With flagship entries like Final Fantasy Tactics, Front Mission, Fire Emblem and Shining Force among its wider cross-platform library, the Turn Based Strategy genre has earned a reputation for presenting stories that are just as deep as its usual gameplay mechanics. James Pawliuk banks on the possibility that a genre vet doesn’t always need complex political intrigues to have a blast as a Tactical Warrior (Out Now for $2.99, Lite). And you know what? He might just be right!

Once a starting set of warriors has been picked from a list of class offerings, Tactical Warrior ushers the player right into the business of defending a fantasy frontier from hordes of forest beasts. It’s not the most inspired excuse for lunging into combat, and some misspellings plague the release version’s instructions and item descriptions, but the going gets very good once the monster slaying commences. With its little fighters appearing more like static chess pieces than simulations of living, breathing soldiers, Tactical Warrior‘s sparse aesthetics will be the first thing to strike players — but it’s the game’s sheer whirlwind velocity that’s sure to leave the most lasting impression on those who aren’t immediately turned off.

Developer James Pawliuk has ingeniously turned what must have been a shoestring budget to Tactical Warrior‘s advantage, showing us that there’s something to be gained in the absence of neat battle cutscenes and jaw-dropping spell effects, as long as this becomes an excuse to crank up gameplay speed. Thanks to the fact that these little cardboard cutouts zip around instantaneously and execute their actions in a fraction of a second, nary a moment goes by in which the player isn’t focusing on tactical minutiae. That’s not to say Pawliuk skimped on all aspects of the game’s presentation, as its menus are clean, attack effects pack a suitable wallop and the game sports a very rockin’ in-battle track that emphasizes how fast everything’s happening. One really does need to be a genre veteran to fully appreciate Tactical Warrior‘s dynamic quality, however; casual players are likely to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of mentally tracking all the damage numbers and abnormal status messages constantly flitting around onscreen.

Tactical Warrior contains just about all the strategic depth one would expect of a grid-based strategy game: stamina meters consumed as individual units move and attack; active and passive skills that vary by class and which the player shapes as units level up; and different-sized targeting areas for special attacks, friendly fire being a major concern in this one. The game does something interesting with its “sprint” movement system, whereby a unit can move short distances at no stamina cost, but longer distances require a sacrifice. Key to the player’s long-term success is his or her ability to take advantage of battlefield obstacles and arrange units so as to keep enemies from rushing past frontline fighters and going for the jugular of crucial but less sturdy long range support. Even if a dominant strategy is discovered, the player still has to adapt to Tower Defense-style and multi-wave style battles thrown in for good measure.

An overworld map allows the player to pick his or her fights to some extent, which lends the game excellent balance even when the chosen difficulty level presents unexpected challenge.  Several battles of increasing difficulty are offered at each location on the world map; earlier battles provide access to shops or keys the player can use to access the next locale on his or her monster-slaying voyage. This flexibility becomes incredibly important in compensating for what could have been Tactical Warrior‘s downfall: upon victory the player often gets to choose between bonus experience points and additional recruits, and choosing unwisely can spell strategic disaster down the road when it comes to the more challenging battles. I found myself tempted to beef up my current force more often than not, and when it came to light I was at a hopeless disadvantage for lack of numbers later, Tactical Warrior gave me the freedom to move on and backtrack to mop up encounters I’d found all but impossible earlier.

Only when it comes to equipment management does Tactical Warrior lag behind the expectations of the genre; a unit may equip two miscellaneous items as opposed to having equipment slots devoted specifically to weapons, armor, and accessories. Lacking a money system, Tactical Warrior still makes shopping an interesting exercise by replacing it with a barter system — definitely a great way to unload unnecessary items!

Tactical Warrior carries on cocos2d’s growing reputation for lending itself to solid user interfaces. It’s nigh miraculous that the game consistently knows whether the player means to drag the battlefield around for a full view or make a target selection. The only thing on my wish list for updates – besides those grammar fixes, of course! – is some way to manually determine the starting positions of player units; the slightly random element to initial placement really puts a cramp on the player’s strategy as he or she rushes to get archers and frontline fighters into proper position. Tactical Warrior should be expected to last eight to ten hours, as there are over a hundred battles on offer.

iFanzine Verdict: Lacking graphical oomph and window dressing in terms of story, Tactical Warrior will do little for those who don’t already count themselves Turn Based Strategy diehards. Nevertheless, it scores very highly for the supreme appeal its strategically deep yet clean and fast-paced gameplay should hold for genre fans.

If you’re a TBS fan, grab the Lite version and see if you aren’t just as impressed!