Backlog Beatdown: Chroma Squad

For my video review of Chroma Squad, check it out here:

One of my new years resolutions was to get through my considerable backlog of PC games, and I thought that would make a fun series of reviews.

We’re starting with Chroma Squad. It was released in April of 2015, by Behold Studios, the Brazilian indie team behind Knights of Pen And Paper.

It’s a tactical RPG with base-building strategy elements that follows the story of five stuntmen who leave their second banana positions to make their own martial arts TV show. Like Knights of Pen and Paper, Chroma Squad has retro-inspired graphics and music, and spends a lot of time breaking the fourth wall and poking fun at pop culture tropes.

I personally felt that Knights of Pen and Paper, while it had some charm, went on for far too long without shaking anything up, ultimately weakening what might have been a charming experience by overstaying its welcome. And while Chroma Squad sometimes suffers from a similar affliction, I feel that Behold Studios learned a hell of a lot, tightening and producing an RPG that is just plain fun to play.

While Knights of the Pen and Paper was a meta interpretation of playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends, Chroma Squad pulls its inspiration from the martial arts-centric, teen melodrama mind fuck that was the Power Rangers. You remember this, America? When an intergalactic drag queen threatened our freedom, so the disembodied head of Marlon Brando and C3PO’s less dignified cousin had to recruit “a team of teenagers with attitudes”?

You’ve got a team of five actors who all serve different functions, similar to the class system of most RPGs. Instead of fighters and thieves and rangers, you’ve got leads, techies, and other classes to fill out your ranks. You can change their names and even their distinctive colors. Hell, you can change the name of the studio, what their battles cries are: Behold took a lot of care to make sure that the game has plenty of room for customization.

You start out as a tiny studio with an incredibly limited budget. Your first weapons and suits are jury rigged from cardboard, plastic, and tools you’d find around a home depot, while it’s clear your villains are wearing costumes cobbled together from whatever happened to be lying around.

The levels of the game are divided into various episodes of five seasons of your TV show, with each episode divided into a series of tactical battles. During each battle, you’re given instructions from your director, which essentially come down to challenges to draw out the fights and make them more interesting. This can be anything from the usage of team-based attacks to showy acrobatics and skill uses. The instructions aren’t required to finish the episode, but they increase the number of people watching the episode at home, and the number of fans you’ll get, which translates into money to upgrade your costumes, equipment, and studio.

And that’s where Chroma Squad really shines.

Having a TV studio and shooting a martial arts show is such a fun, creative way of playing a game. You’ll read tweets from critics and viewers, get fan mail, and even receive combat assists from random passing Chroma Squad enthusiasts. As the story progresses, the villains get weirder, the sets get better, and your budget grows. Ultimately, the story gets completely out of control, to the point where it isn’t clear if you’re filming a TV show or if you’re actually fighting aliens from outer space. It gets a little convoluted, but it’s makes for an incredibly entertaining plotline.

True to its Power Rangers roots, every now and then your boss battle literally escalates to the size of skyscrapers, and your team is forced to do battle within their giant mecha suit. The combat in the mecha suit is fun, but far more simplified than the tactical fighting that you’ll spend the majority of the game playing. It’s not weak, per se, but it felt a little tacked on.

Of course, so did battles with the Mega Zord, so maybe that’s entirely appropriate.

The graphics are of a retro 8 to 16 bit style, and they’re really well done. I especially got a kick out of watching each and every one of my squad members striking a pose every time they spoke. The set pieces are pretty varied, so there are plenty of places to fight. But to me, my favorite part of the visuals were the villains. Just like villains of the Power Rangers, this rogue’s gallery looks like it was designed by an ADHD riddled 12 year old on acid. You’ve got parking cone warriors, reverse mermaids, giant anthropomorphic television sets: the list goes on and on. My favorite is definitely the PunkPin—a punk rock pumpkin that is just begging to have an action figure made of it.

But the MVP of the entire game has to be the soundtrack. It was clearly a labor of love, and a blend of various genres creates one memorable chiptune disco funk Japanese k-pop EDM blast ballad after another. The soundtrack sets the mood perfectly from start to finish, and Chroma Squad would be exponentially weaker without it.

For me, the gameplay style was simple enough to get a hang of, but I couldn’t help but notice that Chroma Squad doesn’t go out of its way to explain the specifics of what certain stats mean and how various aspects of the game work. If you’ve played strategy and tactical combat RPGs, you shouldn’t really have an issue, but I can see how this would be frustrating to someone who might be new to the genre. Some of the fights are fairly easy, while others require a little more thought and planning. In the end it’s a very accessible game, and if you lose, you can always do the fights over, although that will delay the episode and piss off your fanbase.

Ultimately, you defeat an intergalactic terror with the power of friendship and a cardboard arsenal, and bask in the adulation of your fans while the credits roll. You can finish Chroma Squad in about ten hours, which I thought was just the right amount of time, although I would have been happy to see an open ended sandbox mode that focused less on story and just let you build a television empire.

Near the end you spend a long time working with only a single member of your team, which to me defeated the purpose of playing a tactical RPG. But beyond that and a couple of tedious boss battles, I had a great time playing Chroma Squad.

The gameplay, graphical style, music, and sense of humor all blended beautifully for a fully realized and complete package. Fans of tactical roleplaying games and Power Rangers alike will get a lot out of Chroma Squad, and if Behold Studios could come up with a sequel or expansion that allows for a more open ended game mode with some roguelike elements, you might have a game that you could sink some serious time into. Until then, however, they’ve definitely made a game that they should be proud of.

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