Ah, the humble RTS. That heady mix of resource management, tactical prowess and extra sharp wits. It’s a genre that helped make PC gaming what it is today, but without the precise control of a keyboard and mouse combo, the world of real-time strategy has rarely bedded well on consoles.
And there’s the issue of time investment, too. From the classic Command & Conquer series to the deep and rewarding Total War franchise, RTS’ take time, often descending into hours-long battles where two sides test each other’s mettle before claiming all-out victory. Even the brilliant Halo Wars games on Xbox sometimes struggled to keep their matches digestible. And yet, here we are, with a freshly-minted RTS that naturally maps its controls to Nintendo Switch while offering battles that are bitesize and deep in equal measure.
Element’s basic premise is a simple one, but one that deftly conceals a layer of depth that will surprise even those with a long history in the genre. You play a faction of humanity that’s taken to the stars in order to survive, but as you’d expect, it’s not long before people are fighting over resources. Cue an ideal setup for a good old-fashioned tactical battle where you’ll manage friendly units while attempting to destroy those of an AI-controlled enemy team.
Each encounter is divided up into a series of planets in a solar system, which each one named after a particular element from the Periodic Table. You’ll find each planetary body is filled with each respective element, so you’ll need to head down and start mining of all those glorious resources a la Mass Effect 2. But this is where things start to get interesting. Rather than using a standard ‘flat’ battlefield, Element mixes things up by turning each miniaturised planet into a spherical map.
Working much like the mini-moon levels from Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time on PS3, the game’s spherical levels aren’t as complicated or as difficult to navigate as they first sound. You move around the planet with the left analog stick, while the right one controls the camera. Each planet is small enough to circumnavigate in a few seconds, although it’s easy to lose track of the action unfolding other the other side of the world if you’re not careful.
Each battle has two core objectives - mine as many resources as possible and wipe out the opposing team’s base - and its this central conceit that offers as little, or as much, depth as you’d like from a basic RTS. You can simply set up a base, construct a couple of basic mines then launch missiles until your foe’s base is obliterated. Or you can delve a little deeper, building mines with defence grids around them while using attack platforms to grief enemy mines.
It’s a testament to Flightless’ design ethos, enabling newcomers looking for a quick ten-minute fix to scratch a tactical itch while catering for genre vets with an often ruthless AI that will batter you into submission if you don’t find the right balance between offence and defence. Distilling units into five general areas - Resource (mining), Attack, Defence, Missile (for long-range attacks) and Drone (for collecting supply crates and repairing units) - Element ensures it never falls into the submenu quagmire that can make more traditional RTS’ a slog to navigate.
There’s a real thrill to finding that sweet spot between mining for resources (which provides you with energy) and attacking/defending (which costs it) - and with each unit offering three levels of strength that provide better performance at the cost of more energy, there’s enough scope for even the most inexperienced of players to turn a battle back in their favour. The action can get a little hectic at times, but thankfully, you can alleviate this by slowing down the game speed in the menus (even if this does feel like cheating).
Having spent a good three years in Early Access on Steam, Element on Switch also benefits from a much-improved final package. The original version of the game suffered from a steep learning curve early on, but this has been remedied to such an extent that enemy AI now ramps up at a far more natural pace - although that same steep curve does rear its head again in the latter planets. Its control scheme also suits Switch far better than you might think, with support for both touchscreen and button input. We find using the analog sticks to move and select units combined with using the touchscreen to input menu commands works a treat.
While Nintendo Switch doesn’t have many real-time strategy games to its name at the moment, Element could well be the flashpoint that finally shows just how well the genre can work when reinterpreted in the right way. Offering enough simplicity and depth for both newbies and old school players, Element cements itself as one of the most intriguing and unique titles you can play on the go right now. It’s a shame there’s no support for any form of multiplayer, but even as a purely solo effort, it’s an excellent addition to a long-in-the-tooth genre.