Mika Mobile. I have a certain fondness and emotional connection to these guys. Back in 2011, I had just started my career as a mobile game critic. Working for a different site, I had the pleasure and privilege of playing and reviewing the Android version of Battleheart ($2.99) as one of my most early pieces of work. We’re talking second week on the job here. I have grown leaps and bounds since then, and so has Mika Mobile, upping the ante to the incredible Battleheart Legacy ($4.99). Now they’re breaking into a new genre for the studio, and while I would say it isn’t as strong as the Battlehearts, it really is great. This is the weird west turn based strategy, Lost Frontier ($2.99). Saddle up, folks. This one is a doozy.
First, some mood music.
Eschewing the 3D graphics of Legacy, Lost Frontier goes back to that classic, cute, and simple style that Mika is famous for in games like the first Battleheart, Zombieville USA ($0.99), its sequel ($0.99)(and heck, OMG Pirates! ($1.99) That game never gets any love). This is a weird western as opposed to a classic western, meaning some kind of speculative fiction is thrown into the mix. Stuff like occult horror, steampunk, sci-fi, etc. Your Jonah Hexes and Cowboys and Aliens’ and timeless Will Smith classic Wild Wild West. So don’t be surprised when steam tanks, gyrocopters, vampires, werewolves, zeppelins, and necromancers show up here.
Let me just tell you right now, partner; this here game is tough as nails. They say men go mad facing the trials on the lost frontier. ‘They’ being me. This game was driving me right crazy. It definitely isn’t as approachable as Mika’s other games, with very little handholding and some jumps in difficulty. The story mode consists of three Living Legends/mercenaries hunting down a bounty. Things escalate as the chase continues with the main bounty, Undertaker Harvey, recruiting more legends to fight you off leaving more slaughtered towns in his wake. That’s all before the vampires show up and things get really crazy.
So here’s how things generally breakdown. You have your basic melee range gunslinger types who can move up and attack units as your frontline fighters. Any close range fighter will counter attack after being attacked. “Melee range with guns?” you ask. I guess it can make sense with the accuracy of those older pistols. Your ranged units can shoot from a distance (And also over/through mountains/cliffs) but they can’t move and shoot on the same turn and they can’t counterattack. You’ve got your healing and support units, your vehicles, and eventually your supernatural units which are all very unique in their own way. The rule for everyone is that the lower their health is, the less damage they’ll do. Something about it being hard to aim with blood in your eyes, even though that doesn’t really make sense for several units, but that’s OK. This includes the healing abilities of doctors and engineers. A low health doctor is useless, and needs another doctor or chuck wagon (vehicle that heals all adjacent units) to make him useful again.
There are a lot of creative units here. Bounty hunters give you bonus money if they get the killing blow on an enemy. Snake oil salesmen can actually double a unit’s attack effectiveness for two turns. This makes me think the reason people gave real life snake oil salesmen such a bad rep is because no one tried to murder anyone else shortly after application. Gyrocopters ignore terrain and are great for hit and runs, as are horseback cavalry units. There is a day and night cycle that alternates every other round, and this affects your supernatural units. Vampires are only much weaker during the day, whereas werewolves actually revert to completely useless humans during the day, but are the absolute powerhouse units of the game at night. Naturally, there are old school Buffy units called Slayers to help deal with these monsters. One of my favorite units is the necromancer. Not only is he the only ranged unit that can move and attack in the same round, but he can raise dead enemy units into ghouls for your army. And the ghouls are great because they’re the only unit in the game whose damage is unaffected by their health.
Getting used to all of this can be frustrating for sure. Like I said, no hand holding. But as you progress and retry and retry and learn, things really start to click. Despite getting stuck on some missions for 4 or 5 tries, once the strategies and mechanics began to fall into place, I was able to win much more regularly. I wasn’t three starring any missions any time soon, and I think I’d rather have an IRL 20 paces high noon pistol duel than tackle that feat anytime soon. In every mission you’re rated out of three stars. You get one just for killing everything and winning, but the other two definitely bring some hardcore challenge. You also have to get below a certain number of casualties, and finish within a certain number of rounds. And yes, you have to do both of these things in the same session for three stars.
But hey, a little bit of challenge never hurt anyone. This game has definitely made me feel more accomplished than any other mobile game I’ve recently played. Winning honestly feels as awesome as it does in something like Dark Souls. I have some general tips for you, if you don’t care about three starring and just want to win. Stay back and let all the units that will come to you do so. Even if they are spawning more units. They usually spawn a few weaker units like snake oil salesmen and chuck wagons which aren’t much of a problem to deal with. Slow and steady, friends. Each campaign level generally has a few groups of enemies that won’t be activated until you get close enough, so think of it like stages or waves. Keep a good formation, with doctors and chuck wagons behind your front line. The game is easiest on any map with bottlenecks. You can just wait out the enemy, keeping healed and making sure to look out for and deal with any ranged units.
It’s important to always check the enemy’s potential attack range each round by tapping on them. Because ranged units can’t get into range and fire in the same round, this means you can quickly lower their health with your ranged or flying units, greatly weakening their attack before they can fire if you can’t safely destroy them outright. I can’t stress the importance of this. Your gamer instincts will probably scream at you to focus enemies down. Don’t do this. Instead, use your full health units to damage as many of their units as possible before their attack round. This way you can laugh heartily as their weakened attacks bounce off of you like nothing. Just protect your healing units to keep them at full capability, and you will be just fine.
Now I’m going to talk about the Living Legend system. These are basically the hero units of the game. In the campaign, you can choose between the main three. Gunslinger John McGraw, Rifleman Wyatt Wilcox, and Doctor Doc Valentine. Not only do these heroes take the field as more powerful versions of the normal units they represent, but they also boost other units of their general type, with more boosts and bonuses being unlocked as you level each legend. The implementation of this system is one of my biggest criticisms. First of all, you don’t choose any upgrades and there are no skill trees. It’s all set up beforehand. Not a huge deal but it feels like a step down from the amazing customization of Battleheart Legacy.
The other complaint I have is that in order to level a new hero, you have to completely restart the campaign with them. You choose them before you even pick your mission. I feel like this can and should be easily reversed. I guess the idea was to force the player to gradually learn to adopt a different play style as their melee units, ranged units, or doctor units get stronger in each campaign, but I don’t want to replay the entire campaign with every legend. Especially since once you beat the game, you can replay the campaign as any legend in the game, of which there are 9 total. I would love to be able to select my hero after I select my mission, giving me more variability in the way I approach a level. Especially since each hero basically acts as an extra unit, and which hero you choose effects what unit that is. Maybe I feel like this level needs an extra rifleman or an extra doctor at the start, just for example.
You can also level up by facing the 20 challenge missions, but the word challenge ain’t no lie. This is meant for post story mode, max or nearly max level legends. Every legend you face will be maxed out with all the benefits that come with that. I jumped in with my fairly high level Wyatt Wilcox and was decimated. If you don’t want to level every legend separately, you can instantly get them to level 40 (the highest level) with a one dollar in-app purchase for each hero. Or you can just do this to throw a little extra money at Mika Mobile. Considering the phenomenal value of content in this game for only three bucks, they probably deserve it. This is a way to make the story mode a bit easier too.
My final criticism is that I feel the game communicates less information to you than it should. Or it does so less effectively than it should. For example, while leveling you have no idea how much experience you need, or how much you’re going to get. From trial and error, and being defeated, it seems you get some money for each kill and a bunch for each win, but I can’t say for sure, and I don’t know if capturing buildings matters. You actually have to tap on each enemy unit to see if they’re currently being boosted by snake oil, which is tedious. Some kind of purple border or upward arrows at their feet or a purple star badge or something would go a long way. Rocks/cacti act as rough terrain, slowing you down but providing cover, while roads actually make you take more damage, but I don’t know how much and it’s hard to plan around this effectively. When you attack an enemy, you do a certain range of damage. I wish this potential range would be shown on the enemy’s health bar without you having to back out of your attack to check their actual health number by examining them and calculating. At least showing minimum damage on the bar would be great.
You’re also likely to forget exactly what upgrades you’ve unlocked with your living legends, and I wish this was displayed on units and on the recruiting page when you buy them in saloons, steamworks, and graveyards. Buildings which you capture by punching, by the way, also affected by health which is pretty funny. You see, certain upgrades will tell you that you’re getting more health for a unit, but every unit is always at 100. This is because of the percentage based damage model. Basically getting more health on a unit lowers the attack of the enemy, but this is confusing when the numbers are the same. You can also accidentally lock your unit into waiting sometimes when you’ve moved them up to attack. This happens rarely, but it can happen. It’s my fault when it does, but being able to back out of a wait would be nice. There is no ‘restart mission’ button in the menu. You have to admit defeat, back out to the mission select, and start over, which seems like an oversight. And finally, you have to scroll through all the dialogue every time you replay a mission, which is tedious. A skip dialogue button on replays would be great.
I know that was a ton of criticism in a couple paragraphs, but don’t let me fool you. This game is still great. It’s not as intuitive or approachable as every other Mika Mobile game, for sure, but still great. Communicating all that missing info might detract from the super clean and simple interface, but I feel like there is room for it, especially on an iPad. There is cloud saving by the way, so you can jump devices, and it plays well on both. But the tightness of the design makes for a really engaging strategy game. The magic moment for me was the introduction of engineers. I now had a way to heal my chuck wagons, cannons, and gyrocopters, making hit and run more viable than ever, and they can also blow up bits of mountain to carve new paths or nooks in the environment. The game really opens up after that moment about midway through the story.
This is still a must buy game for any strategy fans. It’s been compared favorably to Warbits ($4.99), with people citing the story mode as more interesting and engaging. There are custom games as well, which act as your player versus AI skirmishes as well as your pass and play multiplayer, with up to 4 teams in each mode plus handicap options that net you more money per round. Asynchronous multiplayer would be groovy, but I’m not going to ask for the world. If you have your own ideas or criticisms or discover any bugs, hit up our forum. Mika Mobile has been very active there, and people are exchanging strategies left and right. This game is a steal at only three dollars, and I reckon it will only get better over time.