When I think of space-based roleplaying games, I’m always led back to the Mass Effect trilogy, and while Bioware’s series had its ups and downs (or at least the occasional flat spot) it left a lasting impression. Element Space clearly draws inspiration from the adventures of Commander Shepherd and their crew, all while also introducing elements from tactical shooters like XCOM.
Element Space is positioned as a narrative-heavy RPG that changes dramatically based on player choices. This is promising considering that things open up with Captain Chris Piethan and his most trusted companions being set up by a mysterious organisation intent on preventing the union of various human factions.
These organisations have, up to that point, been in a constant state of either war or at least disagreement. There are seven of these organisations represented in the game, and among the many dialogue options and actions you can take, your standing with these factions many change.
Also related to the choices you make are the different crew members who might join your team. The first of these (which you’ll always obtain) is Zero, a sentient AI who inhabits the body of a robot chassis she found lying around. Each other character will join you as the result of a later mission, and one thing (for better or worse) about Element Space is that you’ll usually only see these missions once.
Each playthrough lasts about ten to twelve hours and a key selling point for this game is that the difference between each run is going to be significant. Going back to my previous point, you’ll often choose between picking up one of three characters, for example, and your chance to obtain the other two might be gone for that entire playthrough.
I think this is intentional, and I’ve had playthroughs where I didn’t even see one or another of the factions, let alone influence them. On other plays, I became heavily embroiled with a humanitarian terrorist organisation, or in another, I defended the right of the Empress to rule with all the power of a classic imperial dictator.
Whilst Element Space provides the backdrop of a story and delivers choice after choice at a fair clip, the low-fi production does hurt its story beats. Cut scenes during missions and on the ship either before or after do reveal interesting details, but the mission briefings rarely make sense in the context of the wider story, and they don’t add much in terms of purpose.
I often found myself making decisions about which mission to do next simply because the promised reward (often a character or weapon) had a more interesting silhouette than the other choices. The missions just don’t tell you that much of interest even though you’ll be flying off to Venus or Mars, for example. When you get there, you might find yourself having a great time fending off robot samurai in a Dojo styled on Feudal Japan — but you won’t have a clue as to why until after.
Regardless, the pace at which the story develops, the strength of the rewards and the nice way in which each character develops new skills every mission or two keeps things quite interesting. It’s not often I found myself wanting to play a game through for a second or third time for a long time, and one thing you can’t do here is simply to create a save right before the end game to try and see each ending because you’ll still miss about three quarters of the unlockable characters and endings.
Of course, all of this is just detail that sits around the edge of the main game, which is a fairly competent tactical shooter on the whole. Missions play out much like those in games like XCOM, with each side taking turns to move and take actions with their entire side. In Element Space, shot success percentages are always shown clearly when aiming, and movement range and cover is clearly marked which all helps.
In general, even though there is a hardcore mode, I found Element Space to be fairly easy when it comes to actual combat. The AI is decent, but unlike in other games, there are few missions where the number of enemies is truly overwhelming, and smart play will almost always win the day. I particularly enjoyed the missions that really changed the norm, with enemies appearing behind the team to force the player to keep moving, for example.
Unfortunately, there is one major issue with one of the most interesting parts of Element Space, which comes when a certain class of character is used. This class has access to several powerful abilities (rather than a traditional weapon) and each of their moves causes them to teleport across the map to a target.
At present, in the Xbox version of the game, when any of these moves are used, the character then becomes animation locked in a way that causes them to slide all over the map, sometimes into locations that they can’t return from, and almost always into open space that makes them an easy target. This is clearly a bug, but it’s a significant one, and since it affects one of the very earliest characters, you simply cannot avoid having it affect you.
With this technical issue (that I am sure will be patched) put aside, Element Space is a solid tactical shooter with a nice RPG/decision-based story attached to it. It’s far from perfect, but it’s an ambitious and enjoyable project that kept me hooked for long enough to play from end to end more than once.
Fans of Mass Effect will likely enjoy Element Space for its story and obvious similarities, whilst fans of XCOM or tactical shooters in general will appreciate the unusual setting and solid shooting gameplay. It’s a shame that its most interesting “in combat” class is currently broken, but I’ve no doubt that will be fixed in due course.
You can find Element space on Steam and find more information on the developer’s website.