, it's actually a really cool mechanic because it challenges you to play as efficiently as possible and make good use of your Action Points. For example, it might be possible on a turn for you to kill a few enemies -- but perhaps it would be more strategically sound to only kill one, and then set-up some defensive measures for a coming attack next turn. Thinking in such a way will help lead to your success and really lends the game an overall necessity of sound tactics.
Of course, the combat is what really matters when it comes to how a game stacks up, and for the most part it's really great in Rebelstar. Each character starts out with a particular ability with a specific type of weapon: for example, one character does well with sniper rifles, while another excels at close-quarter combat with a combat knife. Additionally, each gun has a variety of different attacks, each consuming varying Action Points. For example, you could let loose with a powerful yet inaccurate attack, or you could take aim with a single shot and hit an enemy over a long distance. Grenades are also an important weapon, which can be used to wipe out clumps of enemies pretty quickly --plus, any enemies trapped in the explosion will automatically damaged. The chance of hitting with a gun depends mainly on the weapon that you're wielding, the attack that you're executing, and how far away the enemy is from you. Additionally, the environment plays a huge part in battles, because bullets can't go through a wall, and there's a lower chance of hitting (or being hit) if your foe or you, respectively, is behind a sandbag.
There's also a very cool system that allows you to station a troop somewhere on the map and essentially put him in sentry mode. If an enemy crosses into his or her line of sight, he'll automatically open fire, even during the enemy's turn. This adds a lot of strategy to the game (especially since the enemy can perform it as well -- it'll have you constantly peeking out behind corners to make sure it's safe) and is a really neat implementation. Finally, there's a loose role-playing system in play that awards characters with experience when they fight -- with a level-up comes increased stats, and an increase in a specific attribute (for example, a character's ability with handguns, large weapons, or proficiency in close combat). It doesn't affect the game too much, since each character's specialty is pretty much decided when you get them, but it's still pretty cool.
One of the biggest aspects to Rebelstar is the huge fog-of-war implementation that the title possesses. Many popular strategy titles (again, I cite Advance Wars and Fire Emblem) have a similar fog-of-war mechanic, but certainly not to the extent that Rebelstar does. Every single map has fog-of-war, but in a way that really makes sense: you cannot see all the enemies on a map -- all you can see at the beginning of a fight is the environment and any enemies that are in your vision range. Attempting to behave in a more life-like behavior, you can only see ahead of you and slightly to the left and right -- it's impossible to see enemies behind you. Thus, the direction that you're facing is critically important, because you don't want to be blindsided or suddenly attacked from behind by an enemy. The good thing is that your enemy isn't all-knowing, and they've got to hunt around for you, as well. So, the game is really great when you spot an enemy before they spot you, blow a path through the game's fully destructible environments, and take out the enemy from behind. Oh yeah.
Where the game falters, however, is in terms of both graphics and sound. The music is forgettable and you might not even notice it's there; the sound effects have a presence, but they downright suck. Gunshots sound nothing like a gun actually being fired, and there's no real audio indication to tell if your of an enemy has actually been hit by gunfire. The graphics are similarly poor, with overly-simplistic sprites, stale, boring character profile pictures, and an annoying 3D isometric set-up. The problem with the camera angle is that there are many times when you can't see the space immediately behind a wall, so there might be an enemy there that you simply can't see and wouldn't know was there unless you scrolled your cursor around in this invisible area. It's pretty inexcusable, and steps should have been taken to prevent the game's graphic style from getting in the way of game play.
Rebelstar is a relatively difficult title, but the game does a really good job of easing you into the game mechanic and really getting you used to each of the title's many components. However, once it teaches you something, it expects you to know and memorize you and you're going to need to take advantage of all the commands that you have if you want to win. Some of the later missions in particular are pretty tough, and you're really going to have to be smart with your troops if you want to pull through and actually beat the game. It's also a relatively long game: as I already mentioned, there are 25 missions, and while the early missions are pretty short, the later ones can take more than an hour to complete, so there's plenty of play time here. You can also play through scenarios, and play through a campaign map as the enemy on that map. Aside from this feature, which you're not gong to use on many maps anyway, there's not much reason to replay Rebelstar. Once you know where all the enemies are and figure out the general mission strategy, there's not a whole lot of difficulty to the title. Still, it's a great game while it lasts.
Despite some minor flaws, largely resulting from the way the game's design interferes with the play mechanic, Rebelstar: Tactical Command is a great game. If you're looking for a really good strategy title for the GBA and have exhausted such resources as Tactics Ogre, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, and Final Fantasy Tactics, then look no further than Rebelstar: Tactical Command. It's better than a lot of people would give it credit and is better than most of the strategy titles (only really excluding Fire Emblem and Advance Wars) that are on the system.
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