If you've ever played a JRPG, you've likely heard the name Hironobu Sakaguchi. He's been a motive force in the Final Fantasy series and other smash hits like Chrono Trigger.
For this, his latest title, he's embraced free to play on mobile. Immediately, that makes him either a creative trailblazer or the devil incarnate, depending on your view of free games.
Yet for all the polarised opinion around free to play, Terra Battle is pretty much what you'd expect. An excellent game, slightly spoiled by occasional spikes of frustration.Tricky chameleon
What might be more of a surprise is the nature of the game itself. It's a fast-paced, board-based strategy title with significant role-playing and puzzle elements. Not quite what you'd expect from someone synonymous with the JRPG genre.
The influence is obvious in the look of the game. It's packed with art straight from the anime and manga schools. It's bright and engaging, but inevitably includes a few feeble sexist stereotypes.
Beyond quality art, it doesn't look much fun. Most of the action takes place on a grid, where you slide character tiles around between enemies and each other.
The idea is to sandwich one or more enemies between two of your characters. When you do, the flanking characters will unleash their attacks on the poor unfortunates in between.Wise owl
On it's own that'd be a poor basis for a game, but there's more. Lots more. If you can plan things so that other friendly characters are in vertical or horizontal alignment with the attackers, they lend their power to the assault.
To make that a bit easier, friendly characters you slide through get pushed one square. It's a mechanic straight out of Puzzle & Dragons but feels right at home here, adding some quick tactics to the longer term strategy.
Between games there's some light levelling up. Stats grow. You can recruit new adventurers or reorganise your party. You can burn items to expand the roles of your existing squad. It all adds to the draw and the depth.
These simple strictures would be a tediously straightforward game by themselves. So things are spiced up by having the player squeezed in a vicious vice of time pressure.
It burns down with terrifying speed, drowning those easy decisions in a rising flood of panic.Patient elephant
Applying timers to strategy games is a difficult art, but Terra Battle gets the balance right on the money. The result is an often thrilling blend of action and strategy.
And it has a bottomless capacity to keep you coming back for more. That sense that next time, you'll plan it right. Next time, you'll do it better.
You don't, of course. But that just makes you want to keep trying again and again.
It takes a while to reach this point. The first few levels are way too easy. And while the plot, told in text snippets between levels, weaves a grand sense of place, the actual narrative is hollow gibberish.
But once the game has its hooks in you, it's crazy, quickfire fun. This is where the free to play elements come in, with an energy mechanic that limits play time.
It's easy to keep in energy credit during the early levels. But as the difficulty starts to creep up, you'll need to start doing special side quests for bonus items or experience.
These cost more energy, and quickly deplete your stock. They're also only open for limited time windows, so you feel pressure to make the most of them.
And as the game advances, and the difficulty increases, you'll need to grind the bonus levels a lot to stay competitive.
So it's the usual free to play story. Except that Terra Battle gives you an awful lot of free play time before you gently hit that pay-or-grind wall. And on top of that the game itself is ridiculously good fun.
You pays your money and takes your choice. Except here you get a choice about whether you pays your money at all. Confused? Just play it. It's free to start with, after all.