Hot take: Video games are too long and most of them stop being interesting long before the credits roll. Enter Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, a turn-based strategy game that first captivated me as I plotted a course through its final confrontation.
It’s too good to spoil here, but in its last level, Auroch Digital’s virtual take on the Kickstarted tabletop roleplaying universe, finally becomes the Nazis-meet-the-Elder Gods mash-up its title promises. Think Panzer tanks, tentacle beards, and oozy black shoggoths. It’s fleeting, though, an inspired, eldritch-infused capper on an otherwise boilerplate XCOM-style tactics game.
Turn-Based Eldritch Horror
In this take on Firaxis’ formula, players head deep behind enemy lines with a diverse squad of Allied soldiers. They’re thinly drawn—I can’t tell you much about any of them other than their nationality and gender. And class distinctions are similarly wispy. Any soldier can shoot, heal, or hurl grenades, though some are more specialized in short-range arms or melee combat. Each has a skill tree for developing these talents further. Additionally, modifying weapons with various unlockable scopes and stocks can make even a nearsighted shotgun deadly at a distance.
An introductory cutscene reveals what is soon shown on the battlefield: in this alternate take on World War II, the Nazis are backed by an evil more ancient than anti-Semitism. The Germans are in some sort of dark communion with mythos powers from beyond their ken. Average grunts are joined by sickly green units with Davy Jones-style facial appendages. They appear out of the void-black fog that surrounds the map. And, as they do, titles like Black Sun Servitor unroll in typewriter font at the bottom of the screen.
These humanoid units don’t actually behave much different than the human ones; the Cthulhu-colored coat of paint is just set dressing. However, the void they cloak themselves in is Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics‘ one interesting innovation, as it’s a veil that prevents the player from seeing the entirety of the battlefield at once.
Staring into the Void
Each level contains multiple skirmishes, separated by brief exploration sections. As you command your soldiers to hike around the forests and hideouts that serve as the game’s setting, light extends in front of them in vision cones, penetrating the fog and revealing enemy units. Until an enemy is fixed in your soldier’s steely gaze, you won’t be able to view their health bar (and you’re also less likely to land a hit). This encourages a sometimes compelling risk-reward assessment. You need to be close to check your enemy’s stats, but they have a better chance of hitting you as you draw near. It also means that, as enemies retreat, you’ll often be unsure as to where exactly they lurk in the inky void.
But, the void is more interesting in theory than in practice. You’ll rarely be shooting at these hidden enemies, as your chances of landing a shot bottom out from this distance. Instead, you’ll be focused on maneuvering into positions where you’ll have a better vantage point on the enemies nearest you—climbing over sandbags and rock walls and hiding behind trees. The terrain becomes a problem as the game progresses, not because there’s anything wrong with sandbags or rock walls or trees, but because the game just doesn’t do much interesting with it. The finale stuck out as a memorable moment, in large part, because it was the first time that it felt like the play space had been designed. Every other stage played like algorithmic chaff that should have been subbed out in favor of bespoke wheat.
These issues are exacerbated by the fact that the game’s default difficulty is laughably easy. Enemies miss far more often than they hit, and you hit far more often than you miss. Often an opponent will march confidently up to you, and then do nothing. The final level was the first time I died; I coasted through the rest of the game. On Normal difficulty, Achtung! Cthulu Tactics is mindless grinding, the antithesis of what a good tactics game should be.
This is significantly improved on Hard, but, unfortunately, I had to start a second playthrough to find that out. Once you select a difficulty setting, gameplay still unseen, you’re locked in for the rest of your playthrough. So, by the time I expected combat to shift up a notch, I had invested too much time for restarting to be an attractive option.
In short, Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics has some new ideas, but mostly retreads familiar territory. The game invokes unknowable forces beyond our comprehension. But, it does so with mechanics that are, by and large, known quantities. Who would have suspected that scaling the mountains of madness could be this rote?
Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please see our Review Policy.