Ecol Tactics does a lot right, but it falls just short of being amazing.
Sometimes originality is overrated. By that I mean it’s entirely possible just to cherry pick the best ideas from previous works, add in your own clever story and dialogue and voila: you’ve got yourself a great game. Ecol Tactics Online almost proves my point, taking bits from JRPGs, MMOs and tactical battle games and very nearly turning them into something wonderful.
I’m not certain if anyone actually dreams of becoming a mercenary, but as the protagonist of this free-to-play tactical battle RPG, you certainly do. Of course in this case, the mercs are fighters, archers, clerics and mages who kick butt, look like they just stepped out of a fantasy anime series and are fairly witty to boot, so it’s easier to understand the appeal. Your quest to prove yourself worthy of joining a particular band of mercs ends up with you on the side of good and embroiled in what turns into an entertaining and fairly epic story.
That’s the pleasant surprise of Ecol Tactics Online, because normally you’d expect some localization errors and a bunch of dialogue that doesn’t make much sense. Instead, all that text ends up as one of the game’s biggest strengths. The NPCs have plenty of personality, and the conversations sparkle with humor, pop culture references, and repeated breaches of the fourth wall. Even the mission objectives often contain jokes.
You’ll want to savor all of those moments, because the actual missions can be a lot more dull. They’re assigned in standard “find a person with an exclamation point” fashion, and while the storyline quests are fine, a lot of other time needs to be spent just clearing out the same maps several times. Indeed, the game even makes a joking reference to this fact, turning grinding into an attempt at comedy.
Thankfully there’s some variety in the places you do the fighting, since this is a tactical RPG after all. Each map is divided into squares containing terrain, structures and the like, and the fighting goes down turn-based style. The order of actions shows at the top of the screen, and on every turn, your character and any mercs helping you can move and perform one other action: attack, activate a skill or use an item.
Elevation matters, so having the high ground like Obi-Wan is good, and positioning is even better. Attacks from the side and rear do extra damage, and lining characters up in specific formations can unleash combo attacks. There aren’t tons of combat options in the early going, but the maps and enemies keep things from becoming too samey. You can hand over the combat to the AI if desired, but that’s not wise unless it’s a fight you are pretty confident you’re going to win. Let’s just say the Turing test is safe.
In-between battles, you’ll be returning to town often to upgrade your gear, craft new items and identify new skill stones to give you new special abilities. The clothes and weapons make the man (or woman) in this game, so as long as you have skill stones that match the right weapons, you can change class at any time. The down side is that making everything gear-based means you are at the mercy of the drop gods, unless of course, you’d like to pay some real money to eliminate some of the randomness – and I’m sure the developers would love it if you did.
In fact with the gacha boards and the card game that determines which mercs are for hire a any given time, quite a few things in Ecol Tactics Online are left to chance. That’s probably fine if you’re a fan of JRPGs, but it can be a bit jarring if you’re new to the way things are done in the East. Going the cash shop route can help, and it wasn’t a long enough test period during the review to tell if players who pay have an obvious leg up on those who don’t.
The word “Online” in the title suggests that the game is also an MMO, and it is – kind of. It’s a persistent world, for sure, and there are other players running around in town. There are PvP battles beginning at level 12 (just head-to-head versions of the normal battles), and you can apparently team up with two other people on some maps. Yet there’s no reason you need to, and the general chat channel was almost completely dead any time I played. It meets the bare bones requirements to be an MMO, but no much more than that.
There’s gold to be mined in a free tactical MMO that would expand on games like Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics, but Ecol Tactics Online doesn’t quite strike the mother lode. I want to keep playing for the story, I’m just not as sure I will enjoy continuing to do everything else. Make of that what you will.