The Protagonist EX-1 Review: In Space No One Can Hear You Kick

The Protagonist: EX-1 is a gripping new turn-based, tactical RPG. You’re a highly trained soldier on a mission to infiltrate an alien space station that goes horribly wrong—find your team and discover the hidden truth. -- via Steam

After catching the memo that The Protagonist EX-1 unlocked the shackles that is Early Access, I couldn’t help but think that this was a Jade Empire successor, only in space and with some super-duper tech. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Jade Empire, it was a martial arts epic by none other than Bioware ‘back in the day’ on Xbox. Here’s a decent assessment of it on the ‘tube.

Back to reality, something something gravity. You play Angel in this turn-based RPG. Like an 80s action movie, packing a crack crew into a Huey, Angel leads these elites to infiltrate an alien ship sent to invade, tell us what to do, and move our furniture around. Not having any of it, they’re on route, then BLAM! Angel wakes up in an infirmary without any clue where she is and why.

The Protagonist EX-1 Review

Guided by a character known as Pilot via coms, Angel must navigate the ship, recruiting fellow squad members and building a formidable force to overpower their captors. Initially, it’s just her, but within minutes, you’re en-route to a mad Scotsman wielding knives, then an oversized guard dog that whines more than Scooby.

The Protagonist EX-1 Review - Replicating enemies
Replicating enemies. Source: Steam

The Protagonist EX-1, from 3MindGames, wants to you freely wander the ship, but it’s relatively linear, often with a mission objective guideline indicating your path. That said, there are plenty of secrets and destructible parts, opening up the options for levelling up and creating new gear. Wait – what’s that? Gear? Yes, as an RPG, you can craft the equipment for your mission using scrap from battles and scattered about the ship.

Before jumping to the combat, the crafting section is a little daunting at first, with walls of text before doing it. Then you almost have to commit everything from memory via trial and error. A few too many minutes were wasted here on that basis as you have to mix weapon types with blueprints/schematics, then add elemental attacks/defences to it. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty cool, but two things here: armour is the way forward as it’s easy to die, and you also need to make good use of your suit.

The Protagonist EX-1 uses a Gantz-like suit called the Martial Arts Combat System (M.A.C.S.). There are four variations of attack: punches, kicks, elbows and knees with a varying force of light, medium and heavy attacks. Sci-fi UFC. However, there’s no need to learn the moves, as The Protagonist EX-1 is a turn-based game (at least in combat), so you select the levels of attack you wish to use, dipping into the typical action point system. Once the action points are up, you end your turn.

M.A.C.S. Attack

Every turn-based title has some unique feature or at least should have, and other than the martial arts, it’s the ability to hack and lower the defences of the enemies. At they are mostly synthetic, a lot of the units are vulnerable to viruses, so besides knocking seven bells out of them, you can weaken them first – perhaps even take control and use them against other enemies. Adding to M.A.C.S., it’s possible to set up a chain of attacks, thus creating a combo, pending all the pieces ‘match’. It is a little annoying to set up a combo, only for it to miss!

The Protagonist EX-1 Review - Team meet
Team meet. Source: Steam

And that’s the first hiccup with the game – the early hit and miss element. In the very early stages, I found that my team’s hits would frequently miss, then with the enemies turn, two – maybe three attacks, and they would kill a teammate, and once Angel is dead, you’ve had it. On the positive side, a player will come back to life if you win the battle.

The exploration element is good, with a fair share of door-type puzzles to progress, but it is easy to cock-up on the camera positioning. You can switch the angles to several perspectives from an isometric view, but it’s all manual. If you don’t actively move the camera, should you inadvertently enter a combat sequence and not position it before your turn is up, you’ll often miss the action. It’s not the end of the world, but it could have been a bit more dynamic.

There’s an emphasis on the voice talent in the game, notably two Hollywood stars, but for me, Angel was great. She often carried the scene, though not everything is voice acted, occasionally switching to text only – which is fine. As for the presentation, I liked the fundamental gameplay in The Protagonist EX-1, but the cutscenes were quite ugly and spoiled the cinematic element. It doesn’t affect gameplay, but the textures and facial movements were a bit iffy.

However, if you’re willing to put in the time to learning the crafting system and upgrading the respective moves (especially for the suit), then the gameplay and storyline can be rewarding in The Protagonist EX-1. There is an influence from sci-films here, and in the positive sense, so any fans of turn-based gameplay with a hint of Jade Empire, well, check it out.

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