Most tactical games condition you to avoid failure. In XCOM, once a character dies, they’re gone. Same for Fire Emblem (at least in Classic mode) and others of its ilk. Othercide isn’t like that. Playing Othercide means rewiring your brain to tolerate and even seek out failure. Death comes quickly and brutally and recurs ad infinitum. Good thing you get rewarded for it.
Othercide, which has been playable on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 since July but just came out for Switch on Friday, is a visually striking tactical role-playing game with deep roguelike elements. You control an army of Daughters, semi-immortal beings whose goth getups would make them fit right in at an underground heavy metal bar. Led by a godlike entity called the Red Mother, the Daughters are locked in war against the omnipresent, otherworldly forces of Suffering. It’s all very dramatic and smacks of mid-2000s Hot Topic, even though the story kicks off in the twilight of the 19th century.
Daughters can be assigned one of three classes. Shieldbearers are tough as nails, have high defence and health, and are effective at managing crowds. Blademasters are comparatively more brittle but can dish out massive amounts of damage at close range. Soulslingers are ranged warriors who wield dual pistols with deadly precision, and will feel immediately familiar to players of tactical shooters. They level up like you’d expect: by killing enemies and winning battles.
The game is divided into five different sections, which culminate with a boss fight. Each battle is set up like battles you’d find in many other tactical games. There’s a tiled board. You order your units from spot to spot like murderous chess pieces. Their action points limit how far they can move and how many actions they can perform per turn. Your goal is to strategically take out all of the enemy units before they can take you out. When you complete sections, you earn currency you can ultimately spend to give a significant bonus for all Daughters in your party, usually a health or stat boost.
It’s technically a turn-based game, in that you switch off with your enemies in who gets to make a move. But it’s not a fixed your-turn/my-turn structure. Instead, Othercide makes use of something called a “dynamic timeline system.” At the bottom of the screen, there’s a bar showing every unit on the board. As rounds progress and characters make moves, units shift leftward across the bar. When a unit reaches the furthest left point of the bar, it’s their turn to attack. If you only use 50 per cent (or less) of a Daughter’s action points, they might jump to somewhere in the middle of the bar, rather than returning all the way to the end of the queue.
The timeline matters because attacks are, for the most part, broken up into two distinct categories: Instant actions and delayed actions. Instant actions are simple: You direct a Blademaster to stroll up to an enemy and slash them with her sword, or have a Soulslinger line up a pistol shot and fire away. Delayed actions, on the other hand, are more powerful, but they push a unit back in the queue a bit. They won’t perform the attack until they reach the left side of the timeline again. Both Daughters and the forces of Suffering can ready a delayed action, but doing so leaves them open for interruption or, more frequently, an untimely death. If a delayed action is successfully executed, it can change the tide of battle. Emerging victorious requires juggling all of this in your head, actively assessing the timeline, and judging when it’s best to be cautious or aggressive.
It should be of little surprise to hear that Othercide is mercilessly punishing. If all your Daughters are killed, you start over from the beginning. There’s no way to heal your Daughters — at least not without killing another. The only way to restore one Daughter’s health bar is to sacrifice another of equal or higher level. As a bonus, whoever gets healed will also get a stat-boosting perk. Since any health lost in one battle stays lost in the next, you’re forced to make some tough decisions. Sacrifice one Daughter to patch up another? Or charge into the next fight with your best soldier on the brink?
The good news is, when Daughters are killed — either in action or through sacrifice — they’re not dead for good. They head to an area called the Cemetery, where you can revive them by spending something called a “resurrection token.” Any revived Daughters will retain their experience points, stats, skills, and levels, though they’ll lose any skill mods they accrued. Since resurrections tokens are initially rare, you have to decide who you want to revive.
For instance, I’ve had a reliable Soulslinger named Constance stick with me from the very first mission. Constance first joined my team alongside a Shieldbreaker named Temperance and a Blademaster named Blanche. They’ve been in the Cemetery for since their first run, but Constance has been a cornerstone of my team. She’s died and snapped back to life more times than Tom Cruise’s trigger-happy character from Edge of Tomorrow. Daughters are procedurally generated, wear near-identical outfits, and are all assigned similarly Victorian names (which, to be fair, you can customise). It doesn’t take long to fill up the 32-slot roster with party members who are, essentially, clones. My decision to revive Constance like a phoenix isn’t borne out of an affinity for her as a character. It’s rooted purely in the fact that she’s proven to be a more effective soldier than her sisters. In recurrently doing so, I’ve learned one thing: In Othercide, death is not the end.
I started my first run wanting, with what I now realise is a laughable dollop of hubris, to keep all of my characters alive to the end. Now, I start runs with the intention of losing, deciding instead to focus on buffing Constance as much as possible, using everyone else in the party as mere pawns for that end. You can also unlock essential party-wide stat buffs by accomplishing certain milestones — say, reaching a certain level or killing a set number of a particular enemy. I often start runs chasing these milestones with the full knowledge that I’ll eventually lose. If it brings me one step closer to my goal of nabbing another sweet stat boost, then I chalk it up as a worthy effort. Othercide, against years of conditioning otherwise, has taught me to chase failure.
In 2012, Dean Hall, the designer of DayZ, told Wired that the game’s infamous permadeath feature forces players to think with “emotional reasoning,” rather than calculable logic. Who among us hasn’t felt a deep attachment to units in XCOM or Fire Emblem? I’ve personally “cloned” rank-and-file troops in Gears Tactics because I didn’t want to see them go. Othercide, then, is somewhat emotionless, at least by Hall’s benchmark. I want to win. I don’t care who has to go to the Cemetery for that to happen. I’ll have a chance to see them again.
I still haven’t beaten Othercide. My army of Daughters will need to die many, many more times before reaching that point. At least I know those deaths aren’t in vain.