REVIEW: Redemption Reapers falls short of full tactical redemption
I'll be the first to admit I am not the truest tactical genius out there. I love a tactics-based RPG — love moving across a grid and positioning my units just right and strategically eliminating a squad of enemies turn-by-turn. But it's far from my gaming specialty.
That said... I think even the most seasoned tactical veterans may find Redemption Reapers punishing, lightly confusing, and more than anything, frustrating, frustrating, frustrating.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Binary Haze Interactive
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed
Release Date: Feb. 22, 2023
Review key provided by Stride PR.
Redemption Reapers comes to us as one of those "premium" feeling indies, developed by Adglobe — the team behind the surprise 2021 Metroidvania hit Ender Lilies — and published by Binary Haze Interactive. With the assistance of former Fire Emblem director Masayuki Horikawa, Redemption Reapers represents a pretty confident step into the tactics RPG space for Adglobe.
Too bad that step left them within range of their enemies who surrounded them immediately and stopped them from reaching the promised land at the end of the map. Does this metaphor work? Let's see when we meet the first enemy that held them back... Redemption Reaper's story.
In Redemption Reapers, you follow the Ashen Hawk Brigade, a team of mercenaries locked in an apocalyptic conflict with a seemingly unstoppable force known as the Mort. These zombie-like figures have been sweeping through the region and killing with reckless abandon. The Ashen Hawk Brigade is one of a few small pockets of resistance left in the land pushing back against the Mort's forces, but not without seeing the loss of village after village in the process.
The Hawks are made up of a fairly generic batch of characters you'll meet across the opening batch of missions. The de facto protagonist you spend a lot of the time with and choose dialogue for from time to time is Sarah, the moody tortured soul. There's Glenn, the stoic leader holding his crew together amidst the chaos. Karren and Urs, the classic "fair maiden and gentle giant" duo. And lastly, the sassy crude murder machine that is Lugh.
The squad is haunted by something that happened in their past, something that hangs over all of them and that they're all clearly looking to find some redemption for. It drives their work fighting the Mort and protecting the refugees left behind in its wake. They must reap for their redemption. Get it?
Nothing about these characters or the by-the-numbers writing is all that exciting. I don't know if things were lost in translation here, with the story and even some of the lipsync clearly originally done in Japanese, but it's nothing you haven't seen in a million dark fantasy stories before. It isn't for lack of trying though. Redemption Reapers has tons of work put into its world and lore.
There are fully voiced CGI cutscenes that sandwich most chapters, bits of dialogue shared between characters at the end of each chunk of gameplay, and TONS of text logs. Between the unique world-building text logs you can pick up as "relics" in each chapter's arena and the lengthy weapon, character, and accessory descriptions you unlock, there are almost 200 unique text logs to read when it's all said and done.
But none of it feels worth reading. When the main story itself fails to inspire much interest, there is no motivation to seek out all this extra work and none of it enriched the experience for me. Redemption Reapers is a self-described dark fantasy, and the darkness definitely stands out. More often than not, your team of heroes is just a little bit too late to save a village, too outnumbered to do much more than survive the hordes and escape, and the moments of genuine happiness for any character you meet are few and far between. And in a weird way, it's one of the most exciting aspects of the entire game.
There's something about witnessing the unrelenting darkness this world has been soaked in. That pervasive feeling of hopelessness leaves our main characters pushing forward to keep the tiniest spark of hope alive for others, if not for themselves. The desperation of every battle. The tension of having it all lost in one moment, one turn, and knowing that failure probably means the end of all things for the people of this world. It keeps the stakes high and genuinely gives you the drive to prevail no matter what. The actual script doesn't do too much with the concept, but it's a narrative setup I was fascinated by, especially since not many others are doing it.
No other game approaches this constant sensation of loss, fear, and pain, except for something like the Plague Tale series.
In a way, Redemption Reapers puts players into a similar state of mind to its characters with its gameplay. Dreading every step forward into the chaos, questioning why they're fighting at all, and desperate for the conflict to end.
And so comes the second enemy to keep us down, the actual nuts and bolts of Redemption Reapers' gameplay.
Moving across a grid-based battlefield, each character has their own set of action points, which you'll need to build up to pull off your more powerful skills. They've got a Spirit Draught, which gives each character a free heal at any point during the battle that can be recharged when touching veins of energy on the map. It's an interesting little Souls-like feature snuck in here.
Redemption Reapers tosses you into the deep end after a light tutorial and it doesn't take long for you to realize how punishing Adglobe wants this game to be. Nearly every chapter has your team of Reapers drastically outnumbered and on the back foot. You've got to keep your team right on the edge of any enemy's attack range, baiting them and taking them out slowly. Get too aggressive and you'll find your units destroyed pretty quickly. Attacks are given a percentage chance to hit, based on a unit's accuracy and evasion, meaning you'll be doing a lot of holding your breath to see if your evasion-focused heroes can dodge a crushing 50% hit.
Luckily, it doesn't share everything with its Fire Emblem roots, because permadeath is not on the menu. Characters who die simply retreat from the battle and take no other penalty. But that doesn't mean Adglobe takes it easy on you. That's the only generosity they serve up, because everything around the combat makes it so much more frustrating than it should be.
For starters, every weapon has very limited durability. Every hit — meaning any attack you make or counterattack your characters serve up after being hit — decreases weapon durability by 1. The only way to repair them? Money. Which is handed out through ores you can pick up in treasure chests on the map, a distraction from the combat itself.
Once your weapons break, they are left incredibly weaker and with a lower chance to hit, which means you'll be doing your best to keep the durability at a usable level for all five of your heroes, which can mean piles of gold needed between every chapter... something that isn't really offered up until the mid-game.
And you'll want your weapons sharp because, from the jump, combat encounters put you at a level disadvantage. Taking out even the most basic enemy might need two or three characters jabbing at them because they're 2 to 4 levels above your heroes.
The lacking resources that force you to make hard decisions about what to prioritize does contribute to the feeling of hopelessness... but in a way that just makes it unenjoyable to play rather than feeling like an inspired reflection of the narrative in gameplay.
To try to keep up with the Mort, you are given the chance to "skirmish." Across certain sections of the game, you're given the chance to revisit past chapters to pick up any treasures you missed and collect some extra XP. I don't know if I was missing something, but I found that I essentially needed to play each chapter twice: once in the story and again in a skirmish, just to make sure I had all the treasures I needed to make money and to make sure my characters were leveled up enough. And... being left in a position where I HAD to do almost everything twice just wasn't fun for me.
It should also be noted that these skirmishes also affect your weapon durability, which means you sacrifice durability for XP in some cases and it may not even result in an increase in money. If durability was untouched in these segments, it would have gone a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable.
After about 10 hours, when the game finally introduces a "big bad" (who vanishes from the plot just as quickly as he's introduced), the game does lighten up in difficulty. There were a series of chapters that I was able to finally power through and enjoy that got me to finally understand the brightest spots of the gameplay.
One of the key aspects of Redemption Reapers' tactical gameplay is positioning. Not only to make sure your characters stay safe, but to set up some extremely necessary and powerful follow-up attacks. If any friendly character is within range of the enemy you target, you are given the option to "follow-up" your attack with their hits. You can end up hitting one extremely buff enemy with every other member of your crew if you've done enough setup.
When things are working — when you use a character's knockback skill to push an enemy into another character's range and go for the kill with one of those follow-up attacks, or when you get a clutch dodge away from an enemy attack only to eliminate them with the counterattack — it can feel good. And across a few rare stretches of the 29-chapter campaign, you're able to really explore its potential.
But then you hit a wall again and find yourself shouting at your PC.
All the goodwill the game built up across this good stretch of gameplay came to a screeching halt just a few hours later when I came across a chapter that took hours for me to push through. Needless to say, the game's difficulty pacing is incredibly erratic, especially for someone who, again, is not the kind of person who can beat every Fire Emblem on the highest difficulty with permadeath on.
Before we wrap up, we'll see if there's some redemption to be found in Adglobe's audio/visual department... and there is!
It cannot be overstated how impressive the full CGI cutscenes are. With full voice acting and choreographed fight sequences, and at least one per chapter, it's clear no expense was spared here. Quality animation work carries over into the gameplay as well, with some super fun over-the-top attack animations that satisfyingly punctuate the Mort-murdering you'll be doing from beginning to end.
The voice acting in both English and Japanese is more than effective, with a fairly impressive cast of video game and anime voice actors, and it's supported by a fantastic orchestral soundtrack by Rei Kondoh from T's Music.
Unfortunately, some good tunes and decent cutscene work does not a good game make. Much like the heroes in the game, at one point I thought Redemption Reapers could be redeemed. But in the end, the sins it committed were a bit too much and despite almost making it back into my good graces, it fell just short and left me wishing I was overwhelmed by the hordes of Mort sooner rather than later.
Video Games Are Good and Redemption Reapers is . . . OKAY. (5.5/10)
+ amazing amount of production value with full voice acted CGI cutscenes and more; the hopeless dark setting works; when you're given the opportunity to breathe, the core gameplay loop can be enjoyable
- frustrating pacing, frustrating lack of usual quality of life functions, frustratingly generic storyline, frustrating frustrating frustrating
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