Satellite Reign is an isometric real-time tactical RPG promoted as the spiritual successor to Syndicate, a series of acclaimed games predominantly released in the 1990s
Set in a dark vision of the near future, technology based multinationals vie for control, influencing politics behind the scenes, assassinating rivals or bribing them with money, technology and even immortality. The player is thrust into the middle of this, a small but highly organised mercenary group trying to secure their significance in a world rapidly approaching the technological singularity and the obsolescence of the populace themselves. This all becomes clear within the first half-hour of playtime as for the next few hours the narrative is only expanded upon by sporadic notes hacked from data terminals.
Moral quandaries could fill half this review, and are the core of the world 5 Lives Studios have created. The player isn’t tested with branching good and evil storylines – the dystopian world you inhabit feels beyond that. Hijacking is a key mechanic which allows your hacker to possess one or more NPCs, effectively recruiting them to your cause by overwriting the neural interfaces all citizens seem to have. Your characters are clones, known just by class designations as your consciousness can jump to hijacked citizens. The original’s fate is uncertain, but Satellite Reign rarely sugar coats anything. Nonetheless, it proves an interesting explanation for reviving after death, particularly as an individual agent can die without enducing 'game over'. Even with a full party wiped out you simply respawn nearby.
This will happen often, as gameplay is demanding, challenging, and surprisingly varied. Combat needs preparation such as scouting the battlefield, setting up your sniper with crossing fields of fire to offset the benefits of cover, and sealing doors to prevent reinforcements. Hijacking an enemy combatant grants free reign to scout secure facilities with near impunity or even use them in combat against their own allies, while the stealth capabilities and nimbleness of the infiltrator can help set up a full assault on the base. Skills feel powerful, particularly out of combat where silently killing an opponent or subverting them to your side won't expose you to gunfire from all directions.
Missions feel rewarding, as equipment in the form of augmentations, weapons and gadgets are often more powerful than the skills earned through levelling. Prototypes of gear are discoverable by paying informants, a far superior system to grinding your way up a skill tree. It means gameplay can change with each unlock, quickly switching from stealth to full offence for a smash and grab. This keeps the game fresh, as the missions all follow the same structure: infiltrate a facility and get back out alive. Furthermore, it's refreshing for a game to arm the player with a full overview of the task before them. Obvious side quests in any given district are unlocked from the moment you arrive. It grants a real sense of professionalism within the game as four highly trained agents aren't obliged to rifle through bins or talk to every last citizen for leads. Instead, you feel supported by a highly organised team behind the scenes.
However, the world sometimes lacks depth, with many interactive elements like terminals using the same graphic model, just in different colours. NPCs behaviour is entirely uniform as they wander the city, while their profiles are limited to a brief statement on social class within the city, along with age, name, and details on their viability as a clone body. Personalised profiles would be impossible for a team of this size, but even randomised profiles would be a wonderful addition, with details on criminal records, family or dependants. Other games achieve this for purely extraneous detail, but when bystanders are the victims of your criminal activities the player needs to be empowered with additional information.
The highlight of Satellite Reign is its graphical quality and art style, providing one of the most uniquely beautiful experiences in gaming. Nothing is immaculate; trash builds up in secluded corners and litters even the busiest streets, and the only greenery in the first district is a couple of slivers of wilting grass and dying shrubs in the wealthiest areas. It contrasts nicely with the gaudy holographic trees in neon green strewn across the sprawling metropolis. The lighting turns an otherwise intentionally drab setting into a coruscating kaleidoscope of colour. Street lamps illuminate the smog and the sodden ground ripples with each raindrop, reflecting the intense, obnoxious glow of company logos and advertisements writ in neon across the skyline. The character models themselves are a let-down in comparison, but only in close up in the menus, as the isometric view is focused on the big picture where fine details of your agents are irrelevant.
Satellite Reign has deep, engaging gameplay mechanics, with excellent stealth, combat and skill progression, only marginally let down by a world that is beautiful yet superficial. To an extent this feels like a symptom of the setting, and so for fans of cyberpunk or near future dystopian settings, Satellite Reign is a must-play experience, particularly for fans of the oft neglected tactical RPG genre. For anyone else, it’s still an enjoyable game and an excellent introduction to tactical RPGs.