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April 24, 2020
“Where the game lacks in role-playing and freedom, it flourishes with excellent character building“
At a point, tech-support Terminal is chatting with Zephyr about her origin and joking around about her Australian accent. As cheesy as it is, the little bits of banter between agents adds so much to the enjoyability of the game. It’s less about getting through the campaign and more about your team and overcoming the looming threat. It feels like your own personal Justice League or police squad and that compliments the comic book style of the story.
Where the game lacks in role-playing and freedom, it flourishes with excellent character building. Each unit still has skill trees to level up, swappable equipment and modifications to tune playstyles. They can’t permanently die but they can receive battle scars that hinder their aim or mobility. Unfortunately, they are rigid in comparison to the customisation of previous games. Although, the excellent writing fleshes characters out more than any other XCOM.
Each playable agent is beneficial and finding a suitable team of four for a mission is essential. There is never the “right” way to tackle each difficult scenario in XCOM: Chimera Squad. Instead, the game provides ample opportunities for players to figure out their own strategy. Cherub, for example, is a young and outgoing hybrid agent with the ability to emit an energy blast shield bash in close-quarter combat. Patchwork is a human agent who lost her entire family during the invasion and suffered traumatic amputations in her efforts. She now uses tech to zap and stun foes with a drone and is super effective against machines.
The universe may still be familiar, yet the largest departure to the original format is the now instanced gameplay ‘encounters’. Rather than wide levels with unknown variables, scenarios are a number of condensed engagements that begin with a breaching phase. Players select which agent breaches from which entrance, weighing up the pros and cons and building the tactic for that encounter. Where this does limit replayability, it still feels more refined in execution. There is always a threat, there will always be characters within the line of fire, and an objective to achieve. It’s certainly more linear XCOM gameplay, though the intensity of each mission is heightened.
Within encounters, players no longer move all their units within one turn phase. Now, enemies and allies make their movements interchangeably, depending on their breach order, skills, and aggressiveness. This can be manipulated to set up some room clearing combos and back-to-back agent attacks, or be quickly twisted on its head and have a parade of foes stop you from achieving time-restricted objectives. The change makes each mission feel a bit like instance battles of Divinity: Original Sin, where players must wisely choose to defend certain units or move aggressively to take out the next engaging enemy. It works quite well as an alternative to the usual setup, standing XCOM: Chimera out on its own rather than being a mere expansion of its predecessor.
Noticeably, the user interface is a little clunky. When selecting abilities to use, the game can get stuck on selections and not clearly display the ability or character you’ve targeted. This is mirrored in equipment fit-out. There’s a bit of unnecessary selecting and re selecting when outfitting your squad using poorly designed drop-down boxes that don’t necessarily display all the important information. During combat, figuring out which abilities end turns immediately and which don’t is tricky, despite the tool tips. Some will clearly progress turns while others don’t. It can potentially catch you off guard and leave an agent left for dead. Overall, the UI needs a few tweaks to fix the hindrances along the way.
“The score knows when to pick up during intense battles… it absolutely captures the feeling of XCOM.”
Between missions, the resource management gameplay remains relatively familiar. Collect elerium, intel, and cash to conduct research, upgrade supplies, and buy equipment. It’s important to keep a healthy balance of all three to manage city anarchy levels. Yet, intel is clearly the most critical of the three. Intel can buy field teams to manage district distress and purchase powerful gear from the Scavenger Market. It is a little unbalanced, leaving the other two as afterthoughts when a steady source of intel will easily keep City 31 stable.
XCOM: Chimera Squad has many perks but isn’t shying away from a handful of common issues. The camera is still a difficulty, particularly with the close-quarter nature of the entire game. Often it will glitch out, get stuck behind walls, or freeze for a few moments after an enemy turn. Luckily, most XCOM veterans will not be surprised and well attuned to this problem. It’s just unfortunate that camera angles still aren’t resolved after a decade of excellent games.
Technically, this new edition to the XCOM series is on par with XCOM 2. Everything is essentially the same, if not a little more vibrant to match the new style. Textures up close aren’t going to impress anyone and some characters do look a bit odd on closer inspection. Performance and optimisation are as expected in comparison to previous titles. The score knows when to pick up during intense battles and mellow down at the Chimera Squad headquarters. It certainly helps set the police-comic book story tone of the game. At the time of review, no info is available on whether series composer Tim Wynn has returned. Either way, it absolutely captures the feeling of XCOM.
It is important to note, XCOM: Chimera Squad has limited options for accessibility. There are no alternative colour modes or resizing of fonts and user interface. It does allow for full keyboard rebinding on PC, and is most probably playable with just the mouse and minimal keyboard use. A story difficulty mode is available for players looking purely to enjoy the narrative… or you can play impossible with no fails mode if you’re a real masochist. Regardless, the game has mod support, so many of these issues will probably be solved by the passionate community.
You may miss naming your agents after real-life friends and getting them killed in battle, but XCOM: Chimera Squad’s tale of a jaunty group succeeds in its own right. This is no traditional XCOM game, though it captures the universe superbly while throwing its own light-hearted twist to the alien-invasion backdrop. 11 new faces and backstories bring a more streamlined approach to the game for the purpose of compelling world-building. Along with the new breach mechanic, close-quarter encounters, and several other changes to the formula, the spin-off sets itself apart. It’s a fun little diversion from the main series, and it knows exactly what it wants to be. At a discounted price for a compact experience of around 20 hours, there’s no reason not to jump in. I’ll be thinking about my new squad of quirky techs, determined soldiers, and new alien friends for a long time after finishing XCOM: Chimera Squad, like waiting for the next issue of a great comic book.