The original Frozen Synapse was a surprise indie strategy hit. What made it stand out was its unusual time-slice tactics mechanic.
Rather than real-time or I-go, you-go, Frozen Synapse was cut in to five second turns. Each player gave orders to their troops and then watched the mayhem unspool like ruined video tape.
It managed to capture the essence of a strategy game with the outcomes of a twitch game. As a result, it was widely lauded. Our reviewer liked it so much that they gave it a Silver Award.
Frozen Synapse Prime isn't so much a sequel as a reworking. It has the same basic gameplay but an expanded palette of commands and souped-up graphics. It's been out on other platforms a while, and our reviewer liked the PS Vita version enough to give it a Gold Award.
Now I'm the reviewer, reviewing it on mobile. And it's time to give you another side of the story.
That pre-planning mechanic has been used before in other games, and is unusual for a reason. The problem is that while it sounds fun in theory, in practice it can often turn games into a chaotic mess.
Each side is trying to second-guess the other, resulting in an endless rabbit hole of "if I do this, she does that. But if she thinks I'm doing that I'll do this instead." Ad nauseum.
The result isn't tactics. It's turmoil.
No-one is psychic. So no-one can make decent plans and execute them. It's kind of fun to revel in the entropy for a while, but then it gets tiresome.
There's also the problem of programming an AI to try and mimic the human double-blind decision making process. That's pretty much impossible so the designers cheated.
They let the AI know what move you're making and react accordingly. That was a problem in the original, and it's still a problem here. Although it doesn't kick in until mid-way through.
In other respects, however, Prime does offer some improvements to the formula.
Given my chief problem with the time-slice mechanic, it's good to see that one of them is to increase the importance of positional play.
Now, thanks to better mission design and the dynamic cones of vision, it's more important to take and hold good sniping positions. Levels feel a bit less confusing and a bit more like one side is attacking and one defending. The game is all the better for it.
Some of the new orders help, too. There are options to crouch behind windows or slide between corridors, making it easier to make full use of cover. Moments where you manage to creep round and get the drop on entrenched snipers are full of fat satisfaction.
The graphical upgrade is more of a mixture. Everyone's going to like the better visuals. Things like pausing for kill cams or level replays may be less welcome to some players.
Most, however, will enjoy seeing the stop-start action of the game running uninterrupted after the level is done like some ultra-violent cartoon.
There are various game modes to try out. The single player campaign is okay, with some tight level design. It suffers a little from repetition, however, with too little variety in the objectives on top of the aforementioned difficulty spike.
If you can't get past the sudden jump, there's plenty of value in skirmish mode. You can even adjust the squads and battlefield to your liking by tweaking settings during setup.
There are fewer options than in the original, and it's a bit too fiddly to bother with for any but the most hardcore players anyway.
The real draw of Frozen Synapse has always been online multiplayer, though. Which makes it all the more mystifying as to why it doesn't seem to be an option here.
There's a lot more solo play time on offer here than in many strategy games, but it's still a striking omission.
Frozen Synapse Prime is a better game than its predecessor in almost all other respects. It's mechanics are pretty unique amongst mobile games, and this newer game irons out most of the wrinkles.
But there's still as much guessing as there is planning. And without online play, some are likely to find it more frustrating than fun.