The developer of Homicidal All-Stars, Artificer, claims a notable pedigree when it comes to turn-based tactics games, being made up of team members who worked on Hard West and Phantom Doctrine.

Those indie titles took some of the basic mechanics of the tactics genre (cast in the mold of the ascendant XCOM) and transplanted them to new and interesting settings — a supernatural Western and a conspiracy-laden Cold War, respectively.

With Homicidal All-Stars, the developer has once again crafted a colorful world inspired by genre conventions. This time it’s a Running Man-esque cyberpunk dystopia featuring a deadly reality show where challengers fight their way through abandoned neighborhoods remodeled for slaughter and populated by murderous maniacs

In the eight hours I spent partaking in the joyful carnage offered by the preview build, I found that Homicidal All-Stars is more than just boisterous presentation applied to the same-old same-old. The game is a lean and decidedly mean experience, eschewing complicated management or base-building mechanics to focus on turn-based bloodshed.

Players take on the role of Scarlett. Unlike other challengers chasing fame and fortune, she has her own deeply personal reasons for wanting to battle to the top. She’s assisted by a team of characters who join as the story progresses, each with their own histories and specialties. There are no complex recruitment or advancement systems here, just level up to progress a skill tree and buy or find weapons and equipment to take into battle.

Besides spending cash and experience, the player will also be tracking Scarlett’s fame level to reach certain milestones and unlock “sponsorship” buffs — some only available depending on attribute points (funny, cool, etc.) accrued through dialogue choices.

Rather than abstract maps or symbols, the connective tissue between combat setpieces are light platforming levels. Players control Scarlett — and sometimes her partner — for isometric explorations of repurposed urban decay lit by gaudy product placement while viewers cheer on from the sidelines.

These exploration segments give players the chance to choose whether they’ll only do the mandatory battles or also take on additional optional challenges. Whatever the case, they’ll need to navigate Scarlett through traps and puzzles to advance, something I initially found annoying. However, these brain teasers ultimately won me over with their quaint cleverness, like something out of an early Resident Evil game.

These segments are short-lived, though. The primary gameplay of Homicidal All-Stars is the familiar grid-based cover and shoot rodeo, stuffed with percent chances-to-hit, overwatch assurances and over-the-shoulder kill shots. Players spend their units’ action points to move and destroy the enemy with gore and ragdoll physics, emphasizing the grunge brutality of the package.

In contrast to something like XCOM there is no ‘sneak’ phase where players move into an optimal position before a fight breaks out. No, it’s straight to the fight with a fully-revealed arena (sometimes expanded after clearing one section, but never any fog of war).

Aggression is rewarded and, at times, necessary. For example, some scenarios will require hitting a button at the opposite end of the map within a certain time frame. Optional time-based challenges will be lucrative in rewards and worth the effort, and sometimes the parameters of a mission will change midway through purely for the audience’s entertainment, requiring a quick switch in priorities.

Luckily, the maps are intimate affairs, usually only requiring two turns of unit movement to fully traverse, but these grimy environments can also be quite diverse. Units could be in an abandoned hospital, clearing room after room, or firing across a decrepit subway line hoping to avoid the tracks when a train comes barreling through. A variety of enemy types will also require the right approach. Fumes, for instance, emit a gaseous cover that obscures them from gunfire — a good thwack will fix that, meaning players will need to get up close and personal. Alternatively, players will want to keep their distance from the Ogre, a hulking bullet sponge with a shotgun that turns units to mincemeat.

Melee attacks are generally very much encouraged, though. For instance, an early upgrade for Scarlett will give her an additional action point immediately following a melee kill. With some setup, I had her chain three poor punching bags in a row — snap, crackle, pop. These constantly-shifting skirmishes never felt unfair, but simply motivated more bombastic plays.

Homicidal All-Stars is shaping up to be a solid entry in the turn-based tactics genre, offering an aggression-rewarding combat system that will press a player’s strategic thinking while still appealing to their more base, bloodthirsty instincts. It’s one I’ll certainly be looking to return to on full release.

Homicidal All-Stars currently has no announced release date.

— Stephen Cook

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