Like many others last year, I never got around to playing Chimera Squad. While I’m certainly not disappointed to have found it in my monthly Humble Bundle, I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t take my own advice and consider that it was only getting negative reviews because it lives in the shadow of its predecessors.
I was right.
Chimera Squad’s biggest flaw is being tied to XCOM.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is (in)arguably the gold standard for turn-based tactical shooters. With its equally incredible expansion, Enemy Within, it is nearly a perfect game. Compelling story, great gameplay, challenge, depth, replayability… it has it all. I’ve put hundreds of hours into it, myself. Hell, I want to play it right now, just talking about it–and that’s the problem.
Chimera Squad is an XCOM game, very intentionally set in the XCOM universe. It doesn’t really place itself as a sequel, or an in-between to XCOM 2, it’s more of a side story. It’s sort of what Lower Decks is to the rest of the Trek universe.
It’s not nearly as deep, it’s not nearly as dark, and it’s definitely a more casual gameplay experience compared to its big brothers. It takes a much lighter, but more direct approach to the story, and your unit is made up of indisposable characters integral to the plot, rather than a lineup of random recruits you may lose along the way. So it’s more narrative focused, and has less overall decision making as to where to go next.
None of these things are poor design choices in my opinion. The problem is that it’s impossible not to compare it to the other games, which are inarguably better. So, I can understand why some people might pick up this game and say, “wow, this just doesn’t hold up to other XCOM games,” and dismiss it as that.
You might miss out on a fun game, though.
It’s true, it doesn’t have the depth or diversity of gameplay as the bigger XCOM games, but that doesn’t make it a bad tactical shooter on its own. In fact, I’d say it’s a very good one.
Since it is made by the same developers of the original games, you can expect that the combat is good. Really, good. It feels a bit more forgiving on those higher percentage chances to hit, as well. Plus, because you are working with unique characters, they also have unique abilities. There’s no need to train or modify soldiers, you can just pick from characters you like. There’s also a new Breach mechanic, which gives you the opportunity to surprise enemies as you bust down a door, or blow a hole in a wall.
Since your unit is made up of important characters, they communicate frequently and seem to have varied dialogue depending on who you chose for the mission. They also contribute to the narrative aspects and feel like characters who were built with consideration, having more than just one dimension. There is a lot of quality game here that shouldn’t be tossed aside just because it’s a more casual approach to the genre.
It’s also not without some depth on its own: there’s weapon and item crafting, there’s unit customization, there are a variety of different mission scenarios and side quests that deviate from the main story. It’s not just a narrative focused, one-and-done game. There’s no reason one couldn’t find a hundred hours or more here.
Plus, I actually like the concept of it being more of a mid level cop division of XCOM, rather than being the top tier focused on saving the world. Sometimes it’s nice to hear the stories from the clean up crew, and not just from the guys making the mess. Being the sole savior of humanity is a heavily used trope in gaming. There’s plenty of room for diversion from that.
Again, it’s so easy to compare this game to its bigger brothers, but you’re best not to. While it fits well into the XCOM world building, it might be easier just to think of this as a game made by a different studio designed as a love-letter, instead. You might just enjoy it more as a thing by itself, rather than as something trying to live up to the original–because that bar is higher than most.