How can one start a series of reviewing strategy titles, especially with turn-based games, without mentioning the oldest game of them all? Chess might seem boring to some, but Targem Games and Zuxxez Entertainment show how it’s done with Battle vs. Chess which has some neat little genre twists up its sleeve.
Play the game of kings in a fantasy world.
Humble beginnings in chess parties
Without going into detail about the importance of chess in human history and its many rules, suffice it to say that the main goal is to move one’s figures (each with their own restrictions) on a black and white checkered board in order to take the opponent’s king. A simulation of war which fits quite nicely in the fantasy world of Battle vs. Chess. Of course there are many strategies involved (and countless books written on that subject) and for a layman the gameplay can look quite overwhelming when watching professional players. But the game tries to introduce these rules in a very accessible way and offers enough incentives for advanced players.
This works remarkably well in an easy-to-understand tutorial which shows each figure’s movements and tests the player in some practical steps. It never becomes too complicated, because there’s no overload of information, making it possibly one of the best ways to get into the game of chess. Even those who’d likely find the normal way of playing it boring will most likely learn to love it by being involved in lots of other modes.
Story-driven chess gaming
One of those is the campaign mode which gives control over two warring factions, the Order people and Chaos creatures. This is actually the closest thing to storytelling and mission design in a chessgame, as each level plays in a different location in the fantasy world and introduces background stories to the armies of light and darkness, while different goals and pre-set formations of the troops/chess figures add to the variety. It might not be the most engaging plot, as it lacks memorable characters and surprising twists and turns (not to speak of missing cutscenes), and the lack of real interaction between the figures is only partly substituted by a narrator at the beginning of each level. Still it’s a nice diversion from the conventional main game.
It would have been nice to see the figures talk to each other than simply having them battle it out (Telltale Games’ Poker Night series is a good example), but there’s certainly something satisfying how the figures simply don’t just disappear but fight with their swords and sorcery. Other than having different goals and setups, there’s not much more to find here, so no levelling up, optional side quests and what else one feels a modern strategy game could have. But then again it’s simply chess one can only change in so little ways which don’t deviate too much from the ground rules. Or is there still another way to do this?
Action-heavy thinking game
For action and sort-of-rhythm-action fans, there are two other options to play a round of chess with the Battlegrounds mode. Duel lets the player perform a series of button presses each time a white and black piece confront each other, while Slasher opens the battlefield to a button-mashing free-moving experience. Of course these modes are an interesting diversion from the main game, but also have some game-altering flaws. Duel’s reaction time between button presses is often too small, Slasher’s battles too chaotic. Going through these battle options again and again can get quite tiresome and annoying, and it obviously poses the question how much strategy is left when one becomes too good at these ways of fighting.
Battle of the puzzling wits
Something much more satisfying and fun, especially for puzzle fans, are the mini games. One among the Challenges, Treasure Hunt, asks the player to use one or more pre-set figures to capture crystals of the same color. The more there are in range of its next possible movement, the more points are distributed. With only a limited amount of moves and later more figures to control, this is a very addictive gameplay experience. Despite the problem that one can’t foresee where the next crystals appear, the game mode is a great way to learn about the individual chess pieces without realizing one becomes better at the main chess game. Unfortunately one has to complete the whole challenge before the next minigame is unlocked.
Time-consuming strategizing with limited turns
To further improve one’s skills and also add some more tension to the proceedings are the One-Timers which have two modes: Execution and Menace. Both are about checking a specific figure on the board; in the former it’s a black piece, in the latter the black king. What makes this especially challenging is that only a limited amount of time is available. By choosing the correct piece which checks the target in one move, more time is added, whereas choosing the wrong piece, time is reduced. Solving as many puzzles as possible requires a quick eye for the setup of the board and a constant look at the clock, making for a much more hardcore experience with a board which is always changing the position and number of figures.
Far less forgiving in terms of time management, but still quite a difficult undertaking are many of the other Standard and Hard Puzzles which give the player certain goals to achieve in a limited amount of turns. This plays very similar to the Campaign and each puzzle has to be unlocked in order to progress. So again if one gets stuck, there’s no way around finishing each. Obviously, this creates a feeling of accomplishment, but for less patient players, it would have been nice to have all of them available right from the start. The Hard Puzzles are especially tricky, because they represent certain real-life chess parties of the past, making it an interesting asset for chess historians.
Sofa chess in and outside the living room with friends and foes
Of course, despite all these diversions and extras, a normal chess party with human opponents can be played as well in Multiplayer. Either online or offline, this does not only feature the classic chess game and both Duel and Slasher (although the latter one is strangely missing from the online mode) action modes, but also three additional modes: Reserve, Suicide and Double. The first is not about moving chess pieces, but summoning them on the board. The second takes the normal mode of chess upside down by turning the player who loses all his chess pieces the winner. The third is still about checkmating the opponent’s king, but with the strategic change of being able to take two turns instead of one. Again another nice addition and reason enough to play it on the console rather than on a real-life chessboard (although one could try some of the rules there as well of course).
Transporting an old game into a modern age
With so much variety in the gameplay modes which mostly get the best out of the chess formula, the presentation of the game is likewise pretty good. An orchestral soundtrack which fits the fantasy setting is complemented with some very good voice acting and a graphical fidelity which is pleasing to the eyes. Despite the static nature of the chess game, the individual knights, sorcerers, but also creatures and monsters all have their own fluid attack animations. Even when they’re not moved, they seem to prepare for battle and mock the adversaries they stand right next to by using gestures and facial expressions. Zooming in on these or turning around 360 degrees also doesn’t seem to make them any less impressive to look at. Although they obviously can’t compete with the graphics of contemporary RTS games, the backgrounds also look very detailed and have some particularly nice lighting and other particle effects. The conversion to the PS3 doesn’t come with any problems either, as there’s no slowdown, low-res graphics, except maybe for some longer loading times at the start of each level.
Controls are also quite intuitive, so even if it takes a bit of time to remember how specific chess pieces are represented in the fantasy world, an easy button press switches between the two modes. Indicating where they can be moved also helps both beginners and seasoned players who want to stay at the top of things. What’s also very praiseworthy and should be recommendable for other turn-based strategy titles is that there’s simply no waiting time between the player’s and the AI’s actions, making play sessions much more enjoyable affairs.
Better a good copy than a bad original
Usually, comparing games is often futile with so many genres, developers and publishers involved, especially in the case of strategy games and chess adaptations in general. But Battle vs. Chess is a different case. Back in the 90ies, Interplay did Battle Chess, a very successful interpretation of the chess game with fighting elements. It spawned numerous other imitators who tried to capitalized on its sales with brand names like Star Wars or Terminator 2.
Maybe it’s because Battle vs. Chess sounds extremely similar and also has the same fantasy setting and obviously shares some gameplay elements, but Interplay filed and won a law suit against publisher TopWare, at least in the United States. Of course it’s difficult to say how much this game borrowed from the other (I can’t say for sure how much since I only played a demo of Battle Chess ages ago), but it would be unfair to give Battle vs. Chess a lower score without taking into account many of its accomplishments as a stand-alone product. With countless FPS and RTS around these days which look and play similar, there’s no knowing where to start next taking points off scores…
A marvellous game of chess and more
Zuxxez and Target Games deliver with Battle vs. Chess a surprisingly comprehensive, deep and also fun chess adaptation. Legal issues aside with Interplay’s Battle Chess, it includes so many different modes to please puzzle fans, but also to a certain degree action fans as well. Although the fighting elements don’t always work as they should, they’re a nice distraction anyway.
The real meat of the game is the impressive number of challenges it gives the player to complete. It’s also very recommendable that it brings novices and advanced players together. The former will no doubt have fun figuring out all the small puzzles and start to learn the ropes of the more advanced game of chess almost without knowing it. The latter will be pleased to hear that there’s simply a lot of content here with a strong AI. Multiplayer is also quite satisfying with lots of options and game modes to choose from.
The crisp graphics and background eye candy, great voice acting and atmospheric soundtrack complete this package of chess goodness which is simply the best way to enjoy the oldest gameplay in human history on the screen with an unmatched accessibility and variety.
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