War of the Human Tanks – ALTeR – Review

Title   War of the Human Tanks - ALTeR
Developer  Yakiniku Banzai
Publisher  Fruitbat Factory
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Adventure, Strategy
Release Date  February 15, 2015
Official Site  http://blog.fruitbatfactory.com/tag/human-tanks/

I’d like you to imagine playing chess. Get it fixed nice and firmly in your mind, setting up your pieces, arguing over who gets to play black or white and, finally, moving those pieces around the board.

Now I’d like to imagine that you’re playing blindfolded. Congratulations, and welcome to War of the Human Tanks – ALTeR.

Now honestly, that’s probably a bit harsh. In fact, as you progress through the campaign it becomes less and less true. As a first impression, however, it couldn’t be more accurate.

It’s clear from the moment the story begins that ALTeR thinks of itself as a visual novel. The emphasis is on the tale being woven about the epic war between the Kingdom of Japon and the Japonese Empire. Unimaginative name tweaks aside, what I managed to take from the jumbled introduction was that there was a civil war being carried out by intelligent robots called Human Tanks.

Apart from those initial nuggets, I found the story fragmented and difficult to follow, which wasn’t helped by the credits rolling at the end of each chapter; it kept telling me that I had finished the story, before launching into the next phase of the story. There was a ton of movement, chronologically, with minimal signposting, so I had no idea when what I was seeing was happening. Time and again I was presented with moments that could have been emotionally powerful, if only I had known whether it was a flashback, or was happening in the present. It made for a rather disjointed experience, which was only amplified by the strategy game breaks which took place once in every chapter.

These are the gameplay sections of ALTeR, the only times where you have any control over what it is happening. Falling somewhere between turn-based strategy games like Civilisation or Fire Emblem – it’s played on a hexagonal grid, much like Civ – and Final Fantasy‘s Active Time Battle style systems, where each unit has a set amount of time before it can make another action. Rather than taking turns to move your units around the map, each class comes online at a different rate. Once you’ve moved them, they essentially have to cool down before they come online again.

At times this works amazingly well, lending some battles a frantic feeling as you try and ensure that you make moves at the right time, balancing aggression against the need to react to unexpected enemies. At other times, like when you are trying to mop up the last stragglers after a tough fight, waiting for each of your few remaining units to come back online after a wasted turn is incredibly frustrating.

Tracking down those last stragglers can be a real trial, as ALTeR makes use of a basic fog-of-war mechanic; you can’t see anything that your opponent is doing unless they stray into the sight range of your units. Unfortunately, if they do drift into the range of your tanks they often have time to react by firing at the unit that spotted them, an action that invariably ends in your unit going boom, and the fog of war falling back over the enemy. Of course, there are ways to penetrate the fog – some of your Human Tanks are designed to do just that, and are lightly armed to compensate for that – but even when you do, there is every chance that the enemy will be able to react while you wait for one of your units to come back online. It’s tough to put together anything even resembling a strategy because at any moment an enemy can pop out of the one hexagon you forgot to scout and kill off one of your key units.

Thus we come to the single most frustrating aspect of ALTeR – your units die after only one hit. At least, they do in the early phases of the campaign. If a Tank steps into the range of an enemy and that enemy chooses to fire, then say goodbye to your tank, because there is no chance of survival. Shots don’t miss – again, unless you are a bit further into the campaign and have unlocked the one type of tank that can dodge – and one shot is enough to do in even your strongest initial units.

You can research stronger versions of your Tanks and, given enough time, you can unlock versions that take two or more hits to kill, or that can dodge attacks. But until that point, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether any given units will make it out of any battle alive. That’s okay though, because you can make more of them relatively cheaply. In fact, time and again you’re told that your Tanks are all expendable – the one Tank that features in the story is established as invincible early on – and that it’s perfectly okay to let them all die, as long as you win the battle. After all you can just make more.

This is where ALTeR gets a little weird. There is an uncomfortable tension between the fact that these machines are clearly intelligent – possessing their own personalities and at one point even engaging in a snow ball fight – and the knowledge that you are throwing them into battles where they are designed to literally just blow up. Some of your units won’t even be equipped with weaponry – they’re just expected to self-destruct to take out enemy tanks. In direct contrast, one of the main characters is a human/robot hybrid, and yet another has had their brain uplifted so that they are as intelligent as a human. At times, ALTeR struggles with what it’s trying to establish. Are these Tanks meant to be human-like? Are they meant to be valued in battle, or are they expendable? Honestly, I still don’t really know.

This confusion is symptomatic of War of the Human Tanks – ALTeR. It doesn’t really know what type of game it wants to be, what story it wants to tell, and at times it is even confused about whether it’s aiming for comedy or tragedy, swinging between the two almost at the drop of a hat. Sometimes it opts for neither, and just swings for cuteness. It makes for a strange experience. I really wanted to like ALTeR – especially after hearing so many amazing things about the first game – but actually playing it has left me confused and disappointed. It has its peaks, but they were far outnumbered by the troughs. To make matters worse, my first run was lost after my save corrupted, and I still have no idea why.

At the end of the day, many of the recommendations for the original War of the Human Tanks stemmed from the unique concept and the adorable art. Those are still here, but the novelty quickly wore off to leave me with little more than a sub-par strategy game allied with a confusingly disjointed story. It’s a real shame, but this is just not a good game.

  • The hybrid-style strategy does allow for some frantically fun battles
  • The art and concept is really cute
  • At times there were flashes of genuine humour
  • Focus on a story that is disjointed and confusion
  • Fog of war that completely negates the strategy element of the strategy games
  • My save corrupted

I just can’t bring myself to recommend War of the Human Tanks - ALTeR. I mean, maybe if the only thing you want is fun art and a cool concept, you might get a few flashes of enjoyment out of it. And yes, if you grind through the first few dodgy hours, an element of fun does worm its way back into the strategy minigame. For me though, this just isn’t a good game. It’s confusing, fragmented, disjointed, and confused. Most of all, though, it’s disappointing.

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