Spin-off games are usually the ones that have the craziest concepts for their original franchise. There is something about not having to officially tie in an established franchise to a singular game that helps to bring out a massive amount of creativity in those who are developing the title. We brings ourselves neatly then into XCOM: Chimera Squad (or as I like to call it, XCOPS) which seeks to make some interesting changes to the traditional strategy game franchise and bring a smaller and more personal story than previous entries. How does this bold and unexpected new entry hold up compared to it’s predecessors? Time to find out!
The story of Chimera Squad takes place several years after the end of the events of XCOM 2. With the Elders no longer being in control of the minds of the many alien species that made up their intergalactic empire an uneasy truce has been called between the denizens of earth and the aliens that originally conquered it. Many species have integrated into normal every day life and are slowly being accepted as new creatures to share the planet with. You take control of the titular Chimera Squad, a law enforcement squad that consists of both human and alien recruits. You have been sent to City 31, the biggest and best example of Human/Alien cohabitation within an urban environment and it’s up to you to help keep the unrest within the city under control so as to show the entire world that old enemies can in fact live peacefully together. The concept is very interesting and shows a fascinating look into a world that consists of both human and alien culture such as corporations offering newly developed meats that can be consumed by most creature’s digestive systems or even used for comedic effect such as having certain sectoids being portrayed as anime-loving weebs on posters. The concept is good and the art direction helps to show this very well in the background however I felt as though the overarching story of the game was a bit generic and the new characters of Chimera Squad we were introduced to felt rather bland and didn’t really develop at all during the course of the story. Due to the fact you are playing as pre-made named characters now and not your own custom developed ones it took away an important part of the XCOM formula, creating your own stories that you can personally relate to as now you simply have to accept these characters and what actions they have taken instead. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bad decision, just something a little bit different than usual which I wasn’t a huge fan of.
The presentation of this game is very similar to that of the previous XCOM 2 as it’s very clear that this game was built on the very same engine. This isn’t that much of a problem as I always found XCOM 2 to be a very nice looking strategy game and as such this game still keeps the interesting locales and varied enemy designs that made the original so good. One key change however is that cutscenes are now replaced with cartoon style aesthetic slides that definitely make this game feel a lot more light-hearted in tone than compared to the previous games. This also extends to the voice acting as rather than having the fate of the world at stake you are essentially just doing a day job which means a lot more banter and joking between team members alongside your mission objectives and the cartoonishly evil groups of interest you need to interact with feel more like a fantasy cop drama over anything else. A huge misstep I found in the presentation however was the fact that the alien members of your squad sound like normal humans rather than what their otherworldly nature would imply which was extremely jarring to see. Having a literal anthropomorphic snake-lady sound like a snarky woman in her 30’s with no hint of a reptilian voice box whatsoever is such wasted potential as it really pulled me out of the experience more than it should have. The music too is just fine really with no notable pieces to really kick me into gear and it just effectively did it’s job at being suitable background noise which for a tactics game I suppose is really all it needs to do.
The gameplay is where some of the biggest changes have been made to the formula. As I mentioned earlier you no longer recruit and customise random soldiers but instead pick from a selection of pre-selected characters with their own skills and weapon specialisations. These can range from the psionic-focused Verge to the tech hacker Patchwork and each of these characters can be upgraded and specialised to suit what your squad needs. The strategy phase of the game rather than taking place on a global scale simply takes place within City 31 and has you managing district unrest, sending APC squads to handle rowdy crowds and sending squads into battle when situations start to get more serious. You also are working to uncover a big conspiracy between several crime syndicates and so it’s up to you to choose which group of interest you wish to pursue, perform detective work on their operations and choose which missions require your most immediate attention based on the city’s ‘Anarchy’ level, all standard XCOM mechanics just on a smaller scale. The biggest change to the formula takes place in the combat scenarios as instead of these taking place as each faction taking their own turn before handing it over to their foe this game instead follows an individual action system meaning that each unit in battle has their own specific turn that can jump between enemy and played depending on the turn counter. This places a huge amount of emphasis on disabling your enemies and manipulating the turn order rather than straight up combat and damage as with enough tactical thinking and effective use of your abilities you could prevent your enemies from doing any actions while you whittle them away slowly. This makes the game feel more like a puzzle game at times rather than grand strategy as you try to work out which combination of abilities and movement would give the greatest impact on keeping your team safe. There is also a new Breach system which allows you to get free shots on your enemies between each encounter as instead of you simply travelling to different parts of the map mission in real time each fight is broken up into specific ‘encounters’ which you heal up and reset inbetween making it feel a lot more fast paced and arcade-y as you essentially experience XCOM in bite sized chunks.
This all combines together to make something abundantly clear, this game is much easier and shorter compared to previous XCOM games. The fact that your squad isn’t out of action for periods of time if they get injured, that you can replace dead team-mates between encounters with android replacements and many other factors means that this really feels like an XCOM-lite experience. Not to say that there isn’t challenging encounters as some boss battles can be especially painful and at times you might just fail missions due to the classic bad luck that the series is known for. I personally think that while I appreciate the experimental changes made to the gameplay systems which are clearly testing the waters for XCOM 3 that I actually preferred the older systems overall. Not to say that I didn’t like these systems, I actually quite liked using my brain to work out turn order manipulation or how to best place my squad during breaches but ultimately for a larger scaled game I just feel as though this system might be clunky and make encounters drag on as battles continue to progress. For the scale in which you play in Chimera Squad I think it works appropriately but anything else I feel it just might not play so well. Finally it’s very clear that this was just a side project with not much funding going into it which might explain certain decisions such as the strange voice acting or the lower quality comic-book panel cutscenes rather than full blown cinematics but this also brings up the fact that this game is cheaper than previous XCOM games too and as such I feel it is priced appropriately for what you are getting.
Overall then I enjoyed my time with XCOM: Chimera Squad and thought it was an interesting take on an established game series. I feel as though this game would actually be a great way for someone who is new to the series to try it out as it provides a much smaller scale conflict and simplified mechanics but for those of us who are used to the multi-week spanning campaigns that the original XCOM games can provide might feel a bit disappointed in this entry. Still the fact that it’s priced appropriately for being a shorter/easier experience and still of course being able to fill that void that the previous entries left behind means it gets a recommendation from me, just don’t expect anything mind-blowing when checking out this title. Now I suppose I better go find out what the modding scene for the game looks like, I hope someone has created a full robocop squad mod already!