Your home is being obliterated by an army of merciless zealots, and it is your duty to lead the people from their ancestral home and to safety. Do you have the strength and determination to succeed? Or will you succumb to the endless force of the Astral Empire?
Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is an isometric combat strategy game in which players take on the role of Princess Tahira. Wayward for a number of years after differences with her father Tariq, the ruler of Avestan, Tahira returns to lead her people when he disappears after a massive army attacks the country. Not only does Tahira have the safety of thousands of civilians on her mind, she is also burdened with quickly learning to use the powerful and ancient Astral Empire artefact she now carries.
It is up to the player to guide Tahira through the story, as she leads her people away from the bloodthirsty Astral Empire army. Along the way she meets, and recruits, a number of skilled individuals who assist her in helping what remains of the Avestan people to safety. All the while Tahira struggles to come to grips with the near-divine power she wields in her staff, as well as her new responsibilities.
The game is composed of two basic elements; the story segments and the battle segments. Story segments can vary in their execution. In some Tahira is free to roam a limited isometric area, talking to characters and learning a little more about the world. At other times it is a series of talking heads accompanying a panoramic scene.
Battle is visually similar to exploration. Fights occur over a variety of set-piece locations. However, unlike the free-form exploration gameplay, combat revolves around a turn-based and action points mechanic. The playable area is broken down into a series of squares, with each unit only able to move to and attack adjacent squares.
Each unit has a limited Willpower store, which can be spent to power special attacks. As units dispatch enemies their Willpower is restored. Units activate in a pre-determined sequence, light units first through to the heavier units. However, units can pass their turn and move later if the player wishes.
Combat primarily hinges on unit positioning. Units adjacent to enemies lend their strength to other adjacent allies’ attacks. So carefully manoeuvring units to overwhelm opponents is important. This means that players have to carefully plan their strategy, deciding which units to move and when, as well as at what point to employ their willpower attacks.
The combat seems complicated at first, but the concepts behind it are gradually introduced. Players have time to come to grips with the basics before they are dumped into more complex scenarios.
Unlike a lot of titles, the combat of Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is integrated into the overall story. Rather than have Tahira and her entourage wander about a map and run randomly into opponents, each battle is a piece of the ongoing story. In one battle the player may find themselves ambushing scouts in a mountain pass, while in another they may be breaking through an ambush to rejoin the refugees of Avestan.
It’s a nice touch, giving each battle a sense of importance. This doesn’t just tie the story together; it invests the player not only in the main characters, but also each of the unnamed units in their force. Whenever one falls in battle it is not just a tactical loss, but can also take an emotional toll on the player.
Excellently supporting the game, the music is bold and orchestral. Brassy horns peak over deep drum rhythms, underscoring the sense of brutality and desperation which permeates the game. The composition and recording is excellent, and is something you would expect from a large title like Halo. On the musical score front Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire certainly exceeds all expectations.
Graphically, though, it can be a little hit and miss. The visuals have a handmade quality, almost like they are pulled from an old story book. There is certainly a reckless and free quality to them which makes them quite striking. This works in the isometric segments quite well, where the figures are quite small and densely packed. However, when character busts appear to convey conversations, a lot of the effect is lost. Some of the cut scenes, too, are strangely illustrated, with the scene being depicted only looking vaguely like what it is intending.
This is a real shame, as there has obviously been a lot of attention put into the visuals. In particular the animation is really fluid and realistic. However, a lot of the animations are completely lacklustre. For example, when a Knight of Avestan is stabbed it looks more like he has been mildly jostled, rather than grievously wounded. This hardly makes the game unplayable, but it certainly detracts from the severity of the combat.
Strangest of all is the tone of the game. While plenty of games have touched on equally, or even more, sensitive topics for some reason Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire seems quite jarring by their inclusion. It may be the way the quite adult and brutal elements are juxtaposed against the quite naive art style but there is a noticeable dose of swearing and sexual innuendo, not to mention the uncompromising murder of civilians, including women and children.
None of it has been handled badly, or in poor taste. However, the almost casual nature in which they are used is quite shocking, and definitely confronting. Given the tale that is being told, as well as taking into account the obvious parallels to the modern political and religious landscape, I can only believe that this is intentional. It is certainly a bold move, and one that both disturbs and intrigues me.
While Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is an excellent game it does have its problems. The pace is almost glacial. A map is used to show Tahira’s progress from location to location, but this transitional element takes way too long to complete. The line crawls along the map only slightly faster than a snail’s pace. If you have seen the transition before, it doesn’t matter. You can’t skip it.
The load screens too seem to take a little longer than they should. Especially when, in some cases, all that was being loaded was another cut scene of talking heads. These lengthy periods of inaction really break the flow of the story. In a game where mobility and adeptness are key components of play, the ponderous transitional elements seem quite out of place.
Also, some of the battle difficulties seem slightly out of step. The fundamentals of the combat are gradually introduced, but then the player is immediately dumped into a massive three stage encounter. This would have been alright if the concept of falling back to different stages was touched on, but as it is, suddenly the player is engaged in a prolonged fight, the consequences of which carry over from stage to stage. It was doubly frustrating when failure of subsequent stages throws the player back to the first stage of the battle sequence.
Battles can be saved at any point, but I did run into a problem where reloading a battle mid-fight resulted in the end condition not triggering. I spent an hour pushing the enemy back, only to be left targetless to wander about the map with no escape. Restarting the scenario and completing it in one sitting ensured the end condition triggered, but then failure of the subsequent stage kicked me back to the start of the sequence.
At that point I had to walk away in frustration.
SUMMARY: All that aside, Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is quite a compelling title. Every part of the game is constructed to serve the overall story, an approach I can appreciate. The combat sections are composed of quite basic elements which work together to create a tactical and fun experience. Dialogue and characters are well written and believable, and the music is amazing. And behind it all seems to be an underlying message with some substance and real-world relevance.
If you enjoy a considered and crafted story then Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is definitely for you. Players only interested in the combat will get a single play through of the game, but I can’t see a lot of replayability for them. But players who connect with the story will likely get three or four runs out of it, as they explore the different options available.
In the very least, Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is worth playing through once. If you aren’t a tactical player, set the mode to easy and skip all the battles. But definitely experience the story, as it explores issues which are not often broached by digital games.
Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire is developed and published by the Australian game studio Whale Hammer Games. It is available now on Steam.
Reviewed On: PC
Review System: nVidiaN9600C, G1 Sniper M7 S1151, 16GB RAM
Playtime: 13 hours