On paper, Jagged Alliance looks like a must-have for fans of tactical role-playing games. A mid 90s PC classic that was originally distributed as a DS retail release in 2009, now available at a significantly lower price of 500 Nintendo Points – it’s a win-win, right?
Well, two areas that hit the mark are storyline and tactical depth. The original was highly regarded on these points in 1995, and it set a standard for PC gaming in that period. The original developers deserve praise for spinning an interesting yarn; the whole game takes place on a fictional island previously used for nuclear testing, where newly evolved ‘Fallow’ trees have been found to contain unique medicinal sap capable of curing deadly diseases. While kind old man Jack Richards and his daughter Brenda work on one part of the island, they mistakenly allow their colleague Lucas Santino to set up an additional research team on the other side. Lucas sees dollar signs, turns to evil and begins to seize control of the island with military force.
That’s where your character comes in, tasked with hiring mercenaries to regain control of 60 sectors, rout Santino’s goons and manage the harvesting of Fallow tree sap. It is here that we see the second positive element of the game: tactical depth. Given a limited budget, you are tasked with hiring mercenaries for operations in enemy areas, guards for your own sectors and workers to harvest sap. On top of that, you manage equipment for your mercenary team, set some to train or act as doctors, and generally keep things under tight control.
When hiring mercenaries, you have to consider not only how much money you have, but whether your reputation is good enough for some of the characters you’re recruiting. If you start out targeting the top mercenaries, they’ll tell you to take a hike. Our first team, as a result, consisted of inexperienced rookies, recently paroled murderers and old men clearly past their best. Even though they were a thoroughly unimpressive group of ingrates, the fact that detailed biographical information is given does mean that you’re a bit more connected with the fate of your team.
This is all very nice, but what truly matters is gameplay, especially in a strategy title. Being in control of your team and the environment is vital, and that is where Jagged Alliance falls over, badly. While the gameplay was strong in 1995, this is 2011, and there are some serious problems with the dated direct port.
Battlefield gameplay is split into two sections, and controls aren’t an issue in the first. When you control a sector, it is easy to move the entire team with a tap of the stylus, and there is no combat to worry about. Enter a sector with enemies present, however, and everything becomes a turn-based affair. In these areas you must move characters independently, which can prove laborious with eight team members. The slow-burn progress is exacerbated by the sprawling size of each sector, which will take a long time to traverse. The fact that there is a running time in each turn that represents the day passing brings a touch of realism to the whole affair. Creating the feel of slowly tramping through a large area on a baking hot island is a nice idea, but isn’t much fun in practice.
The temperamental stylus controls drag the experience down further, to the point that we started experimenting with the controls to speed the process up. Double-tapping to move was so inconsistent that when we discovered the A button confirmed, an awkward combination of a single-tap and then a press of A became our common practice. Moving the camera is performed with the D-Pad as well, rather than with a swipe of the stylus. It’s almost as if the developers couldn’t figure out how to use stylus controls, and failed to deliver as a result.
After slogging around a sector looking for enemies, then you fight them, of course. The mechanics are simple but clunky: keep an eye on the action points available in a turn, select the gun, select the target, then shoot. The problem is that there is no dynamism to this combat. In addition, you start to run out of ammo. No problem, we thought, our team is carrying extra bullets. However, we couldn’t re-load the gun until experimentation led us to fire it when empty, which just doesn’t feel intuitive.
That is the biggest problem with Jagged Alliance, actually being able to play it; it’s nice if a game tells you how to carry out important actions. We came across no tutorial mode, and the manual is woefully light on details, leading us to become stuck in a number of areas. In one case we entered a building, discovered locked crates and doors, but couldn’t do anything about it. The character in the room didn’t have the lock-pick, but we couldn’t get them to leave the room or our lock-pick mercenary to enter, so we were stuck. Whether this was a glitch or us doing something wrong is irrelevant; we couldn’t do anything, so game over. To exacerbate matters, objectives can be vague and difficult to find. In one case we explored an area fully, assumed the objective item wasn’t there because we couldn’t find it and moved on, only to discover that we had missed it at the end of that day’s play. It felt like a frustrating, wasted hour of gameplay.
The myriad of DS conversion issues, however, reach their nadir with the presentation. For one thing, there’s been no graphical update that we can see, with ugly environments and blocky graphics being the order of the day; as suggested earlier, this makes items and objectives difficult to find. Cut scenes are choppy, while sound is heavily compressed and distorted as a result. This game is ugly on the eyes and ears.
If you’re a Jagged Alliance veteran who understands the game and know what you’re doing, then this is a barely passable port. Just bear in mind that the stylus and camera controls are less than ideal, while the visuals haven’t aged well and don’t look good on the smaller screen. If you’re new to this title, stay away. Understanding what to do and how to do it is cryptic and difficult to understand; the lack of a tutorial or competent manual makes sure of that. There are far better turn-based strategy games available on the DSi and 3DS, so we recommend forming your alliances elsewhere.