I have never played Advance Wars, but I did read an LP and reviewed Mobius Front 83. Therefore, I’m fully qualified to preview Cantata. It’s a sci-fi turn-based strategy game which dares to ask: what if Advance Wars was Factorio?
The lore of the setting is somewhat vague at this point. But the 111th Reign of Harmony and Prosper (not a typo) is the dominant human civilization. Shotar of Mars, a noble, is chasing Vashti, the robot leading the Unified Spirit AI rebellion. This leads him to planet Shoal, a minor colony that seemingly has nothing going for it. Unbeknownst to either faction, Shoal is inhabited — and protected — by The People Of Sun and Shadow. The great hunter, They Wait In The Fens, is ready to redden their blades with the blood of the interlopers.
And action points win wars
Following that complex story setup, on the surface, Cantata a fairly simple turn-based strategy game. Units can move and attack once per turn. They score full damage each time, so accuracy or armor doesn’t seem to exist. There’s no morale, ammo supply, or any other such thing — outside of some abilities, units are as rudimentary as can be.
But then the game gets a little funky. One of the first things that surprised everyone about Cantata was the action point system. You have a pool of action points that all your units share. More than that, you need it to construct buildings and use some abilities. Based on early materials, every move and action fed off this pool, but now, you have your free movement and attack.
Unless you Surge. The cost in AP depends on the unit, and not all of them can Surge (most can do it for movement, and only very few for attack) to act again. Surge movement is absolutely important for covering the vast distances on the maps. Attacking with Surge makes some killer units event more deadly.
Putting both “military” and “industrial” into the complex
However, as you spend your AP on your forces, you don’t have much left for abilities and expanding your base. And that is its own hell, as the maps in Cantata are split into regions and support — at most — three buildings. But where most game abstract resource generation into simple counters, the structures in Cantata work like manufactories in your Factorios, Satisfactories, and so on.
Reign’s humble Recon Rickshaw requires engines and fuel. Those are produced in their own factories (that feed off your HQ), which produces alloys, the precursor material for half the Reign’s industry. To do so, HQ draws from your supply pool, which needs to replenished by harvesting deposits in the wild. It’s also used in building structures.
Yet, the building supply range isn’t infinite. With the combination of limited building space, you’re eventually forced to get creative. You construct redundant HQs to have alloys produced in a more convenient spot, and so on.
If you’re daring, you can manually transport resources from factories to where they need to go. Just dump them outside, load them into transports, and then drive to the destination. But that’s extremely uncomfortable, and should be avoided at all costs.
We’re all individuals!
Not that such micro is always possible to avoid. The People needs Ghosts for any kind of unit they build, and Ghosts are units themselves. People’s recruitment buildings draw supplies on their own, and produces the one special resource for the one unit they can build. They also need Ghosts and the one resource that HQ produces — the latter can be delivered by regular supply lines. For the former, you build one out at the HQ, walk him to the Well of Madness, and pick him up with the structure to transform him into a Berserker.
So yeah, the factions play differently from one another. Reign, for example, is a fairly conventional army, with infantry conscripts, recon jeeps, and tanks. They can absolutely choke the enemy on the conscripts. The Tower is the only unit that can be built on the field, basically anywhere and independent of supply chains, and comes with four conscripts. It’s a defenseless vehicle (not structure) otherwise, but it can heal the conscripts… if they survive.
Compared to the humble conscript, basically any unit from Cantata‘s other two factions are superior. Even the Unified Spirit’s cherub, a box with a handful of legs and two buzzsaws, can kill one in a hit. But you can build so many of them, and they can advance levels (seemingly the only unit able to do it so far), and can fortify to increase range and HP pools. The conscript is also key to capturing territory by building flags.
Meanwhile, The People’s unit exerts control over territory by just being there, and build torches to both help with that and increase view range. Upon death, they leave behind Ghosts, which can be used for new units — even without returning to base if a Summoner unit is close-by. The People is also the only faction to have a unit extracting resources instead of a building. But it also acts as their healer, and can build totems that teleport units within range to itself, completely for free.
Have a good network of those, and you’ll be able to instantly (even if click-heavily) transport reinforcements to yourself faster than anyone else.
Stuff breaks down
Unfortunately, The People Of Sun and Shadow is, at the time of writing, the least-finished faction in Cantata. While each of the factions have one campaign chapter each now, basically all of the descriptions for the People are missing. You never know what does what, so it’s trial and error all around. Also, as I mentioned its economy already, it kind of doesn’t really work with the Factorio-like gimmick, as there are no real chains to build — just HQ and buildings that feed off it.
The campaign chapters are like jumbo-sized missions in other games, with large maps and a lot of objectives. They remind me of some of the more extravagant and large missions in WarCraft 3, with side objectives and such. During the course of the mission, you will explore the faction’s entire tech tree, even if it’s not immediately unlocked for you.
And that’s the other bit — aside from the economy being somewhat there, but not entirely scratching that Satisfactory itch — that makes me anxious about the game. If I have already slowly unlocked everything Reign can offer in one mission, will I find the same process exciting in the second and third time around (each faction has three commanders per, and they get a mission each)? It’s like rebuilding your base in each mission in an RTS, only at a much slower pace.
Plus, I already know that the Reign’s flyer, the ultimate unit, is not much more a weaker, but more mobile tank. I don’t know if the battle system then has enough sophistication to keep me interested past having used each unit once.
On the fence
It’s a shame, because the art and writing in Cantata is intriguing. I want to know more about these Reign weirdos, even if Imperialist-Capitalist Space Kingdom isn’t the most novel concept. Also, I’d like to know what’s the deal with the People and what the United Spirit will do with the planet. I want to enjoy more of those gonzo unit and character portraits, and the Advance Wars-like graphics.
All in all, I’m conflicted about Cantata. On one hand, it’s really beautiful, and seems to offer novel things as well as provide twists to the traditional formulas. But on the other hand, I don’t know if the general slowness of the game and bareness of some of the systems is something that will be ironed out in the development — or is it just how it’s meant to be. Guess I’ll have to see about it eventually.