In the failed state of Aiwbari in the middle-east, the government has collapsed and a force of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) under Crisis Troop Ember is there to keep the peace and to enforce the will of the powers that be in a covert war with the growing Shadow Emirate.
Black Powder Red Earth is a turn-based small unit strategy somewhat in the XCOM mould where you control a “kinetic element” of four PMCs as they take part in various raids and missions against insurgents.
It’s probably worth stating this before you read any further that this game deals with some rather dark themes and could be triggering so please bear that in mind. Generally speaking, the game takes a mature attitude towards these themes but they are found throughout the game and in this review.
Initially, the gameplay rather resembles that of XCOM or your classic squad-based turn-based game. You have a small troop of soldiers who can take two or three actions per turn. This can be any combination of shooting and moving. Your highly-trained PMCs tend to hit more often than not and in Black Powder Red Earth one shot is all it takes to put any target down for the count.
As you traverse the map, you’ll search buildings uncovering enemy checkpoints, hotels, and electronics shops, as well as the High-Value Targets (HVT) that you’re looking for. At this point, you can enter the building and kill/capture your target either using flashbangs to disorientate the enemy or you can enter and use stealth. There are other fiercer options.
Stealth is a key component in the game. There’s no way to win a military victory, if you kill everyone, you’ll just end up with more enemies to fight. Once you’ve gotten to your objective, an exit sign will light up and you need to guide your element, plus any characters you need to rescue, to the exit and the mission will end.
If you kill people or make a racket, you’ll quickly raise the alert level which will see more and more enemies converge on you. When things “go loud” due to shots fired or drone strikes (more on those later) you’ll be compromised and floods of bad guys will rush over to shoot your tiny team to bits. One shit is instant death and before long you’ll be losing men left and right.
Speed is also key. You’ll have ten turns, more or less, to get your objective and get off map. If you don’t get it done in time, you’ll fail the mission. So, you can’t dawdle and play it cautiously. In addition, the normal XCOM approach of “crawling overwatch” is not available here, you’ll be forced to make careful use of movement, distance, and shooting first.
You can’t afford to just exchange gunfire it only takes one hit to kill one of your team. Equally some bad guys are equipped with suicide vests and will detonate themselves when they get into range, killing everyone around them.
You’ve got some tricks up your sleeve, depending on the mission. Most common is the use of a drone which can make an area of effect attack against groups of enemies or blow the roof off a building, forcing a target character out so you can more easily eliminate him. However, use of the drone will instantly give the game away and the game will move to the highest “compromised” state of alert.
Black Powder Red Earth also has events that trigger between turns, sometimes good – like intel that will help you find a target or sometimes bad like an increase in alert level. You can sometimes “blackout” an event to avoid it from triggering but you can’t always count on this.
The campaign in Black Powder Red Earth is a series of interconnected missions but there’s no base management or soldier development. The members of your squad have no persistence between missions. When Ember-1 is killed, they are instantly replaced between missions by another Ember-1 and they will be essentially identical. You can imagine that for a shadowy PMC corporation, replacing lost mercenaries is just “par the course”. There are even missions where you don’t even need any of your team to survive as long as the mission is successful.
Indeed, the campaign doesn’t continue if you fail a mission, so the game is very linear. You’ll also find yourself carrying out the same type of mission many times over. The map, which is beautifully presented in a gritty hand-drawn style, will be procedurally generated but most maps end up looking very similar.
The enemies, also done in a hand-drawn style, tend to look quite similar too and you’ll kill a lot of them over the campaign but there’s no reward for body count, just for victory. Cut scenes are presented in a mixture of pixelated aerial footage and static comic book frames, which are apparently based on the highly-rated graphic novel that inspired the game. The overall graphics and look of the game are well done and the 16-bit production values work well in conjunction with the hand-drawn assets.
The game does have a number of issues present in it. The stealth-based approach in the game won’t appeal to everyone and you don’t have as big a bag of tricks to use as, say, Invisible Inc. Therefore, you’ll often find your team compromised and forced to “go loud”, though I do like the compensation that on the highest alert level your guys get three actions rather than two.
The game is also quite slow in places as you move slowly across the city. Characters move slowly and enemy turns play out with one move at a time and whilst they aren’t as slow as the map part of a Total War game, they can still drag on a bit.
The gunplay is crisp and deadly but sometimes it’s not clear why you can’t see a target and line of sight is an issue in this game. XCOM has set a very high bar for making sure you know if you’ll be able to take a shot. The map in Black Powder Red Earth can’t be rotated and isn’t easy to manipulate, leading to moments when you can end up moving to an area where your line of fire is blocked or, worse still, accidentally moving to a blind spot.
Equally, at times the map isn’t as responsive as you might like and when trying to take a shot, you’ll end up moving to stand right next to an enemy instead. By crossing their line of sight, they’ll also take an overwatch shot at you too. Whilst enemies tend to miss more often than not, this is still really frustrating, especially as it only takes one stray bullet to put a man down for the count.
Black Powder Red Earth has been designed to be simple, gritty, and to carry its theme through which it does well. However, with several elements tripped away from the turn-based tactical game, it can feel a bit samey at times and missions can become repetitive fast. It’s also quite hard to get into the story when you don’t have any control over the persist characters. There’s also no difference between a narrow victory and a walkover.
The theme will also put some players off. Whilst it’s not set in a real place, it can easily be seen as a stand-in for a middle-eastern trouble spot in real life and some may find this off-putting. The theme of suicide bombers, jihadists, and a shadow emirate as well as playing as the shady, morally bankrupt PMCs may not appeal to some. The game does paint things in a shade of grey and you may even find at times its expedient in the game to shoot an unarmed civilian rather than risking a compromise, though there are some non-lethal ways to get past this.
In closing, Black Powder Red Earth is a well-designed game with a tight, minimalist approach and a nicely designed theme, even if this will put off some players. The hand-drawn art is great, even if at times it can interfere with gameplay and the hope would be with a few updates they can make the game a bit more user-friendly. Black Powder Red Earth is a very tough game too, with a high learning curve and three short tutorials and it may have to satisfy itself with being a niche hit, which may actually suit it rather well. Needless to say, it’s worth a look if you think the elements within interest you.