Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire follows the adventure of a young woman, who’s forced to grow up very quickly and ultimately lead her people against a genocidal force. The story stems from revenge, leadership, and rebellion, slightly hinting at society today. We all know these kinds of conflicts serve as great motivation to do something, and the primary plot line builds off of that foundation. Narrative aside, what you will find in Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is a polished, complex, and somewhat addicting tactical RPG; however, it lacks incentive to return once completed, and ultimately fails to provide a genuine emotional attachment.
The woman mentioned before is 20-year old Tahira, the princess of Avestan. She inherits the role of commander of the kingdom in the part-fantasy-part-science fiction world of Ma’abtik, after her father disappears at the hand of the Sith-empire like Astral Empire. The Astral Empire is an invasion force, ready to lay waste and stake its claim to the entire world. Their motivation is based upon greed and old ties to the land in question, which isn’t too different by today’s standards; no forgive and forget here. Tahira is identified as the last “Great Conduit”, a person who is gifted with “the Light” (think Force here) and thought to bring hope, along with peace, to her people and end the invasion.
Unfortunately, the “evil” force here is too cliché in my book; the Astral Empire simply want their land, and their world, back from the people who destroyed it in the past. We see these sort of things a lot, and to me it’s a bit overdone: people really don’t ever forgive. Also, we don’t really get to know anything about the Empire’s principal players; they’re basically just the bad-guy fodder that every story needs. On the flip side, the characters surrounding Tahira are written fine; again, just a little overused. You have Baruti, commander of Avestan’s knights, Claw and Hammer – two mercenaries who carry a little swagger – and then Iba, Tahira’s horse. Everyone else is essentially there for the gameplay, not for the story.
Speaking of combat, you will be pleased to hear that it’s tight, refined, and ultimately rewarding. You play on a tactical grid, divided into squares, where you control all of your active party members. The fights can range from small, four-on-four skirmishes, to massive, 20-on-20 battles.
Each party member you control houses a distinct special attack, and it’s the player’s job to determine how they want to use and reuse units, along with their abilities. Some attacks are simple, such as the Avestan Knight’s “Half-Sword Drive” manoeuvre; others like Tahira’s “Unbound Blast” require additional conditions to be met, and will affect the battlefield in a different manner. All of the abilities cost willpower to use, and you only have a select amount to spend over the course of each battle. This means that you must actively pay attention to enemies and how you’re reacting to their behaviours, or else you’ll end up being defeated.
You gain control of different characters and allies throughout the story, and through the game you’ll develop your own approach to situations: maybe you’d like to try ambush-style warfare, or maybe you want to play it safe and take cover behind debris; that choice is yours. I utilised the all-out attack technique, basically throwing everything I had onto one specific unit, and then moving onto the next one. Sometimes my strategy worked, other times not so much. The system did take some time to get used to, and suffers from complexity, from digging through the different abilities, to keeping track of how much guard and health your units have. As such, newcomers may be put off by this.
Even though Tahira’s combat mechanics are great, it was the system and idea of success that kept me playing, rather than the game’s story. While there are dialogue decisions to make, and those choices matter, such as talking to the cow merchant or helping the fallen knight, they don’t go far beyond helping you in combat. You might gain allies or bonuses for your next encounter, but that is the extent of your allies’ aid; painstakingly taking the time to talk and listen to the people of your fallen kingdom isn’t as helpful as it should be. I tried to talk to everyone, and listen to their stories of hatred for the Astral Empire, or sorrow for the land, and while most of these painful records made sense, they weren’t really utilized in any other way. Throughout my time I never really was invested in any characters, either. Ironically, there is an option for “Princess” difficulty which ups the ante of challenge. Repeatedly I found my comrades being slain right before my eyes. Unfortunately, due to the emotional disconnect, it didn’t really matter to me if they did; it was simply another death.
The game depicts an adventure showing the harsher realities of life, which keeps the actions and narrative grounded overall – even if I only cared for the titular protagonist. I touched on characters before, and the only real standouts are Tahira and her steed, Iba. They’re amazingly written (well, Iba doesn’t talk, just grunts and nods), and even though it seems a little childish, the interaction between Iba’s “nodding” to my comment, or “cautiously optimistic whinny” response to another created a sense of liveliness to these characters. Tahira is equally well-versed: I really grasped onto the fact that she had only been a girl before the tragic events that took place in her kingdom, but by the end she was a true woman of Avestan, ready to commit and do anything to protect her people.
Everyone plays games for their respective reasons: story, gameplay, graphics, or any combination of those attributes. In Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire’s case, one might play the game specifically for either its art style or music. Why? Because they are absolutely the standout here. The newly-formed team at Whale Hammer Games did a cracking job at forming the world of Ma’abtik. Each character was hand-drawn for 450 frames, and further brought to life by the intensive rotoscoping animation technique. Whether you’re running down the cliff-side, or simply witnessing a soldier’s death animation, the individual frames stand out. Numerous times I questioned if the motion was indeed hand-drawn; they’re that fluid. Combining the dynamic dialogue of Tahira and Iba with their specific frames presented a jolly-fun time on numerous occasions: the image of Iba giving me an “fearful look” was priceless. This allowed for a great looking game and smooth, beautiful art direction throughout. I was astounded by that feat, routinely thinking that these animations were something of a dream. It all runs satisfactory as well; never a hiccup or skipping of a beat to mention.
No game is complete without a powerful soundtrack and musical score to back it up, and this is where Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire truly shines; after my time with the game I found myself wanting to listen to the harmonic melodies of Middle-Eastern music whenever I could. The strings and slow wind instruments construct the perfect score to the game. The musical design and effects complement the game in its entirety, keeping the player entranced; even if the narrative is a little deficient in this regard.
Whale Hammer Games’ debut title borrows it style from similar turn-based tactical RPGs, notably Fire Emblem and StarCraft. While it succeeds considerably on the design and gameplay front, what it lacks is interesting writing and a conflict that feels a bit overdone, even if it is relevant in our time today.
Will You Answer the Call?
Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire gives players a rich world to investigate, rewarding combat, a great score and wonderful design – yet ultimately falls short with the development of its characters.