More than a little rough around the edges, though with some excellent ideas, The Protagonist: Ex-1 has the potential to grow into a special game indeed, but it is not quite there yet.
From developer 3Mind Games and publisher All in! Games, The Protagonist: Ex-1 is an early access title for Steam that puts its own spin on the turn-based, tactical RPG genre. For me, The Protagonist is taking a lot of big swings and trying out some novel ideas, but ultimately is held back by some of the more grating technical aspects.
The year is 2113E on the planet Terra, where totalitarian militaristic control rules outright. “The Council” keeps peace amongst the globe through hidden rule, as each member’s identity remains concealed so that all people will treat each other properly with the assumption that any could be a Council member. With their shaping, Terra has been able to thrive for quite some time under this one unitary authority. No crime, no food shortages, no housing problems—Terra is a veritable utopia. A spanner is thrown into the works, however, when a synthetic alien race appears for invasion.
Now, after a disastrous point of first contact, Terra finds itself in conflict with what they have dubbed the “KL-T”. The Council have invoked one simple executory order to their people: Ex-1 – exterminate the KL-T at all costs.
The elite military unit known as 5th Division are tasked with this most vital of orders. We join with Angel, a member of said unit heading out on an Ex-1 mission. As the game starts, however, this mission has not come to pass as, instead, Angel finds herself awaking in an unknown KL-T facility, with little memory of what has happened to her, how she got here, or even who many of her unit are.
Your task is to guide Angel through this alien environment, re-finding her unit and memories along the way while ultimately finding a way to either escape or complete the Ex-1 order from inside.
The story setup is good, and in the few levels currently available the The Protagonist does show itself to have a good hook for a few questions and mysteries to come. While the setup is dead set against the KL-T at all costs, progression through the story does begin to uncover that perhaps things might not all be quite as they seem. What the KL-T are up to is mysterious but does point to potentially being an aid to Terra rather than a direct attack overall.
Of course, for you as “the protagonist” whether you choose to go against your programming and hear the alien race out or attack unquestionably is up to you. The Protagonist allows for some decision making and moral quandaries along your journey. Will you choose to abandon a locked cell of kidnapped inmates, or does everyone deserve a chance to prove themselves? Will you take time out your mission to help those that might need it, or is the EX-1 order all that matters? How you play will inform who joins your playing squad, and how the characters might begin to interact and feel about each other. It’s hard to say quite how far the story choices and dialogue options actually impact the game in any diverging way at this point, however.
The Protagonist’s style of gameplay can best be described as an XCOM-lite with the exploratory RPG touches of a Mutant Year Zero. During “exploring” phases you move in a top-down isometric manner, guiding your squad through hallway upon hallway by clicking or pointing your mouse. This control itself is a little janky at times and can be frustrating to say the least. I can’t help but think that a WASD option could be far more precise and elegant. Often when holding down the mouse to keep your squad moving in a direction you might hover over an adjoining room by accident. This has the unfortunate result of then making your team spin around for a while, since technically their order is to now go to that room, and so they work to try and find a route there. With the top-down camera and poor angles this happens far more than it probably should.
While exploring you’re going to be spending most of your time hacking into control consoles to open up doors or pathways. For every console there is a 1-2 second hacking animation that starts to grate after a while. It seems a touch unnecessary for this process to play every single time, since there are a quite simply a lot of these damn consoles. It slows things down immensely and grows a little tiresome eventually.
Aside from these technical grievances the exploring phases can be quite fun. Where it not for these issues the puzzles of this labyrinth of alien hallways would be vastly more interesting. There are plenty of little thinker puzzles designed around opening up correct doorways or moving platforms in order to move your team through to the next area. There are often a lot of little offshoot areas to explore for more loot or even world lore or side missions too. The Protagonist is always rewarding you for straying from the main path and taking a bit of time to find your way into a sealed off room.
Rooms get more elaborate with progression too, the only unfortunate thing is that near enough every room in this immaculate alien factory has the same sterile look, making for a pretty bland environment overall. Perhaps with development of more of the game however this could change, as even into the deeper levels of the early access version there are some signs of slightly varying level environments.
The other phase interspersed throughout exploration is the combat zones. When entering into a room with enemies you will immediately be put into combat, wherein gameplay now takes on a turn-based, tactical combat look. In typical XCOM fashion every character has action points that allow them to move and take attack or defensive actions with every turn. Where The Protagonist: Ex-1 does diverge however is that turn order is not a binary “your turn, enemy turn” system. Turn order works like Dungeons and Dragons instead. Every character has an initiative level that determines where they go in the combat order. During your turn too you can choose to delay to a later point in the turn order if there are no viable options currently. This has the intention of allowing for more strategic tactical thinking, but more often than not you’re just going to use it because your character can’t reach an enemy and therefore you have to hope they might come a bit closer.
This is the annoying part of the combat for me. The movement of your characters is often very limited—I’m talking barely a few tiles at a time for some. This can be upgraded with levelling of course but even still it is a tad annoying when an enemy is all the way on the other side of the room and you need to spend 3-5 turns merely getting toward them. With this fights can sometimes feel quite slow. You might spend more time just chasing an enemy around a room than actually fighting them. It also seems to be a tactic of some enemies to actively move further away from you all the time, making for a pretty aggravating cat-and mouse stalemate.
It’s a shame that this is the case because when the combat does get going properly The Protagonist has some pretty neat ideas to showcase. The Protagonist has a unique melee combat system that it needs to lean into far more. Aside from your regular gun attacks and throwables, if you get close enough you can invoke M.A.C.S to then go into a slowed down melee system not too dissimilar to Fallout’s VATS. With M.A.C.S you can choose how to impose devastating blows upon your enemy, as you pick your sequence of various hand to hand attacks and how they will chain together. Choosing from 4 attack types (eg. punch, kick, elbow, knee) you line up your order of attacks, deciding too whether to make each one fast, heavy, or moderate. Linking particular attacks in sequence will make for better results, so it becomes all about working out the best combinations. It’s like knowing your combos for a fighting game, only now you pick them all out ahead of time.
This is probably the best and most novel part of The Protagonist, it’s only a shame that there is a bit of grating “shoe leather” to get there.
On The Right Track, Just Looking For More Polish
3Mind Games are very up front about The Protagonist: Ex-1 being a work in progress, and one which they are still very much looking for feedback on. What I can say is that they seem to be on a good track to something here, it just needs a little more refinement. So far with 5 levels available the story shows good direction and there is enough to the gameplay to make this a solid title. Unfortunately, there are just quite a few rough technical aspects still needing a bit of sanding down.
Some quality-of-life changes wouldn’t go amiss. The menu and levelling system as-is remains a tad messy, making the assignment of your squad equipment and levelling a laborious task at times. Control needs a bit of work, and the time to complete certain tasks (I truly cannot stress just how many control consoles you’ll have to wait for) is incredibly aggravating after a while. An upping of character movement in combat would not be unwelcomed either. There are technical bugs to contend with at the moment too, but that is to be expected for such an early development.
I can ultimately pull for The Protagonist on the bright glimpses that it does show currently. The aggravation of Ex-1 is that it does seem a like an excellent game just currently cocooned under a rough exterior. Once it grows more however it very well could shed that ugly shelling and flutter as something quite exceptional.
Final Score: 6/10