It has been a few years since the indie gaming scene’s popularity explosion happened, and we can safely say that the indie industry progresses on what seems to be a perpetually flattening staircase. When the indie boom happened, creativity shot up with all kinds of unique, interesting and artistic (that word wasn’t equal to “pretentious vomit” back in the day) games coming from small studios or one-man teams. Then, when the patter of which indies sell well emerged, we reached the platform of the step on the staircase, with samey indie productions shoddily slapped together tried to cash in on the popularity. The most recent fad among indies is nostalgia. Though indie games reaching back to classics is hardly a new thing, the number of pixel-art games claiming to be “8-bit” without actually knowing what 8-but stands for rivals that of early access post-apocalyptic survival games. However, even when we’re on a platform, a few games stand out. There are cliché, forced pixelated games reminiscing about the pop-culture of the 80’s and 90’s.
And then there’s Chroma Squad.
Chroma Squad, is a masterpiece.
Chroma Squad, a love letter to the Power Rangers, a tactical RPG with strategy (and, by a stretch, simulation) elements. The game sees five stunt actors, who play in a cheap series much akin to the Power Rangers, run by a sadistic director. They get fed up with the constant discontent of their boss, and run off to start their own series. Players are then put in charge of managing the studio and recording the episodes.
The episode recording part is where the combat and the story happens. Your five actors – whose appearance, color, name, role and equipment is all customizable – appear on set, followed by a short conversation containing a few references, quips, and at least two of them forgetting their lines. Then, for story reasons, enemies appear, and we enter combat. This is the meat of the gameplay, and where you’ll be spending most of your time with Chroma Squad. Combat takes place from an isometric perspective, and is turn based. All of your actors can move twice, move once and attack, move once and use an ability, or attack once/ use an ability once. This is the basic setup, though certain abilities or circumstances switch things up a bit. Your actors can also activate “teamwork” during their turn. When teamwork is active, they increase the distance other actors can move through acrobatics, other actors are buffed or healed, and if a targeted enemy is adjacent to an actor currently in teamwork, they will also attack. If four actors surround an enemy in teamwork and the fifth attacks, your squad will perform a devastating finishing attack (with flashing beams of light, in true Tokusatsu style) – be careful though, because if the enemy survives a finisher, you’ll lose audience.
Your actors will start out each episode in civilian clothing, with no abilities and low stats. Once you reach a particular number of viewers (this varies from episode to episode), you’ll get the ability to “chromatize” (or whatever you named it in your game), upon which your actors will transform into their ranger-personas, gaining abilities, weapons, and refilling their health.
Once you down the boss monster, sometimes they come back for another round, but a tad larger. This is where the “destroy the city to same the city” giant mecha fights typical of the kinds of shows this game is based on come into the picture. Your cardboard mech is built from components the colors of which correspond with your rangers, and the mech battles happen from an epic side view, where you take turns with the enemy to wail away at each other and blocking incoming attacks. Like pretty much bloody everything else in this game, your mech can be customized and upgraded, giving it the ability to summon a massive sword and the like. If your health reaches a dangerous level, but your audience is big enough, you can replenish hit points, saving the fight.
During each episode, you are given various optional objectives called “director’s instructions, the completion of which, as well as keeping your actors alive and performing stunts, will increase the size of your audience. At the end of each episode, your income is calculated based on the number of viewers, so, obviously, that number is one you’d want to keep high. More viewers and higher ratings equals more cash, and everyone likes more cash.
When you’re not beating up stunt actors in cheap costumes, you’re managing your studio. You can purchase various upgrades for the studio, which give you combat bonuses, greater income, or a larger audience. These upgrades require you to pay upkeep per episode, so having the ability to buy something does not necessarily mean you can afford it. It is in your studio where you can upgrade your mech and equip your actors with new items, which can either be purchased from the store, or crafted with materials that are dropped by enemies or bought. You can also customize the name of your studio, your squad, and your mech, and alter your squad’s catchphrases.
The story itself starts out pretty simple. The annoyed stunt actors start their own studio in and abandoned warehouse that belongs to the uncle of one of the actors. In this warehouse, they find an old prop that looks like a massive purple brain in a jar, which can be programmed to say lines out loud. They name is Cerebro, and use it as their main plot device. Their previous director, Dr. Mi Ah, follows them back to the warehouse, spots Cerebro, and determines to acquire it. The story then spirals off in crazy antics of various severity, aliens become involved, and we meet a wide range of over-the-top characters. The game features various ending for players to discover, and there is some minute deviation between playthroughs depending on the responses you send to received mail.
Overall, Chroma Squad features simple combat that prevents itself from becoming repetitive by keeping fights short and sweet, is chock full of customization options allowing you to truly feel like this is your studio, and has just the right amount of references and corny jokes to cement the smile that appears on your face when your hear the music in the title screen. Chroma Squad may not be laden with deep philosophical questions, but the story is fun in an entirely not serious way. This game really channels what it assumes was an important part of the player’s childhood, however manages to stand strong on its own. This here is a genuine, serious, GOTY contender.
Your move, AAA industry.
Chroma Squad was developed and published by Behold Studios. It is currently available for PC, Mac and Linux, and will later release for PS3, PS4, PSVita, and Xbox One.
A digital copy of this game was provided to Save/Continue for review purposes.