I often find myself feeling jealous of critics and pop-culture commentators born in the 1980s. They can wax lyrical about Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe when those respective properties get re-hashed, re-mixed and re-booted, but said toys and shows were sadly before my time, and thus hold very little nostalgic value for me. I am a Power Rangers guy. I had the toys, I watched the shows, and I even played the few good videogame spin-offs. But our beloved “Mighty Morphin'” heroes have been somewhat neglected by videogames for a while, at least until Chroma Squad.
Based (a little too closely) on Saban’s colourful franchise, Chroma Squad puts you at the helm of a Super Sentai-esque TV series. After becoming frustrated with the director of their “Super Rangers” show, your team of customizable masked warriors takes to the world of indie TV production, in an attempt to best their former employer at his own game.
Rather like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Banner Saga, Chroma Squad is a game of two halves, split as it is into tactical combat and resource management sections. Combat encounters take place within each filmed episode, and usually require a reasonable amount of tactical positioning and clever use of special moves, in order to best a series of generic henchmen and wacky boss fights. I use wacky, not as a pejorative, but as a means of relaying just how brazenly and unashamedly “90s” Chroma Squad is. Dialogue is purposefully offbeat and awkward; characters shout hammy catchphrases as they charge into battle with anthropomorphic baddies and their barrel/traffic cone/antenna-wearing leaders.
Part of the fun of Chroma Squad is never quite knowing what is real (i.e. whether or not evil traffic-themed villain “Transit-mancer” is actually trying to cause roadside accidents), and what is simply a facet of the “Chroma Squad” TV show. Your squad will regularly get “too lost” in an episode’s narrative, as the fight between goofy aliens and human-turtle hybrids bleeds into the real world corporate battle between “Chroma Squad” and “Super Rangers.” All of this works in tandem with the constant fourth wall breaking and sly referencing, and rather effectively builds up an engaging, albeit very silly, meta-narrative. When you consider that an entire portion of the game has you literally battling “Lawyer Demons”, as your former employer attempts to sue you for copyright infringement (that’s what actually happened to Chroma Squad during its development), you’ll better understand what sort of game Chroma Squad is.
It’s a game that manages to combine cynicism with sincerity, and actually comes out better for it. There are constant jabs at sentai TV’s generic tropes, but all of it is done with the utmost respect for the genre. Your studio receives various faux-emails from frustrated Kickstarter backers, oddball fans, as well as the odd business proposition – Chroma Squad very nearly overplays its “quirky reference” card, it usually manages to reel things in with its surprisingly intriguing story.
Though hardly a serious critique of the television industry, Chroma Squad throws out some big ideas, particularly as budgets increase, and egos begin to sky-rocket. Although each member of the Squad is customizable (actors with various stats can be chosen, and their coloured costumes can be changed at the beginning of the game), they are all imbued with rather strong characters traits. Your “Lead” character, in particular, attracts an awful lot of ire from the rest of the group, when he/she lets fame, fortune and attention go to his/her head. It’s a bubbly and light-hearted romp, but there are some genuinely unexpected moments of character tension thrown in there, as though the cast of Community suddenly decided to become Power Rangers.
Battles start off very easy, and while encounters never boast the tactical depth of the aforementioned XCOM, learning to master each character class and their particular quirks is enjoyable if a little too familiar. The “Lead” imbues characters with confidence, and can re-assemble his/her team at will, “Assist” characters can heal, “Techies” are skilled with ranged weapons, “Assaults” are major damage dealers, and “Scouts” can travel greater distances than their counterparts. Again, it’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before, but it ensures that there’s more to separate each squaddie than their respective coloured helmets.
Chroma Squad‘s real challenge comes through finding a balance between efficient violence and flashy stunts – do you make sure each squaddie gets out alive, or do you potentially sacrifice their well-being for higher ratings, by pulling off acrobatic finishers and/or completing bonus objectives mid-fight? It’s a system that doesn’t always work – it can be all too easy to win most fights and finish any extra objectives – but it adds another level of flavour to fights that might otherwise grow stale.
Some battles end with the obligatory Mech vs Monster showdown, an exciting explosive spectacle, but one that feels similarly stripped down and minimalistic. These are fun excursions, nothing more; a chance to see a giant robot hit a giant fish-lady, without ever really feeling as though it’s a battle you might lose.
As a role-playing/resource management game, Chroma Squad feels a little lightweight. You can buy, craft and recycle items and materials, including weapons, armour and Mech parts, and there are day-to-day management tasks to fulfil, such as deciding which marketing company should represent you, or upgrading your studio’s facilities. The lightness of these systems isn’t a problem, since it allows you to breeze through most decisions in a simple, satisfying manner. The problem is, everything feels slightly imbalanced. There are very few opportunities to even make “wrong” decisions, so it generally feels like everything’s coming up Milhouse for the majority of Chroma Squad’s campaign. An overwhelming sense of progression does fit with the game’s overall tone, and it certainly allows for more squirrel punching time, but there weren’t enough spanners thrown into my studio’s works to create a true feeling of underdog-ness.
Though it has a tendency to feel light at times, Chroma Squad is a truly joyous experience, a sincere and heartfelt throwback to 90s sentai weirdness. Its bright and flashy pixel graphics shine in tandem with outrageously catchy synth-funk tunes, as five colourful heroes punch, kick and quip their way through irresistibly silly fistfights.