The idea of humans teaming up with aliens in a ‘buddy cop’ story isn’t entirely original. Even within the franchise itself, there was X-com: Apocalypse where already was a city similar to City 31. Sure, the focus of the story was on invasion from another dimension, but just like in Chimera Squad you could hire human-sectoid hybrids if you needed some powerful psionics. Though you had to be on good terms with the mutant community.
And that actually makes this plot to be a logical continuation of XCOM2. After the fall of ADVENT, Earth was left filled with its tech, bases, and remains of the troops. Thus a new government was left with essentially two options – either try to destroy everything, wasting resources, so needed for the restoration of humanity. Or put alien legacy to good use. Which included the agenda of making aliens new productive members of society.
The story itself isn’t anything fancy – you just investigate three crime syndicates to learn who is responsible for killing the last City 31 mayor. There are of course a few high tension moments, but where narrative really shines is the banter between your characters.
Yes, now instead of randomly generated recruits, you have a pool of handcrafted agents with backstory, distinct personalities, and even relationships. There is definitely some history between a viper named Torque and Whisper – your ordinary human stuff manager. Though sectoid-human hybrid Verge is my personal favorite with his demeanor and occasional attempts at humor.
In addition, sometimes you can listen to the City 31 news that shows little bits of how people there live and what is their main concern. There can be everything, from a debate about ethics in the use of psy-dampeners to the advertising of alien cuisine. From time to time you even get an opinion on your own actions.
Props to the game writers, btw – as they tried to show the story from different points of view. And (unlike developers of some other games) didn’t try to depict one single group of people as the source of all evil in the world. My only nitpick would be the redesign of some aliens, who were clearly made more human-like to look more sympathetic. Sometimes if you try people to like something too hard that backfires.
Welcome to City 31…
As for the gameplay, it is essentially XCOM on a reduced scale – instead of the Earth globe, there is a city map with nine districts where you send your squad to accomplish missions. There are also other jobs for your agents that don’t require combat – speeding up research, doing some intel gathering in the city. At first, you wouldn’t have enough people to do all, but in the late game, there will be enough. You’ll even have to leave some of the agents idle.
At several points in the game you must make a choice, where to focus the investigation. Depending on that you’ll get slightly different missions and (more importantly) different enhancements for your enemies. It looks a bit game-like – pick a path just because the script said so – but it gets the job of diversifying the walkthrough challenge done.
Just like in XCOM each day situation progresses to worse. Or at least supposed to. You have only one team and thus have to choose one mission of many. And the ones ignored will result in people’s anger. Unrest in city districts leads to city-wide anarchy. High anarchy leads to game over.
Though there are quite a few instruments – mainly so-called field teams – that allow decreasing anarchy level. Unless you really mess up, you’ll be able to keep tension bar far below a critical level.
Tactical battles are probably the most changed aspect of the game. For starters, you aren’t allowed to lose them. If any of your characters is bled out or you failed one of mission objective – it’s game over. Thus there is more adrenaline, more stakes in each fight. Though on the other hand the element of a tactical retreat is gone, and not everyone will like that.
Also, not everyone will like combatants now moving one by one in a fixed sequence. Yes, there are some abilities that allow you to make your move earlier in the ‘timeline’ or push the enemy to later. But in general that leads to less freedom.
Though missions are still engaging and present many different objectives. Escort VIP, protect or destroy some device, survive several waves of reinforcements. There are often special conditions or optional rewards. Maps aren’t big, but each mission can include up to three encounters.
Before each of those encounters, there is also a ‘breach phase’ when you are presented with several entry points to break into the mission area. Depending on where your agents enter, they can neutralize quite a few enemies even before combat starts. Though you must consider what abilities and items your people have – without explosives you can’t enter through the wall and some of the most powerful skills can be used only once during the mission. Think carefully if you want to spend a disabling weapons grenade in the first encounter or keep it for later.
War on Bugs
One of the two biggest problems of XCOM: Chimera Squad is a huge amount of bugs. They aren’t critical or anything – wrong animation, an open door needs to be closed and opened again so an agent could pass… An occasional crash. Though the game saves every turn, so you won’t lose much progress. But it’s just really annoying, how many glitches are in a game that uses already well-used engine and assets.
The second problem is interface. It was mostly inherited from previous games but actually shows less information. ‘Context tips’ for some abilities don’t include exact damage, also there is no way to see the exact chance to hit from the spot until you move there. Sometimes enemy health bar doesn’t show up or predicted damage is wrong, though maybe it’s just another bug.
And again, as there is a save every turn that’s not a significant issue for casual players. But for those who play with Ironman mode on such lack of information (and ‘unexpected results’ because of that) is critical.
Oh, and equipping agents still require a lot of clicks. Even with the “drop items from unassigned agents into the main pool” button. Maybe most of the XCOM player already used to check agents and active four agents isn’t much, but as Chimera Squad was supposed to be an experiment, some improvement would have been appreciated.
And that’s what Chimera Squad is. An experimental spin-off. Was it successful? Partially.
On one hand, the writers made a decent story. Sometimes too cheesy and overall too predictable. But with many deep (and rather cool!) characters. It’s mostly faithful to established XCOM lore and in fact can serve a bridge to XCOM3, if it were to be re-imagining of X-com: Apocalypse.
On the other hand new ‘timeline’ turn-based system feels constraining. It can appeal to casual players and newcomers, but many XCOM fans wouldn’t be happy. Plus, all mentioned problems with the interface and a swarm of technical issues. We can only hope those issues will be addressed, if not by Firaxis itself then by modders community.
The price of Chimera Squad is relatively low. So if you’re just hungry for XCOM-ish experience, it’s definitely worth a try. It lacks content and nuance of XCOM2 and all its addons but still offers a lot more than original XCOM when it was released. And doesn’t stray too far from the main games, unlike Bureau, Interceptor or, Elders forbid, Enforcer.
But if you are not willing to compromise in your expectations, then you probably should wait for XCOM3.