In the distant future, a militaristic civilization called the Hudathans decides they’d rather not share the cosmos with a race as fickle as humanity. Standing between them and Earth is the Legion of the Damned (Out Now, $4.99), an assortment of executed criminals resurrected for a chance to do humanity one good turn before they shove off their mortal coils again. Offworld Games may be a new brand on the iOS scene, but their debut Turn-Based Strategy title has quite a pedigree backing it up; you’ll recall our interviews with veteran developer Conlan Rios and author William C. Dietz, whose like-named novel provided the basis for the game. And as it turns out, Legion is a no-brainer if you’re looking for a deep TBS with a really cool story to boot!
The first thing to hit the player after firing up Legion is an intro cutscene: fully voice-acted, set to gritty black-and-white drawings, and filled with far darker stuff than we usually see on this platform. One of these awaits the player for every completed mission in its 16-stage campaign, making victory all the sweeter. While a ton of risk must have come with distilling hundreds of pages of Dietz’ work into a few scenes, these definitely succeed in giving the player that extra impetus to move on and see what’s going to happen next.
It’s a good thing those cutscenes are worth waiting for, because Legion is one satisfyingly challenging TBS — even players who think they’re genre veterans going in may be tempted to set enemy AI to “Easy.” An admirably thorough live tutorial familiarizes the player with his or her battlefield duties, and here it already becomes clear that Legion uses its sci-fi premise to deliver a brilliant strategy game. Every unit has its specialty, naturally, but the real fun lies in how the player has to make those units cooperate, and how the Legion’s capabilities degrade once units of any type fall into short supply. Your grunts aren’t just cannon fodder you throw against enemies; they’re also forward spotters who help your heavy troops and artillery deliver critical strikes on distant targets. And those grunts can’t do their job safely if they’re stepping through minefields, so minesweeper bots should accompany them where possible. Line of sight and fog of war become supreme considerations, a fact that will tempt the player into mid-level forfeits when an important unit unwittingly charges into a hotbed of resistance.
The one quibble I have is that all of Legion’s missions present the same objective: capture flags, and make sure you’re holding on to more of them than the enemy is by the end of eight player turns (“turns” giving the player a chance to move all units before the AI opponent does likewise). Even so, the developer managed to fold subtle variety into the concept: if there’s only one flag on the battlefield it turns into an Alamo-style holdout, while levels with many flags require an intelligent multi-front strategy and quick maneuvering. Like Ravenmark before it, Legion assigns an assortment of units to the player every battle; no carry-over or upgrading between. The game does a great job of gradually stirring in new units for the player to handle, and even when all the Legionnaire types are introduced, there are still plenty of new enemies to look forward to.
Where Legion goes above and beyond the call of duty are the extra modes of play outside of the main campaign. Offworld Games has made the Swiss Army knife of TBSs: you’ve got your asynchronous online multiplayer (think “play-by-mail Chess goes digital”); a skirmish mode where you can set up ad hoc battles against the computer; and local hotseat multiplayer. Participants can choose which of the game’s three races they want to play as, so these are great opportunities to step into the Hudathans’ shoes. Players can use pre-set maps or randomly generate them for these confrontations, but why do that when you can create and share your own dastardly designs through a very user-friendly level builder?
Legion received plenty of polish in the interface department, with battlefields that can be panned around no matter where the player is in assigning an action to a unit. Hidden enemies take zero CPU time to do whatever it is they do when the player can’t see them, which cuts down nicely on the length of the average enemy turn. An especially nice touch is that the slider for zooming the battlefield in and out can be tapped to cycle through units that haven’t been moved yet.
iPhone and iPod Touch players would probably appreciate some widening of the virtual buttons for selecting commands and ending the player’s turn, but I found their reliability very satisfactory for now. One thing TBS fans will have to get used to is that attack targeting has to be specified before a unit moves and not afterward, so this little quirk will result in a wasted turn or two out of habit. An “undo” button for the last movement would sure come in handy for cases like this.
How I would have loved to see exciting cutscenes for every clash, but attacks and counterattacks are carried out with simple animations and little fanfare; to set your aesthetic expectations correctly, think of Legion as a sci-fi counterpart to Battle for Wesnoth. It helps that most actions are carried out at long range, so simple shooting animations are easy enough to get used to if you’ve already been reeled in by the gameplay depth. Ironically the battlefield sprites prove most lively when they’re waiting around for orders, and this is impossible to appreciate in screenshots.
Bringing serious heft to the audio department are Mike Weiser and Mattias Holmgren, who do such a great job wringing toe-tapping rhythms and foreboding moods out of electronica that you could mistake Legion’s soundtrack for the best of what Square’s Front Mission series had to offer. I daresay a soundtrack release is in order, and it will be interesting to see how many fans agree with me on that point! On the downside, you’ll have to bring your own music to the skirmish and online multiplayer modes, a process that the game’s main menu facilitates. But it would be great to keep that Weiser/Holmgren goodness flowing through your earbuds while you’re busy maneuvering your Dooth riders and Hudathan tanks against friends, so I’m hoping for an option to bake in one of the game’s music tracks while hand-designing or randomly generating maps for multiplayer.
iFanzine Verdict: If you’re a TBS fan and you’re looking for one sci-fi entry to add to your library, make it Legion of the Damned. While it doesn’t pack a powerful visual punch, it ranks as high as one could hope for in every other department: a meaty campaign with real strategic depth, a neat story, and some of the most robust multiplayer we’ve yet seen in the genre on iOS.