Given their relatively low asking price, it can be quite easy to fall into the trap of thinking that games on Nintendo’s eShop service amount to little more than short, throwaway experiences. You pay less and, therefore, you must get less value from that game, right? In terms of pure content, that may be true (unless you’re talking about the woefully short retail release that is Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, of course), but smaller games can still offer us much more when it comes to replay value and depth of gameplay. FUN UNIT’s latest game for the 3DS eShop fits neatly into this latter category, proving to be a fun experience that you want to keep coming back to, despite its budget price.
Cube Tactics is a hybrid of tactical strategy with tower defence. However, instead of leading your troops into battle or simply propping up resources with which to hold off the enemy, the key to this game is to manipulate the playing field to your advantage. In this game world, you live and die by the cube, or rather a wide range of cubes which you must use to build a base and funnel your troops towards the enemy. The overall goal is to destroy your opponent’s core cube — a mystical object which inexplicably determines the prosperity of a civilisation that exists within the imaginatively named Land of the Cubes. The catch, however, is that your own civilisation is also dependent on its own core cube and, therefore, you need to take both offence and defence into consideration when playing.
When a match starts in one of the single- or multiplayer modes, there are some pretty big gaps in the battlefield, and it’s up to each participant to develop their base and path towards their opponent(s) in whichever way they determine to be the most strategically sound. What you choose is likely to depend on what cubes you have available. Certain cubes act as production buildings, enabling you build a variety of units such as archers and knights, whereas others enable you to fortify a position or catapult your soldiers across a void. Placing two buildings next to each other makes them stronger, while placing four in a square will increase their defence even more so, and will also produce more powerful units. This mechanic adds depth to the overall experience, forcing you to make important tactical decisions — do you hold up and wait to build an army of powerful units or do you overwhelm your opponent with sheer numbers in a lightning-fast assault?
However, adding cubes to the playing field isn't as simple as pressing a button whenever you feel like it. There are only so many cubes to choose from at any one time, and all players pick from the same list. It’s a land grab, and one you need to be pretty speedy at if you wish to get the cubes you need to win. While this mechanic works perfectly well in the offline modes, it’s incredibly frustrating online because matches have a tendency to be quite laggy. Just to make things even more difficult, taking a cube requires a certain amount of energy — the value of which changes depending on how important the cube is.
With all these factors to take into consideration, Cube Tactics is more complex than it initially seems, especially in the multiplayer and free play modes. There are multiple ways to approach enemy core cubes, and the ability to build in three dimensions only deepens the strategic options available to you.
For example, one cunning opponent we came up against online initially stopped our advance towards their base by building upwards, which would have forced our troops to climb upwards and probably meet their demise at the hands of enemy archers if we had continued in that direction. Not willing to give up the assault, we began forging a new path towards the enemy. It seemed flawless — or at least it did until the music suddenly changed, informing us that our core cube was under attack. Our sneaky opponent had built a unit launcher on the raised area they originally used to cut us off, and this shortly resulted in numerous troops landing right on top the very thing we needed to defend the most. Needless to say, Nintendo Life’s white surrender flag was hoisted up the flagpole mere moments later.
It’s this depth of gameplay which makes Cube Tactics quite an addictive experience. The single-player quest mode, in particular, draws you in by offering a variety of pre-defined scenarios in which you need to work out a winning strategy. Missions rarely last longer than a few minutes, meaning that it’s all too easy to start a new one or have another go if you lose. With that said, Cube Tactics does feel a tad limited in some ways; the playing area is quite small — even when set to the largest size — most probably to create bottlenecks and ensure that your offence and defence remain manageable (especially because the direction in which your units leave a production building is permanently fixed). Having the ability to build paths that lead around the back of an opponent’s base, place your cubes even higher or lower and change the direction in which your troops travel could have allowed for an even deeper tactical experience.
Neatly presented in a cutesy anime art style, meanwhile, this is a game that exudes a lot of charm. From the light-hearted dialogue to the artwork, it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into creating a consistent and appealing game world, even if it based around something as nonsensical as a world of floating cubes.
Cube Tactics may seem like a small game for the 3DS eShop, but it’s nicely presented and packed full of depth when it comes to the gameplay. While it isn't as ambitious as we feel it could have been, it nevertheless provides an addictive strategy game experience that’s very easy to pick up and play. If there’s one main issue, it’s that the online portion can be quite laggy, and thus beating your opponents to the best cubes is made unnecessarily difficult. With a straightforward and entertaining tutorial, a varied single-player quest and a wealth of on- and offline multiplayer modes, however, Cube Tactics is well worth its small asking price.