Spoiler Note: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics follows the same plot as its Netflix TV series counterpart. While this review is spoiler-free and the gameplay and screenshots shown were picked to avoid giving anything away, keep that in mind if you haven’t seen the show and want to go in completely fresh.
It’s 2020, but Netflix is still banging the drum for licensed tie-in games. Like Stranger Things 3: The Game before it, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics morphs the streaming network’s 2019 prequel TV series to Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal into game form – this time as a tactical RPG akin to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. It twists Age of Resistance into a linear, combat-heavy experience, but ends up feeling like little more than a hollow puppet of an RPG used to capitalize on a beloved franchise. It’s passable enough to trigger some Pavlovian response from both my love of tactics games and The Dark Crystal series, but left me wanting in both regards once I really saw what it had to offer.
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll say that The Dark Crystal Tactics covers the same general plot arc as the Age of Resistance show. Like Stranger Things 3: The Game, many missions are pulled right from sequences in the show, and new, well-drawn comic-strip cutscenes retell key scenes with some flair. Despite this, the story told here pales in comparison to the TV version. These moments, both interactive and hand-drawn, are truncated in ways that seem tailored to elicit memories of when you watched the show, rather than actually tell its story. In between the very clear nods to Age of Resistance, the plot moves far too quickly through strings of dialogue shown on the world map between missions. I found it difficult to follow, even after watching the first few episodes just before I started playing.
Screenshots From The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics
As a result, even the centerpiece moments like boss fights with the most prominent Skeksis from the show, feel hollow. All the key characters – Gelfling, Skeksis, and otherwise – get a chance to stand in the spotlight, but there’s next to no time spent on character development. If you aren’t excited by the sight of them alone, controlling or fighting them isn’t going to add much to the equation. Even allowing for the liberties you have to take when condensing a full season of plot into a roughly 15-to-20-hour combat-focused video game, this version of the story feels like a hurried summary you’d get from a friend – it hits the crucial details and can be enticing at times, but never captures the emotion of any important moments.
Setting aside its capacity for Dark Crystal fan service, The Dark Crystal Tactics also evoked a bit of my nostalgia for tactical RPGs, particularly original PlayStation-era games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vandal Hearts. Though its art style is not retro by any means – it’s got a muddy, overly rendered look that’s more functional than stylish – its turn-based combat laden with RPG-style abilities and tiled maps full of environmental hazards and gimmicks definitely is. The Dark Crystal Tactics gets the basics of that experience right, with a strong emphasis on using skills to get the upper hand over enemies that will likely beat you if you just trade blows until someone dies.
More than many other strategy RPGs, The Dark Crystal Tactics also emphasizes turn order and timing as a means of controlling a battle. A long bar at the top of the screen shows the next 10 character turns, helping you to predict your enemies’ movements and plan ahead. There are also a decent number of skills that allow you to move an ally’s next turn up or push an enemy’s back, giving you the ability to not only take stock of turn order, but manipulate it to your advantage. Any character can also refrain from attacking or using an ability to speed up their next turn, which cleverly incentivizes careful play over taking wild swings. Predicting enemy behavior is a cornerstone of all tactics and strategy games, but The Dark Crystal Tactics puts it front and center.
But while the combat can offer some interesting decisions, even at its best it’s dragged down by poorly designed menus that take far longer to navigate than they should. You cannot, for example, cycle through characters in the jobs or equipment menus, but instead must select each character, then choose what aspect of their loadout to alter one by one. In combat, you have to select “move” from a radial menu to move, rather than just clicking on a character as it works in nearly any other game from the genre. These inefficiencies, combined with fairly long load times on Switch, make navigating menus both in and out of battle tedious to the point where I sometimes avoided tinkering with my party’s skills just to save myself the slog.
The Dark Crystal Tactics’ greatest strength is its progression, which is clearly a smaller-scale riff on the job system from Final Fantasy Tactics. In addition to level, each of your Gelfling and Podling fighters gains stats and abilities by choosing and leveling up their class or “job.” Though the job tree is small – there are 12 classes, most of which adhere to broad roles like Mender (healer) and Paladin (offense-focused melee fighter) – there’s a lot of room for customization. Each person in your squad can only choose a finite number of skills: three from their current, primary job, and two more from a secondary job. By the time a character hits job level 10, the threshold for advancing, they’ll have learned way more than three skills, so it’s on you to choose skills that fit a role on your team.
Moreover, the classes are all complementary and feature very little overlap, so there’s always a strong incentive to stay in a lower class rather than absent-mindedly advancing up the ladder. Since you only bring four or five people into each fight, it’s impossible to create a flawless team, so you need to assemble your character loadouts with an eye towards specific sets of skills and an overall gameplan for how those skills combine.
However, the system works better in theory than it does in practice. With such strict loadout limitations, some of the skills become infinitely better than others, limiting character rotation greatly. For example, many of the most powerful attack abilities for Soldiers, like “Double Strike,” require you to mark enemies first. Mark is a basic Scout ability, so I was compelled to keep the Scout job as a primary or secondary for one or two characters at all times. While I found myself wishing I had access to other abilities, particularly passive and movement-related skills, they’re never as essential as the few I grew to rely on.
Over time, new battle conditions will force you to mix things up, but even that causes frustration. You’ll run into bosses that are immune to the status effects you usually inflict; Poison swamps demand skills that cure debuffs; Beach maps with rising tides require extra speed. There are also plenty of missions that require you to focus on an objective other than combat, like getting your team to an exit or freeing Gelfling prisoners from cages, which push you to balance engaging an enemy and achieving your goals. None of these twists are very interesting or creative, but I appreciated the commitment to environmental mechanics and theme missions to keep things fresh. On the other hand, that commitment sometimes lead to boring situations where I’d have to spend a dozen extra turns slowly moving to an objective even after defeating all the enemies.
In a perfect world, your entire 14-character roster would be leveled up and properly equipped at all times to allow you to swap out different fighters to match each situation. However, since your characters only level up in combat, bringing in someone with a skill you unexpectedly need requires a lot of grinding optional battles to whip those backups into shape. It rarely feels worth the significant effort required, and I instead found myself trying to rejigger my default five or six squad members to the best of my ability whenever a level had a hard counter for my usual gameplan.
Though it wasn’t an insurmountable issue, every setback in The Dark Crystal Tactics feels like a disproportionately big inconvenience. Outside of the laborious menus, The Dark Crystal Tactics also somehow relies exclusively on an auto-save system and does not provide a way to quick-save in the middle of a battle. On Switch, you can always pause by putting the console to sleep, but your save reverts to the last time you were on the world map if you quit. Retrying a mission after a death (or when you quit out, since there’s no easy option to restart) requires you to sit through multiple loads, which can lead to a lot of downtime if you get stuck.
For another Netflix show tie-in game, watch our review of Stranger Things 3: The Game above.
It’s also worth pointing out that the pre-launch Switch version of The Dark Crystal Tactics used for this review suffered from consistent bugs. Chief among them, backing out to the Switch home menu and returning without quitting would cause hitching and, in some cases, force it to crash entirely. Certain late-game cutscenes sped through dialogue and had faulty audio. There’s also a story map late in the campaign where highlighting certain panels would discolor a large portion of the screen. As with any game these days, it’s entirely possible that these issues will be patched out, but they were notably more consistent and impactful than the pre-release hiccups I’m used to seeing.