X-Communicated — 1971 Project Helios is not the tactical combat game you’re looking for

With some really stellar tactical action games already out on Nintendo’s Switch console, 1971 Project Helios was always going to need to find some way to differentiate itself. At face value it might appear to do just that, with an interesting post-apocalyptic setting, a fairly personal storyline and a large cast of playable characters.

Pre-empting the punchline a little: it fails, landing firmly in a mediocre place that made me feel as if I had seen everything on offer long before the game was over. With that said, 1971 Project Helios may still be of interest to real fans of the genre — and I am one — but only if you’ve already worked your way through the likes of X-Com 2, Broken Lines and even Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (specifically on Switch). 

Project Helios

Getting into a bit of detail, 1971 Project Helios has the player controlling a group of fairly ragtag misfits as they work their way through an interlinked and occasionally interesting story. Even early in the game, old alliances are broken and new — albeit tenuous — bonds begin to form. Unfortunately, whilst the story shows promise, the dialogue is poorly translated (and not in a comical way) and the characters feel quite two-dimensional and insincere. 

The story sequences are split between moments of calm where dialogue is delivered between missions, and odds and ends of individual commentary that happens within the missions. There’s essentially no choice in terms of how the story pans out, and even the missions themselves occur in a purely linear fashion.

One interesting thing about missions in 1971 is the way that combat starts. You’ll lead your team through each level in a freeform manner — using the left stick to control the lead character, whilst the rest follow. The interesting bit is that as you approach an enemy group, the game will dynamically “flip” into a tactical, turn based structure — almost like a skirmish within a wider mission.

This is interesting and unusual, and I much prefer it in principle to the X-Com model where the player must manage the turn based movement even between combat sections in the same mission. The trouble is, each skirmish begins in a set manner — so regardless of which angle you approach the enemy from, your characters will all immediately run straight to a predefined cover location (or not).

If you ever planned to approach a battle in a different way having failed it, then you’re out of luck. 1971 Project Helios will flip to its combat sections rigidly, having the enemies settle into their predefined slots and wait, even as your characters run across the open battlefield to get to wherever the game decides it wants them to be. I would have loved this mode if it allowed players to flank or outmanoeuvre the enemy, but alas, it does not. 

Project Helios

Another problem — perhaps a much bigger one—- is that it often simply breaks. I’d say that during my testing time, I saw more crashes than I’ve seen in any other game on a modern console (I’m playing on Nintendo Switch) and almost all sessions ended in a drop. Perhaps even worse than this, sometimes between combat turns, the game will “lock” the movement cursor on a specific square, effectively meaning that the player must choose it and waste their turn.

This latter issue is just bizarre and it really spoiled the experience for me. Yes, it will undoubtedly be resolved at some point, but the fact that I’m often forced to lose turns, sometimes late on in a challenging battle, is bad. Compounding this issue is the fact that should a player character be killed, then it’s game over — and you’ve guessed it, leaving a character out in the open because of a bug will get people killed often.

Putting this bug aside (because I’ve no doubt it will be fixed) let’s talk about the fact that 1971 uses permanent, named characters who cannot die to drive its narrative, rather than taking the X-Com model where each character is expendable, but your time with them increases your keenness to keep them alive. 

1971 doesn’t have the same kind of peril that a tactical shooter needs, which is a product of both the “instant loss” when someone dies, and the disconnect that the player feels due to the bugs and crashes. On the flip side, clearly by having named characters and a proper storyline, 1971 does deliver a fixed narrative that does have a few high points. 

In terms of the actual combat, I’m sorry to report that it’s fairly standard fare. There is a decent mix of melee and ranged characters, but players will have no choice in who shows up in each mission. Enemy variety is similar, with some enemies that you’ll come to recognise as key threats, and others who really are just grunts.

Project Helios

One thing I did notice in1971 is that shots have only three probabilities of success, at least that I noticed (which was basically throughout the full course of the game.) You can either be guaranteed to  hit or miss, or you have a 50/50 chance. Cover affects the outcome, but you’ll never see a percentage that is slightly affected by factors and it’s always going to be one of the three outcomes above. This is just lazy for me, and again, it detracts from the tactical aspect of what is supposed to be a tactical shooter.

Summarising then, 1971 feels like quite the missed opportunity. It’s a very average game that looks OK and plays alright when it works, but the bugs and crashes drag it below the bar needed to even recommend it to a serious fan of the genre. There are many better options in this field on all consoles and certainly on PC, and unless this game is available at a hugely reduced price, I’d steer clear. 

1971 Project Helios is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.

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