Antihero is one of those rare games that embodies the positive traits of the indie scene. Tim Conkling, the title’s sole developer, has created an experience that explores a genre you don’t see that often with gaming, the board game mash-up.
The fact that the strategy element is rich but also easy to get into is probably the best part of the experience. Add a unique theme (Dickensian Victorian England), strong art design (cartoony meets chibi), a colorful palette, and a generally unseen multiplayer mode, and you’ve got yourself all the components of a hidden gem. There are however a few minor oversights that keep Antihero from reaching breakout hit status.
The single-player campaign story here is simple and doesn’t waste any time; you either play as the moral thief Lightfinger or his ward Emma as you take on a Robin Hood-esque role. While you try and protect the urchins and downtrodden of the dangerous streets, you’ll come across a number of adversaries. While these shady characters might be thieves as well, they’re a little less ‘altruistic’ than our heroes and are looking to cheat, steal, and kill their way to the top.
While the actual narrative isn’t going to win any awards, it still is entertaining and sets up the world of Antihero nicely. Additionally there are cutscenes with an appropriately British raconteur to further draws you further into the Victorian setting. And the tales of Lightfinger and his colorful enemies (some of the character designs of your opponents are great) help to set up the rules of the game, which is really the core of the five-fingered experience.
While the exploits of this thieves guilds aren’t that complicated, there is a bit of a learning curve. The set up is much like a board game or certain RPGs, with a turn-based system for each player. You can enjoy the usual options such as moving your avatar, attacking enemy troops, and basically trying to control areas of the map like Risk or Civilization.
The main objective is to collect a set number of victory points before your opponent. You can get these in a few different ways such as assassinating marked NPCs, buying bribes, or overrunning churches with urchins.
Actually, the young street rats are one of the big components for winning. They allow you to occupy different buildings on the city map. Places such as banks and the aforementioned churches give you gold each turn. This lets you purchase specific troops. Trading houses give you lanterns which can use to upgrade your abilities.
Antihero matches become a push and pull of trying to own as much real estate as possible. Not only can you take over businesses but you can also upgrade them to a second level with three urchins for new perks. Once you have a piece of property, it isn’t a guaranteed thing as urchins can be evicted by certain characters. To counter this, you can set up explosive traps in your buildings to surprise would-be intruders. As you can see, things can get layered quite quickly.
Of course a game about thieves should contain some thieving. In order to make money and take over land you need to scout the area with your main character. Lightfinger and Emma act as your stealthy avatar: you use them to scout out the obscured map, steal from residences, attack thugs and guards, and spy on your opponent. Your ‘master thief’ cannot be killed but only starts with two moves at the beginning of the match (you can upgrade with previously mentioned lanterns to five moves). Deciding on the best course of action for your avatar is key to building up your resources, troops, and real estate.
If the above sounds complicated, it is for the first little bit. However, you do adjust to these rules quickly. The campaign is the best way to learn how to play. The first few levels have a tutorial element but the game understands not to hold your hand for too long. By the second mission you have free reign of the various upgrades and characters and you have a strong enough base knowledge to navigate through everything.
That being said, I do wish there had been a bit more information offered or different strategies explored. It took me until halfway through the game to realize that gangs (the main attack troop) could be used to evict urchins right off the bat.
There’s also a mission later on which introduces an incredibly aggressive opponent who was quite the difficulty jump. It felt like everything I had learned up to that point was useless against this literal butcher and there was a lot of frustrating trial and error to move onto the next level.
However the rest of Antihero’s campaign (on normal mode) offered a reasonable challenge. Hard lives up to its namesake and is definitely a good way to hone your tactics. Beyond the main single player mode, there are a few other ways to play.
Skirmish mode allows you to take on the computer again but with some customizable attributes. You can set how much gold you start with, how much certain troops cost, and so forth. It is disappointing however that these changes affect both players as giving myself an extreme advantage or handicap would’ve been fun to play around with.
There are also a number of mission maps to choose from where certain objectives must be met before victory can be claimed. These range from sneaking into a fancy ball with stolen masks or seizing a ship and keeping control over it.
Much like that board game that you keep breaking out at small gatherings, Antihero core gameplay is enough to make you come back for more. There are so many different strategies you can employ during a match and the reactive nature of certain rounds can keep you hooked. That being said, the lack of modes does stand out after five or more matches online so picking it up every once in awhile is a good idea.
Speaking of online, the game offers live matches and ‘casual’ ones. The latter option is the most interesting as it’s reminiscent of playing chess via the mail (both old fashioned and electronic). Basically it can be an ‘offline pvp’ where one person can make a move and then leave it and wait for the other person to finish their turn. You’ll actually get emails once your opponent is done and you can play multiple matches at once. It’s definitely not a quick process and these matches can take days but it’s really interesting to go back to this classic way of playing turn-based games.
For normal online pairings, you can either find friends or get matched up with someone with a similar ranking as you. Searching for an opponent sometimes could take five minutes or more which wasn’t that bad but noticeable. This probably has more to do with the smaller number of players online for Antihero as opposed to AAA multiplayer titles. However, once you get into a match, each person is given a timer so there is a sense of urgency to actually get through a game.
There’s also local multiplayer where you and friend can go head to head. It’s a little cumbersome since the correct way to do it is for one person to sit at the computer, play their turn, and then be replaced by the other one. It’s the only way to do it without seeing what your live opponent is up to.
I did find however that few games went to the bitter end. Due to the nature of the back and forth gameplay, it’s possible to be completely dominated on the map and still the game will continue. A number of times I choked my opponents out of resources before even getting one victory point which lead to a bunch of preemptive resignations.
And I did this a few times as well where things seemed hopeless. It’s a little unfortunate that this happens since those games that have a mad dash to reach the final few points were the most exciting.
While on the topic of waiting through turns, there’s an interesting recap that plays once your opponent is done. You can see what moves they’ve made in areas you’ve uncovered on the map. This can be tactically very helpful as it’s important to pay attention. While these recaps aren’t necessarily slow, it can be a slog to sit through it match after match. I just wish there was quicker way to see what moves have been made against you, especially in longer games.
As for all the window dressing for Antihero, there isn’t as much to say. This isn’t a bad thing however as all the aspects work in tandem to create an enjoyable experience. The cartoony and expressive characters are fun to watch; the giant heads make this even more apparent.
Each one has a few soundbites to give them even more personality: Nothing like hearing a thug say ‘I’m off to the pub’ after completing his guard shift. The urchins and truant officer are entertaining as well along with Lightfinger’s various nemeses.
The music, while limited in tracks, is appropriate with the Victorian setting and never really becomes grating. And aside from all the excellent vocal clips, the rest of the sound effects are equally fitting. Gold coins clang with riches and gang attacks are pleasantly weighted.
The fact that Antihero was developed by one person, Tim Conkling, makes the the game’s achievements even more of a standout. And while the gameplay and strategy is well-balanced, the experience lends itself well to potential DLC. I could easily see extra troops and abilities being added on much like board games like Settlers of Catan expanded their libraries.
There’s already additional content to buy literary avatars for multiplayer (who doesn’t want to play as Scrooge?) so it wouldn’t surprise me if more substantial content appeared down the line.
And I hope that Tim finds a way to increase the number of players to three or four. The chaos that would ensue with bigger maps and multiple people trying to control the board would be highly entertaining… at least in theory.
So now we have an indie title that has captured my attention without having to resort to pop culture references, Metroidvania gameplay, or zany premises. Antihero is one of those rare titles that does a great job presenting a simple premise and hitting it out of the park. The Victorian setting with the expressive characters, excellent voice work, and board game premise go together so nicely.
While the somewhat limited modes outside of the campaign and some small bugs (I had to restart one level a number of times before I could purchase characters at one point) keep this from being a ‘perfect game’, this is still a title I will go back to for a long time. And I’ll keep looking at the Steam page and the official site hoping to see any sign of additional content (that I’ll happily purchase).
I know Antihero isn’t going to suddenly become the most popular game and get Call of Duty numbers, but it definitely deserves your support if you like well made surprisingly deep strategy games that are easy to pick up and even easier to get hooked. Where else can you play a video game over days if not weeks with email notifications letting you know when your opponent has moved? I highly recommend everyone try that experience at least only once.