Turn-based strategy can get a little fiddly. It's all position this, attack that. Depending on your point of view, Rune Raiders [$0.99], the first release from Retro64, could be the genre's lowest common denominator, or a delightfully straightforward distillation. I'd put my money on the latter.
Rune Raiders couldn't be much more simple. You take a small party of adventurers—six at the most—each with a single ability and a unique attack pattern. Then you run them straight down a hallway, one grid square at a time. Orcs and minotaurs attack, orcs and minotaurs die. Simple, right? But in that simplicity there hide enough layers of complexity to keep things interesting.
The first layer holds the twelve heroes. For creatures confined to square tiles they've rather rich personalities, or archetypes at least. The elf, an archer, is arrogant and image-obsessed. The healer is quite the feminist when it suits her. They're two of the first, unlocked early on. More come with time.
The elf shoots in a wide circle, a dead-zone all around him. The healer heals things immediately adjacent to her square. Each hero has one ability and a certain range, and the ability triggers at the start of any turn something is in range. Like chess, all you need to do is put the pieces in the right place. It's just that there's an awful lot of strategy involved in that simple task.
Layer two is the force you're up against. There are 15 enemy unit types, and all of them have unique attack patterns. Here's what you do: you figure out where to put your heroes so you can attack them and they can't kill you. Each time you move you start a new turn, whether you're moving your entire team forward or repositioning one hero. And there's no going back.
As you progress through the game's 15 levels the enemy formations get more and more complex. But your team also gets stronger. Occasionally an enemy will drop an item that lets you apply a perk to a hero of your choice. Those perks can change the game drastically. They can make a weak hero one of the strongest, or make a tank pull double duty as your best healer. Strategy isn't something you can simply settle in to, it has to evolve with your team. Let's call that layer three.
Then there's the matter of economy. You pick up gold for each enemy you kill, but each hero you bring with you has a cost each time you bring them out. Later heroes cost a mint. Want to assemble a dream team of all your best units? You'll have to pay for it. Early on you'll need to learn to do more with less, and that can pay off well in the long run too. You can grind old levels for more gold, and go back stronger to max out your star ratings. That's where things fall apart, just a little.
Rune Raider's balance is a bit off. Eventually you can narrow your strategy down to just a few heroes that are the best for every circumstance, and they'll carry you through any situation you get thrown into. Maxing out their perks is quick work when you focus and with enough gold you can bring them out whenever you want. There are three difficulty modes to play with, but eventually you hit three stars in all 15 levels and that's that. That, and a strangely scored Survival mode.
So it's a little rough around the edges. The sound effects are bland, there's some choppiness when Game Center is enabled, and there's an outstanding crash that hits when it's not (a fix is already en route). You can break the game for yourself, so you might end up needing to throw challenges in your own path by restricting your team size. Not ideal in a strategy game, which really ought to hold up to min/maxing on some level. But for a few hours of casual fun? It will certainly do.
Rune Raiders is simple, but it isn't mindless. It packs several layers of strategy into a casual frame. More than that, it's rather charming, with characters and quips to make you smile. This is light fare, maybe too light for the serious strategy nut. But it's also fun and engaging, and just challenging enough to keep its hooks in you till it's done. Give it a shot, and stop by our forums to share your thoughts.
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