After playing the mediocre game that was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Mega Battle, I was still hoping for a good spandex-wearing team romp. Chroma Squad sounded like a possible answer to my dreams: a tactical RPG that plays homage to Ranger/Sentai tropes and also carries that indie game charm.
The project started off as a Kickstarter by Brazilian developer Behold Studios and not only the project funded, but it also caught the attention of Saban, the company behind the entire Power Rangers series. However, the corporation eventually backed off and Chroma Squad was released on PC in April of 2015. Now, more than two years later, it’s launched for consoles and I finally got a chance to transform and pilot my own 8-bit mech.
After finishing the game, I must say that these retro rangers make a good team. But not a great team, mind you.
Chroma Squad takes place in a world where the titular group are a bunch of stuntmen and women who have become fed up with their current gig. They’re basically the trained monkeys of the greedy director Soap and, after being told what to do for the millionth time (cleverly dressed up as the tutorial), the squad quits en masse.
At the start of the game the stunt actors have opened their own studio and the story follows their adventures of making a hit show all on their own. This is done by filming ‘episodes’ of their show and gaining fans and money based on the group’s performance (audiences don’t like it when you die over and over). From here, the game is broken down even further into five seasons which takes the crew from being novices to actual, world-saving heroes.
Gameplay is nicely implemented with the plot of the game. For each level (or episode), you’re generally given minions to dispatch and a boss monster to eventually take down. It all plays a lot like a simplified version of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance with some management sim thrown in.
Instead of FFTA’s laws, you’re given ‘directions’ to follow each stage that are meant to please the fans. For instance, you might be tasked to keep all your heroes in battle or defeat the boss with a finishing move (which requires all fighters to surround the monster in one turn). While a lot of these directions end up getting used a lot, the fact that they’re optional makes them nice touch.
Combat in Chroma Squad is probably the best part of the game. Levels generally aren’t that long and you’re given a few tools to play around with to find out what works for you. While each of the five teammates can’t gain levels, they are able to equip better items and they each have their own strengths. For instance, the Assist ranger is bow-wielding healer of the group whereas the Assault ranger is the slow-but-deadly fighter.
Each character also has their own stats and skills. Some can move farther on the stage and some are better with ranged attacks. You can equip each person with different weapons and also have them team up for even more versatility. There’s a ‘teamwork’ button that allows you to set up group attacks or even extra maneuverability. A character that ends their turn with a teamwork selection can vault other rangers to greater distances or inflict more damage on an adjacent enemy.
Minion types are varied but in the end, there aren’t that many of them. There is, generally, a boss per stage and they fluctuate a lot in strategy and abilities. Some will knock all of your characters back when you get too close and some place traps onto the battlefield. There are even some unique moments like a certain master who orders his minions to bring him weapons.
The bosses are actually some of the most memorable parts of the game. Not only is it fun trying to figure out how to take them down (other than a few fights at the end of the game that take forever to complete), but the designs themselves are great. The pixel graphics are a bit too simplistic for the main characters and NPCs, but the bigger bosses ooze with personality. Where else are you going to find a box monster with boxing glove arms or a reverse mermaid?
However, the bosses and gameplay take a bit of a nosedive when it comes to the giant robot battles. Much like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Mega Battle, these citywide spectacles are reduced to timing based mini games. Chroma Squad comes out much better comparatively, but still lacking.
Basically, you’re given few command options for your mech. You can punch, block, use a finishing move, and a few other unlockable choices. When you attack, a pointer scrolls along a bar has a few different colored areas. You press a button and try and get it in the white space for the maximum amount of damage. After each successful punch, that area gets smaller and smaller.
There is a little bit of strategy here as you’ll need to know when to stop gambling with attacks and mount a defense. Bosses can also use supermoves that will take off a lot of HP if you’re not prepared. The fact that these sections are dull compared to the turn-based combat is not the biggest issue unfortunately. No, it’s the lag that killed all enjoyment of this section.
I know this is an overstatement, but slowdown on a game that uses retro based graphics is ridiculous. This isn’t Fallout where millions of lines of code and graphics are being processed. This is an indie game that’s meant to be simplistic. I don’t even mind a bit of lag here and there, but when it makes winning a tedious part of a game incredibly difficult at times, that’s when I get angry.
The attack sections would sometimes just stop and then start up again making the timing extremely finicky. If the developers can’t program a part of their gameplay that relies on smooth animations properly, they should take it out of the game. While this will hopefully be patched in the future on the PS4, I was still very unimpressed.
And while we’re on the subject of things that didn’t work, I found a lot of the management sim elements to be under-explained and under-utilized. There are certain concepts like fan power, agencies, and crafting that are thrown at you with only the slightest hint of function. The first two actually are quite important and should’ve had more of an introduction. The crafting on the other hand is quite bare-bones and I found it mostly unnecessary throughout my playthrough.
The narrative of Chroma Squad is much like the gameplay, good but with a few caveats. There’s a surprising amount of story here, with cutscenes before and after every episode. Each of the five rangers are given personality traits and characterization (you’re able to name all of them) but a lot of it is surface level stuff.
It was fun seeing the goofy plots with goofier boss monsters on each episode. The overarching plot is unfortunately not as interesting with a lot of homage and silliness ruining the pace. I understand that a lot of these Sentai/Ranger shows focused on the ‘friendship is the greatest weapon’ trope, but the game goes to that well too many times. And, a lot like so many other indie games out there, the humor is predictable and often misses the mark. There’s more material out there than just references to memes and 80s/90s pop culture.
The best part of the narrative was something that was barely connected to the plot at all. Throughout the game, you’ll receive emails in between episodes. Some of it is fan mail and some of it is junk mail but a lot of it is random and quite funny.
For instance, at one point you’re emailed by the younger brother of one of the rangers asking to come to his place of work. Soon after you reply, you’re given another message from the older brother covering the cost of the damages done to the studio. It’s quick, snappy, and how you do comedy right.
Aside from having a surprisingly deep mythos, Chroma Squad also comes with multiple endings. They honestly felt a bit tacked to try and make players go through the story again. Most of them happen from a decision you need to make late in the game and since you only have one save file, you have to go all the way back to change your path.
Luckily there is a new game plus mode and the higher difficulties do make the journey back even more intense. On the hardest difficulty, you’ll be expected to fail episodes a lot. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Graphically the game looks pretty good. Characters and environments are bright and colorful, appropriate to the chroma-filled world of Sentai/Rangers. Some of the human characters look weird and have the strangest stances. It’s like the minimalist design of the pixel work hindered the design of the smallest characters, making them not the most attractive sight at times.
Also, some of the fullscreen cinematics (done again with low-fi graphics) looked really awkward, especially when movement was involved. The first formation of my mech did not make me want to jump in it.
The chiptune soundtrack has some poppy numbers but most of them didn’t leave much of an impression other than the Chroma theme song (with Japanese lyrics!). That isn’t to say they weren’t appropriate choices considering the source material, but they all sort of blended together after my 15 hour playthrough. The bright sound effects were a little more effective however, making hits with prop guns and cardboard swords sound pretty satisfying.
While Chroma Squad formed into something much more suitable for Power Rangers than the actual games that franchise produces, it still felt lacking. The mix of move-based gameplay with minor RPG elements with a Sentai mythos was a brilliant choice and one that hopefully will be explored further in a sequel.
As the Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea series have shown, the tactical role-playing genre can get quite complex: I think Behold Studios would be smart to follow this lead if they ever did make a follow-up game. Nothing too crazy as that would get away from the childlike adventure found within, but something to get away from the mind-numbing timing based mech battles that didn’t even work right.
Also, there’s a lot of potential here for some real mythology to be created within this universe-in-need-of-saving. Until then, Chroma Squad is a nostalgic step in the right direction but it might take some time before we take bigger strides in giant mech feet.