If you can overlook the not-so-good looking cutscenes, the voice acting, combat and puzzles elevate it enough for me to recommend The Protagonist: EX-1 to turn-based strategy fans.
The Protagonist: EX-1 is a sci-fi turn-based strategy game with RPG elements, developed by 3Mind Games. It released on Steam early access on March 2, 2021 and plans to be in EA for a few months, depending on player feedback. After playing the first few hours, it is a fun game to play but does need a little more development time to become a great game. Combat is missing some of the more traditional turn-based combat tactics like cover and overwatch, but in their place is the Martial Arts Combat System, or M.A.C.S which is quite unique. There are also some noteworthy voice actors involved, so The Protagonist: EX-1 is one I recommend adding to the wishlist.
You play as Angel, a highly trained special agent assigned to 5th Division, and have been tasked with infiltrating an alien space station called Ana-Mon. The mission goes awry, and Angel awakens in the infirmary of the station’s lab. With no memory of what happened, a voice in your comms, codenamed Pilot, informs you that Radical’s signature, a member of your unit, is 500m away and he will guide you to him via the floor lights.
Straight away the voice acting in the cutscenes is solid, however the character animations are on the lower grade style, as is the ship’s corridor environment. Once you take over control of Angel and the game zooms to an isometric view, the graphics seems much crisper. There are two gameplay phases in The Protagonist: Ex-1 – exploration and combat.
In exploration, you are free to move around the station corridors by holding down the left mouse button. You can use Q and E to turn the camera around which was a bit clunky, and I still turn it the wrong way even after several hours in the game. The music gives you a sense of urgency as well as inquisitiveness as you start searching the corridors for Radical and other members of your crew. You’ll come across various types of environmental puzzles such as moving blocks to activate a switch or using unstable blocks to blow holes in walls. You can also collect scrap and crafting blueprints hidden in place.
Once you spot the first alien enemy unit, the game switches to the combat phase and becomes a turn-based combat game. Like in most turn-based games, you have a limited amount of moves to complete before your turn ends. Initially, Angel has 5 action points. You move on a grid-based format, but can only attack straight down a line, not on a diagonal, which I learned the hard way a few times. Once you’ve moved, you will have some combat points left. Angel has special skills; sabotage and slicing, that can be used on the enemy, as well as melee or ranged combat.
As you start with no weapon, your only form of defence is your martial arts training. This is where the M.A.C.S. comes into play which enhances melee combat from just having a single melee skill, to chaining multiple kicks, punches, elbows and kicks together, and uses separate MACS action points. Each of these skills has light, medium and heavy attack variants. Medium moves have a moderate chance to hit while heavy attacks have a lower chance to hit, but will do more damage. You can create combinations of melee attacks, for example a punch followed by a kick, and these can be upgraded to be more powerful as you level up your characters. This is where The Protagonist: EX-1 features some great RPG systems.
You can craft basic items to start with like a knife or a pistol, and add element bonuses to them. As you level up, you’ll earn stat and skill points to distribute as you see fit to enhance your combat abilities, survability or to bolster your science and crafting skills. Some characters from your unit will have special skills such as crafting upgrades or being more proficient in crafting weapons/armour. This allows you to customise your squad the best way you feel they should be kitted out which is great and adds more depth to the turn-based strategy genre.
After finding more members of your team, you’ll come across puzzles that require your team to be split into two squads. You can then control the two squads separately so that one squad can activate a switch, move into a new area and activate additional switches, which then opens the way for your primary squad to move through. It definitely made traversing the areas of the Ana-Mon more exciting. You’ll be given conversation options where you can choose to rush to the end of the area or to search a side area for more survivors. This will net you with more experience and items but at the risk of death in combat.
The game autosaves semi-regularly, but I found I wasn’t quite enough for my liking, so I manually saved often. There was a time where I was searching some prison cells and you had to activate a floor plate to open the cell doors. I ran Angel to the switch and had Radical and the dog following. I ran into the prison cell as the dog ran over the floor plate, but then it teleported all of us into the cell, closing the cell door behind us. There was no way to get out, so I reloaded the game, however the last autosave was 20 minutes prior. So, save often!
This early access version of The Protagonist: EX-1 contains four levels to explore, 7 playable characters, over 10 types of enemies, 19+ weapon types, and much more. What was really cool to discover was the voice acting talents of the legendary Tony Todd (Platoon, Star Trek:TNG/DSN) and Temuera Morrison (Once Were Warriors and Jango/Boba Fett in Star Wars/The Mandalorian). If you can overlook the not-so-good looking cutscenes, the voice acting, combat and puzzles elevate it enough for me to recommend this game to turn-based strategy fans. I am excited for future updates and the full release coming soon.
This review utilised a key provided by Evolve PR and The Protagonist: EX-1 is available now in early access on Steam.