Element Space is a sci-fi tactical RPG that released on Steam in February 2019. Being a fan of tactical, XCOM-like combat, I always kept the game on my gigantic list of titles I’d like to check out one of these days.
Now that the game recently released on consoles, I had my chance to give it a try. This is a decision I have come to deeply regret, because Element Space is one of the worst games I’ve played in a very long time.
Developer: Sixth Vowel
Publisher: Inca Games, Blowfish Studios (Console version)
Platforms: Windows PC, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: February 14th, 2019 (PC), March 24th, 2020 (Consoles)
Element Space is set in 2199, three years after a devastating intergalactic war. The Three Systems have entered negotiations, and are looking to establish a new Galactic Congress. The Inspiration, one of the largest and most powerful starships in the galaxy, is being decommissioned and renovated as the seat of this Galactic Congress.
You play as Captain Christopher Pietham, a veteran of the war that is stationed onboard the Inspiration when disaster strikes. A mysterious terrorist group known only as “Tempest” sabotages the Inspiration, and after a brief engagement, Christopher and his squad are framed for the attack.
When it seems like its the end of the line for Christopher, an AI intervenes and helps the remainder of his team escape on an advanced starship. Now, Christopher must travel around the galaxy, making allies and tracking down Tempest so he can learn their intentions, and clear his name.
While Element Space is only around 12 hours long, the game’s structure encourages multiple playthroughs. You are given a choice of several potential missions at a time, leading to branching paths based on your decisions.
The story branches further based on the way you approach the game’s various factions, as well as your choices during conversations. When you are given a choice during a conversation, the options typically conform to four different ideological stances: Humanism, Independence, Autocracy, and Bureaucracy.
It’s actually a fairly interesting take on the whole moral choices concept, since they don’t boil down to your standard “good, evil, and neutral” like most RPGs.
Since this is an RPG, you’ll recruit new characters throughout your journey. You’ll occasionally get to chat with them between missions, but companion interaction is generally a bit de-emphasized overall.
If I had to describe the story and characters in a single word, I’d go with “serviceable.” There are some mildly interesting elements here and there, but none of it really stands out. Likewise, the voice acting is equally inoffensive. None of it is what I’d describe as “good,” nor is it so bad that it stands out as particularly memorable.
You’ll also get to upgrade your characters between missions, and the progression system is just as bland. You get skill points after missions that you can spend to upgrade each character’s skills.
Characters have four skill “trees” that correspond to their different special attacks, as well as some more generic upgrades. I say “tree,” because each one is basically just a linear path that makes a skill better in some way.
Item progression is just as poor. There are no vendors or loot in the game. Instead, you’ll just get a new type of weapon as a reward for completing missions.
Characters have two weapon slots and a single consumable slot. That’s it. There are no really interesting rare items or weapon customization. You just get a new weapon type after each mission.
Before we continue, I have a confession to make. I only played Element Space for around five hours, meaning I didn’t actually beat it. This is because, while the story and between mission hub is functional, the game completely falls apart when you try to play a mission. Simply put, Element Space is shockingly bad once you actually get your squad’s boots on the ground.
Let’s start with the actual mission structure itself. As I mentioned earlier, you are generally given a choice of several missions at any given time, and can only take one of them.
You are given absolutely no intel about the mission besides a brief paragraph and a sentence discussing the general tactics of the faction you’ll be facing.
In other words, you are going in completely blind each time. Not only that, but you are given a limited number of retries and checkpoint reloads. If that wasn’t enough, each character can only bring one consumable, and health doesn’t regenerate between engagements during the mission.
Did I mention that the checkpoints are broken and you can’t skip cutscenes as well? It’s pretty much a game of Russian roulette to determine where the mission will reload if you die, or want to restart from the last checkpoint.
Will you reload from the actual last checkpoint? Or will the game catapult you back to the start of the mission? Load a bullet, spin the cylinder, and see for yourself.
The missions themselves are basically a linear path, broken up by combat engagements and cutscenes. When you aren’t in one of them, you’ll use a big fat mouse cursor to move your party of three characters around.
You are occasionally given a branching path or a chance to chat with NPCs, but these segments are so infrequent that it makes you wonder why you are given the chance to “explore” between cutscenes and battles in the first place.
You won’t find any hidden paths or chests containing cool loot. In most missions its just a straight, linear corridor to the next fight.
Combat, which is supposed to be the highlight of the game, is where things get really bad. Its here where Element Space goes from “bland, but functional” to “oh dear god what is this mess.”
Element Space‘s combat follows your general Firaxis XCOM structure. Battlefields are littered with chest-high walls, and terrain that you can use to disrupt line-of-sight or take cover behind. Each character has two action points that are used for different things.
One point is for moving, while the other is for shooting, reloading, using a skill, or setting up overwatch. Consumables are a free action, and some skills, like Christopher’s grappling hook, can be used instead of moving. Likewise, you can consume them both to double your movement.
So far, so standard. I’ll admit that there are some rather interesting skills and mechanics, like enemies with impenetrable frontal shields, or Christopher’s aforementioned grappling hook that can be used to pull himself to cover, or pull enemies and allies towards him.
You can also damage and destroy cover by shooting at it, which is a neat idea, and means that you can’t just camp a sniper in the same place forever. The problem is that Element Space is so busted, broken, and buggy that the combat is an exercise in frustration.
First is the line-of-sight system, the core foundation of any XCOM-like tactics game. To say that LOS is inconsistent and makes no sense is an understatement.
The game will very frequently tell you that there is no LOS to the target, even though there clearly is. Look at the screenshot below. The game is telling me my character can’t see that turret when the only thing in the way is a couch. Even then, the couch isn’t really even blocking anything.
Other times, a character behind full cover just decides that they can’t lean out of it to shoot or use a skill. The inverse is also true.
There have been times where I was shot through walls. There have been times where my character’s overwatch triggered when an enemy was walking behind a shed. None of it makes any sense.
The only thing consistent about Element Space‘s mechanics are the crashes. I experienced at least one crash every hour. Crashes in Element Space are as reliable as Old Faithful. If I played more of the game, I could probably create an accurate timer to determine the next time I’ll experience a crash.
The game’s performance is also completely abysmal. Despite having graphics that are quite muddy and dated, the game’s framerate chugs like a frat boy on Spring Break in Miami. I don’t think the game ever consistently stays at 20 FPS, yet alone 30.
Moving the camera around the battlefield brings the game’s framerate to its knees. You can’t do anything without getting a big dip in framerate. These gigantic framerate drops often coincide with crashes as well.
Speaking of cameras, you’ll be fighting the one in Element Space just as often as the space terrorists you are tasked with shooting.
Terrain is constantly getting in the way, and the camera will randomly decide to shoot across the map when you are barely adjusting it. Of particular note is the “firing camera” whenever a character takes a shot.
About half the time you’ll find the camera lodged inside a wall so you can’t see the shot. When the game leaves the attack camera it’ll often reset to some bizarre part of the map instead of where it was before.
If all of this wasn’t enough, Element Space is also riddled with game-breaking bugs. By “game-breaking bugs” I mean such minor things as enemies entering the over-the-shoulder attack camera, sitting there for about 15 seconds, and then just not taking the shot. Yes, the game is literally so broken that enemies just can’t even shoot you sometimes.
Characters will also get stuck on terrain, and sometimes they just refuse to take cover. You’ll move a character against a chest-high wall and they’ll just stand there looking around like an idiot, wondering why they are getting shot. The character Alice is often the target of the game’s bizarre glitches.
Alice is basically a space wizard that uses her space magic ninjutsu to fly towards enemies, causing explosions or sending them flying into walls with a punch. On three occasions I’ve had Alice land after her skill finishes, then suddenly just power slide along the ground to a random location 75 feet away, clipping through walls, enemies, trees, barrels, and everything else along the way.
Element Space‘s battles love to use scripted events that spawn new enemies, and like most things in the game, they often glitch out. One mission that infuriated me involved protecting a guy trying to repair a nuclear reactor while waves of enemies kept spawning.
Usually you’ll defeat a group, then your characters will move to a new position in a cutscene as the next wave spawns. Except one time, two of my characters didn’t reposition during the cutscene. So I had to waste a turn running them forward, while the enemies took free shots at the guy I needed to protect.
In another instance the next wave just never spawned, forcing me to use one of my limited retries just to restore the game to a functional point in the mission.
Other things that don’t seem to work as intended are the overwatch and melee lock systems. I suspect with overwatch its the game’s inconsistencies with how LOS works, but I’ve had numerous times where overwatch, be it friendly or enemy, just never triggered. I eventually just opted to stop using overwatch because its a coin toss if your character will actually open fire or not.
Meanwhile, the melee system involves combatants being “locked” into combat. While locked, they can only use melee attacks, and both combatants effectively gain the same benefits as cover.
I’m generally very forgiving when it comes to budget games, especially indie titles. Some might even say too forgiving. I’ve covered all sorts of obscure indie games, some of which are of extremely questionable quality. Element Space is made by a small Brazilian team, and even after all I’ve typed, there is still a part of me that feels bad ripping the game apart.
What I’m getting at is that it takes a lot for me to use the word “unplayable” in a review, and the PS4 version of Element Space reaches that point.
I have no idea if the PC version of Element Space is any better, but on PS4 it is a complete mess of a game. You can barely get through a single round of combat without something disastrous happening, be it a character not taking cover, or the game deciding that a seat blocks line-of-sight to an 8 foot tall minigun turret.
Crashes and bugs are a constant issue that you’ll have to contend with, and there is no reason why a game with these visuals should bring a PS4 collapsing to its knees.
If Element Space worked as intended, it would be a fairly bland but otherwise playable tactical RPG. You know, one of those games that you might pick up because its 75% off on Steam. A game that you wouldn’t quite call “good,” but it isn’t so bad that you’d go through the trouble of asking Father Gaben for a refund.
Unfortunately, “doesn’t work as intended” is the definition of “normal” for Element Space.
Element Space was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Blowfish Studios. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.