Element Space Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
At first glance, I was ready to dismiss Element Space as a less elegantly executed spin on XCOM. The combat is the same and the visual design is incredibly similar but I powered through the long-winded and exposition-heavy tutorial, that could risk losing some players early on, and Element Space finally opens itself up. The narrative drive of the game is established, the approach to missions going forward is clarified, and I began to settle into its groove. Element Space is not XCOM, it is more like an early BioWare title. Essentially Baldur’s Gate crossed over with shades of Knights of The Old Republic.
You are tasked with assembling a new crew, travelling the galaxy and completing combat-based missions to gain the favour of various factions in your battle against a galaxy-spanning threat. There are RPG like dialogue options, which affect your standing with other crew members and faction leaders, in the following categories: independence, autocracy, bureaucracy, and humanism.
The game’s presentation is old school, opting for the isometric view of Baldur’s Gate or XCOM, but the visual polish is notably dated as well. The character models are fine but the animations are sometimes jittery and perhaps too expressive, feeling more like something from the days of the Xbox. I also noticed skipped frames during more hectic moments and the ‘kill cam’ can severely stutter in performance or just plain whiff it with blocked camera angles.
The controls are rather clumsy as the pointer jitters across the screen and makes for a fiddly time trying to get your character into the desired location. Once upon a time this sort of thing would have been forgiven from a controller but the XCOM titles have managed to offer a smooth functional pointer in their console iterations, it is a minor issue if you have the patience and the game’s approach to combat certainly helps there.
Element Space’s combat definitely owes more to XCOM than Baldur’s Gate, opting for a turn-based rather than real-time. You can take your time with each decision while certain actions are bound to your first move, such as reloading a gun (unless you unlock a bonus in your character upgrade menu), and XCOM staples such as ‘overwatch’ are found here. While it borrows most of its most successful ideas from XCOM, it adds a few interesting new additions such as the ‘melee lock’ where two opponents engaged in hand-to-hand combat are locked into that fight, counter-attack rolls are possible as long as you remain locked in and you incur HP penalties if you opt to run away forcing you to make decisions on whether it is a bigger risk to stay in combat or escape and find cover.
The game offers you three difficulty modes: Easy (obvious enough), a story mode (challenging but more forgiving, allows for replays on failed missions, plus dialogue options offer you ideological clues), and extinction mode (failed missions cannot be replayed, the ideological markers for dialogue are missing). I opted for two concurrent games with easy mode, to take in the story and, as a seasoned XCOM masochist, extinction mode because I like to live with my failures. The difficulty spike in combat is a lot more slight than you would expect between these two disparate modes, certain mobs remained surprisingly tough even in easy mode and the only noticeable change in terms of challenge came during timed objectives where more time was afforded to you in easy mode, but not by much.
The maps are quite sprawling with battle areas being spread out, rather than one large area, moving from one section to another. This is good in terms of world-building but in terms of traversal, it is a chore, as your pointer can only move a few inches ahead of your characters rather than letting you sweep across the whole map and set a final destination to run towards. The combat areas are comparatively more contained to XCOM, offering rather limited options in terms of strategy. You feel more funnelled in towards one approach rather than having a large canvas to work within but, despite some notable asset clones to pad things out, there is a nice variety of locations and layouts offered to keep things fresh on your missions.
The voice acting is weak, the sort of affectation that an indie game would be forgiven for excluding, but what initially felt like a misfire gained a certain charm as I settled into the game’s throwback aesthetic. Even the Knights of the Old Republic had inconsistent voice acting quality, it is part of the tapestry of such games at this point. It is entirely likely the acting was not supposed to be wildly uneven but it is an unintended boon to the game’s overall tone, nonetheless.
The writing, however, is quite strong. The story itself is nothing groundbreaking but a lot of good work has gone into the world-building. It is clear a lot of time and consideration has gone into the different factions of this universe and their internal politics. Again, nothing revolutionary, but there are enough detail and nuance to find the worlds you visit feel engaging.
Element Space is deeply flawed in its execution, with recurring performance issues during combat, but it has such ambition for an indie title and an endearing throwback feel to every element that it is hard not to recommend to any fans of old school BioWare. If you approach the game with the right mindset and appropriate expectations, there is a lot to enjoy here.