Often hiding in the “tactical wargame” subgenre of strategy are games that are less likely to make you feel like a battlefield commander and more likely to make you feel like you’re solving a puzzle cube. Whereas XCOM is the former, handing you a menu of tools and asking you to figure out how to win the scenario, games like Unity of Command are more the latter, giving you narrower options and more specific objectives and rigid paths to them. Some games do a great job of combining a little of both to create something that feels fresh – Into the Breach comes to mind. Mobius Front ‘83 does its best to do the same but with far more mixed results.
Set during the Cold War, you play as the 3rd Platoon of the 194th Armored Brigade, who thought they were just participating in a routine training exercise before being ambushed by enemy forces. The twist: the enemy is made up of other US troops. After seeing the 10-15 hour campaign through, the sci-fi galaxy brain machinations that cause two different Cold War Americas to kill each other is an interesting set dressing for a story that I wish had more meat. It feels a bit like a Full Metal Jacket sort of war film, that takes broken people in a disastrous situation and says “wow, isn’t that messed up?” But this has parallel universes, and feels purposely incomplete in an effective way.
Deciphering the many nuances of the game can drive you mad. For a game that periodically stops progress to tutorialize an upcoming concept, there’s still so much that it leaves for you to find out on your own. I didn’t know that Patton tanks, expensive units that often can become the backbone of your firepower, can have their movement disabled when taking too much damage until the middle of a mission. Some things that they do tell you but aren’t clear. When I read that mortars “sometimes hit another hex,” I assumed that it meant that my artillery might occasionally splash into adjacent spaces, not that your shots might randomly target hexes that you didn’t intend to hit.
The sporadic clashes with your fellow Americans happen on hexed maps, both sides sliding tanks, helicopters, infantry, and more towards objectives turn by turn. The fog of war is aggressive, and finding line of sight of enemies early can often make the difference between having a fighting chance or losing a vital part of your squad in a single turn. It took me at least two tries on each stage before I felt like I understood enough about what the enemy was capable of that I had a counter-attack in mind. It doesn’t help that your available unit’s change from stage to stage, so if you find yourself getting comfortable with one sort of unit, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be there again for you next time. These new options also seem to show up a few and far between, which doubles the disappointment when you go several missions before seeing them again.
Eventually, you learn the balance of it. Many things are potentially lethal in the right application. Big tanks can reliably one-shot any other vehicle but are just as effective against troops as anything else. Troops armed with rockets can be a cheap countermeasure to these big bad units if they can get close enough. The cover is vital, and staying in one place is a sure way to die. If taking hours to get it all in your head sounds like too tall a task, there’s a casual mode that will help you get to the good stuff far faster. I’ve enjoyed some of the challenges I’ve encountered, but I’d be lying if I haven’t been considering turning the difficulty down just so I can see where the story is going in a timely manner.
That said, all of my builds narrow into some version of the same thing. Regardless of what’s available to me, I find myself defaulting to spending points on just the biggest, baddest tank I have, and swarms of troop carriers. The troops serve as a slow wall, to threaten the enemy into action, while the tanks provide the fire power when the enemy finally exposes themselves. Many of the light jeep-type options were so specialized that they could never find consistent use. Many of the special armor that wasn’t an Abrams tank just wasn’t flexible enough. On top of some desperately absent quality of life issues, like displaying enemy threat ranges or undoing moves, and Mobius can really get tedious.
The enemy AI in Mobius can be incredibly tenacious and always knows the best ways to use its sometimes overwhelming offense and avoid yours. They are devastatingly good at knowing exactly who to hit and when to make your plan collapse quickly. Springing traps on wayward armor can be a chore because the enemy would rather choose to sit and do nothing instead of exposing themselves to possible attacks. This can easily become several turns of you and the computer just staring at each other, waiting for someone to sacrifice their first piece and let the dominoes fall. I wish that scenario felt as tense as a good Chess match, but instead, it’s more often boring and frustrating. That said, in those moments when you do catch the enemy slipping, you feel like a genius.
There are enough of those “aha!” moments in the beginning, in tandem with the slow-burning intrigue of the story and odd little ancillary collectibles to unlock (like genuine US military field handbooks from 1982), to keep people with an open mind soldering on for the long run in Mobius Front ‘83. The last chapter reveals itself as less “climatic challenge” and more “ultimate chore.” Though the story does crescendo into something satisfying, if not a bit plodding, the fun factor of the tactical gameplay comes to a halt. An infuriating late game escort mission almost broke me completely, and the RNG of the damage output seemed gloriously bad for me.
Mobius Front 83 won’t replace Into the Breach as the puzzle tactics dream hybrid, but it is still a special, if not messy alternative.