Platform: Game Boy Advance
Turn-Based Strategy RPG: Turns by Team
Completion Level: Campaign Finished 50 Hrs
Rebelstar Tactical Command (Rebelstar) is a very pleasant surprise in a small GBA package. In an era when some SRPG’s were going bigger and flashier but also less strategic, diverse and fun (*cough – Disgaea*) Rebelstar bucked the trend. It is proof that a solid vision combined with a small talented team can make something special. Rebelstar comes from a fine pedigree; one of the two minds behind the well regarded classic, X-Com. That old, well regarded game is known to few these days.
Within the constraints of the GBA platform, Rebelstar crafts a limited but well chosen number of SRPG qualities. Its a lean game, with most every element chosen well. The systems are streamlined and friendly, and so is the underlying tone of the game. That sounds like it should be the norm, but, sadly, it’s not. Sometimes it can feel like you are battling against the game itself instead of the tactical challenges it presents.
The format of Rebelstar is more-or-less standard SRPG. You look down upon a non-rotatable isometric view of the environment gridded for battle. Your team executes your orders and when they’re finished the enemy does the same. There’s just enough character chat between combat missions using portraits and word bubbles. An efficient number of sub-screens clearly allow you to adjust weapons for your hand picked team.
- The Action Point system is lean and well-crafted, allowing for more options during combat that just “move” and “attack.” For example, the snap shot takes fewer action points, but is less accurate. The aimed shot takes more, but is needed to hit at ranges beyond close. Should you go for a pistol’s single accurate shot or a sub-machine gun’s random burst. Fun strategic choices.
- The tri-color movement display provides understandable feedback for the intelligent action point system. It’s easy to determine how far a unit can move with full (aimed) or partial (snap) action options. Such wonderful flexibility clearly illustrated.
- The ramping is smooth; it carries you along rather than hitting you in the face. The challenge is controlled, yet varies and evolves. It does not get staid or routine. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done.
- There is opponent variety, each with their own style. Humans, robots, quadrupeds, and aliens face your team. More variety is added with huge multi-grid-square enemies. Those are rare in SRPG’s.
- The music has style and fits well. It adds to the game, and sadly that can’t be said for all SRPG music. It’s driven by an edgy bass melody. There’s not an abundance of it, and it’s still GBA quality, but it’s unique and memorable.
- The art direction is unique and easy on the eyes. Talented artist Gez Fry was hired to illustrate the character portraits and likely the dialog backgrounds. His style is fresh and fun. The characters communicate a lot with just their appearance.
- Mission types are varied and gripping. In addition to the classic “take ’em down” there is: Sneaky infiltration, hold-the-fort, get-to-the-other-side, and escort. Additionally these specialized missions are grafted into the story, moving it forward.
- Your team, your way, with weapons you prefer. Want to grow a character’s sniper rifle skills instead of those for a rocket launcher? Rebelstar gives you the option to advance the characters as you see fit.
- Most missions your way. The mission mountain can be climbed many ways. Slow and cautious, or guns a’ blazin’. The game’s systems are flexible enough to support either. Of course many missions are designed to favor certain tactics, but even then you can often choose weapons you prefer.
- A detailed and interesting training mode was added later in the game’s development. We can tell you from personal experience that it can be challenging making teaching the player how to play the game fun. Some SRPG’s don’t even try, others go the boring text approach. You will appreciate how training in Rebelstar fits the main character and the story.
- Use your action points in bite-sized decisions. Have your unit take a few steps and reevaluate the situation. This is important with the line of sight gameplay described below. You can split and alternate use of APs between action and movement until they are exhausted. Take a singe step, fire a snap shot, take another step, fire another snap shot, etc. Such flexibility we have not seen in other SRPGs.
- Range is a real variable. It’s not like most SRPG’s that guarantee a hit within a weapon’s range (although that’s not necessarily bad). In Rebelstar, for each additional grid square between your unit and the target, the greater your chances of missing. We’ve seen this kind of thing lead to frustration in other games, but here it worked well with the skill systems.
- Quick and Good:
- Rebelstar calculates and allows for shooting through small windows!
- An action point option called “overwatch” allows units to defend themselves during enemy turns.
- After a mission the game calculates your performance based on various criteria.
- There’s no need for grinding. This is a challenging ramping method to pull off, but they did it. And since you don’t recruit new characters along the way, at least ones that start at level 0, there is no real need for an experience gaining practice arena.
- Just a flesh wound: Your team members can’t be permanently killed, but if they fall in battle, they can’t be selected for the next engagement. Bravo for some consequence to losing a team member! More than that doesn’t fit Rebelstar’s small cast style. It’s so much better than the oft used “character falls in battle and returns for the next as if nothing happened.”
Too Big For a Bullet Point: Line of Sight
Line of sight. If your units can not see the enemy, neither can you. No God’s eye view. This makes the use of cover and concealment all the more important, and fighting enemies in such areas more challenging. Few SRPG’s have tried this, and fewer still have done it well, making it fun and not frustrating.
Your unit moves just enough spaces to peek around a corner and sees an enemy. If you smartly saved enough action points, you can still slip the unit back behind the corner again. However, if the enemy was facing you and noticed, you may take incoming fire first. And now that they know you’re there, they won’t just wait around.
Too Big For a Bullet Point: Story Cliff Notes, Just the Meat and No Fat
As far as SRPG stories go, Rebelstar can hold its head up high. We were pleasantly surprised by such a well-paced and interesting story in a little GBA package. It has to be lean, but doesn’t suffer for it. A lot of meaning can be borne by a few well chosen words.
These words are not only delivered in cut scenes, but in the missions themselves. It’s done at times when it really makes sense due to a discovery of new information. It contributes a sense of wholeness and reality to the game.
Story is about communication. It’s not necessary to have elaborate movies and endless dialogue in a video game in order to have “story.” Final Fantasy Tactics is so good because of nearly element, but not its twisting, wordy story. Rebelstar put more emphasis on comprehension, and succeeded.
The Good & Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:
- Rebelstar doesn’t use a world map screen. Instead your portrait conversations lead directly to your next assignment. It makes world maps unnecessary. Some may still miss them and the sense of progress they can impart. We didn’t here, and were grateful for zero possibility of time wasting wrong turns and pointless random encounters.
- Rebelstar has robots (with cool art direction.) One character on your team is all about activating and getting them to fight for you. This fun aspect of the game is way underutilized, as is most any interaction with the robots.
Robots could have been so much more! Why not make them simplified programmable units? Higher skills for your robot specialist could equal more programmable options.
- Deadlines, deadlines… With patience and tactics you can get to the ending. You’ll find that it’s a nice one. However, it’s weaker than this game deserves and seemingly a bit rushed. We understand what it’s like when a game development team runs out of time.
- Too much of a good thing? Over all the backgrounds are simple, but clear and interesting. However a couple of the tile sets, like those depicting some of the overgrown alien construction, are a little busy.
- Its thinking… The AI does a great job in rather complex situations. It has to juggle enemy options in conjunction with line-of-sight, weapon types, and pathing issues—often around multiple obstacles. However it takes the platform’s CPU some time to crunch all those numbers. We didn’t mind the wait for the quality results received, but some may.
- A couple of minor bugs made it into the final product. I can imagine the time pressure the small team was under to get it done. Still, bugs are bugs.
- There’s an unfinished and un-finishable level tacked on after the ending. Being in the business, our professional curiosity appreciated the extra content. Especially since we enjoyed the game so much. However this level should have been finished or left out.
- Battle environments have no implied elevation. It did not unduly affect the stellar gameplay action, as was also the case in the Advance Wars series. (Drone Tactics is also flat, but may have benefited significantly from elevation.) High ground and valleys add tactical decision making, and affect weapons like grenades. Elevation opens up interesting line of sight possibilities. Added to all of Rebelstar’s existing elements, it would be intense!
- A dorky rival character (Gordo) must be taken with you on certain missions. Despite what his stats say, he can’t shoot straight. Relying on him is a mistake. You can plan for less personnel, but planning for total incompetence is a little harder—especially when it can’t hit the broad side of an alien barn.
The quality in Rebelstar’s fundamentals and scenarios makes up for any deficits. Additionally its mechanics are unique and “realistic” in a fun way. Rebelstar incorporated a set of common sense yet often overlooked facets in the flexible AP system. Backed up with solid mechanics, it turns potentially simple scenarios into enjoyable tactical challenges.
Most all the features in this game are implemented well, from the sometimes tricky turns by team to an action point system which should be influential in the genre. Like any good regular RPG, Rebelstar makes you feel like you went places. That you traveled and accomplished a great good with your strategic efforts.
With a little more time and budget, Rebelstar’s few flaws could have been smoothed out. Who knows what pressures this small team was under in the last weeks of development, and what had to be rushed, hacked, or cut. Even so, if you like to play SRPG’s, this is one of the best you probably never heard of. Game Informer rightly gave it a 9.
Rebelstar is a small but surprisingly fun entry into the SRPG genre that is easy to miss, however it is well worth the effort to find and play. It’s an experience you will likely look back upon fondly, as we do today.
Unfortunately, they never completed Rebelstar Tactical Command II. A pity. This game was quite good, and we can only imagine the improvements, tactical refinements, and polish that could have been built upon this great foundation.
Apparently Rebelstar concept artist Gez Fry was commissioned to do design work for the sequel. Here is what we have found. Hey Gez, if you have more, let us know!
If you like Rebelstar Tactical Command, try: