The strategy genre has always been one of the broadest and most varied video game styles, and it’s one of the oldest, too.
Whether I was undertaking epic space battles with StarCraft or obtaining governmental supremacy in Civilization, I have many fond memories of spending the weekend glued to a CRT monitor in the early to mid-2000s. But that was a long time ago, and until recently, I’d considered the genre’s heyday to be long past.
That assessment was borne out of my own ignorance, however. The strategy genre is still very much alive, and actually, it’s more diverse than ever. Cantata — a brand new turn-based title from Afterschool Studios — is emblematic of that sentiment. Let’s get on with our Cantata review and delve into what’s currently available through early access.
Familiar Yet Fresh, Complex but Approachable
Cantata’s rich atmosphere stirs even in the main menu: lonely, eerie-sounding pads echo against a backdrop of beautifully vivid artwork. This indie game’s campaign is split up into chapters, and upon starting the first, we’re greeted with the beginnings of a cosmic conflict: scenes rendered with a distinctly original comic-book flair.
Before you jump into any of this, though, you’ll want to visit the interactive tutorial. This isn’t a genre you can just muddle through, and so far as getting a player invested, the tutorial often necessitates a work of art in its construction.
As is now commonplace, Cantata’s guide appropriately segments its teachings into both a ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ set of lessons, all of which are highly intuitive and easy to follow. I appreciated the fact that not every mechanic was divulged in these tutorialized segments. It’s often difficult to remember all the rules through one huge lecture, and this game’s instructions give you just enough to figure the rest out at your own pace.
In terms of what encompasses “the rest”, Cantata hones a robustly logistical brand of strategy — akin to something like Advance Wars (one of the game’s biggest influences) — whilst simultaneously focusing on the gradual capturing of territory across its huge maps. It sets itself apart by fostering a multifactorial set of problem-solving objectives, whether that be setting-up complex supply lines, flanking enemies, or carving up terrain.
When I headed into the game’s first chapter, I did find it to be a little slow at first. The initial mission has you advancing units through a relatively linear path, but while I felt comfortable with the mechanics, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to do. The initial segment is set up for an important cutscene, but I didn’t think it did the greatest job at communicating what the goal was.
I would’ve preferred more of a gameplay-focussed first half-hour, but I did become engrossed in the weird and wacky story. The dialogue was very well written with a cast of diverse and interesting characters, and the cutscenes went a long way in making Cantata’s large, isometric, pixel-art world feel alive. The devs also did a great job at fostering excitement in exploration, and tentative steps through the fog of war to uncover the secrets of this strange, alien landscape were always an alluring premise.
Video game or board game?
Due to the scale, the game felt more akin to the great work going on in strategy board games at the moment. I’m not aware of any other turn-based strategy title that opens up quite like Cantata, and this seemingly limitless breadth is something I’ve been longing for in a digital form.
The game is reminiscent of the hours spent pondering carefully over each turn in Twilight Imperium or Chaos in the Old World: table-top games that, due to the physicality of their medium, laud lengthy contemplation over the instant gratification of their video game counterparts.
Of course, this premise also has its weakness. If you’re used to RTS titles or even Advanced Wars, Cantata will feel decidedly slower, and the game’s appeal somewhat hinges on the degree to which you consider yourself a patient person. For the player thinking dozens of steps ahead, the lengthy battles only serve to heighten the payoff of a plan coming to fruition. For someone naive to the time investment of board game-style play, these systems may be a hard pill to swallow.
While I enjoyed my time with Cantata, it’s easy to see how the game’s long battles could sour the thrill of building a huge, intelligently designed, interconnected base; because the grander your plans, the longer they’ll take to execute.
Verdict: An avant-garde twist on a classic formula:
My overall experience with the game was somewhat back and forth. On one hand, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story and really enjoyed tinkering around with the mechanics. The world Afterschool Studio has built compelling, and it’s something I could find myself getting very invested in.
While only the first three chapters are available in the early access release, the whole thing seems set up for a particularly grandiose story arc. I also appreciated the variety in mission types with each chapter: one minute the game was wholly focused on a huge, all-encompassing battle, and in the next, things were stripped back to navigating a small group of units through a small but treacherous area.
The gameplay is a truly potent blend of both table-top and video games, and there’s a lot of depth here to keep strategy veterans invested. On the other hand, I feel the true test of the game’s strength will come when the multiplayer/modding community comes to fruition.
The inherent thrill in either type of strategy game is playing with other people, and it’s here where we’ll truly see whether Cantata will hold its own. In that sense, I’m unable to fully form my thoughts into a satisfactory conclusion.
It’s certainly promising, though, and this could turn out to be the video game—board game you’ve been waiting for. I’m excited for the future of the game, so really, Cantata’s early access build has done its job.
While we’ve seen a ton of legacy strategy titles get moulded into new games entirely, having something that’s built from the ground up to scale to any task is a huge feature – let’s hope the community share that sentiment.
- Deep, logistics-based strategy gameplay
- Stunning art direction with an intriguing story
- Interactive tutorials do a great job of explaining complex concepts.
- Progress through the levels can feel a little slow at times.
- As much as I enjoyed the story, this style of gameplay works best in multiplayer
- Campaign objectives could be confusing
With Cantata drawing upon a rich variety of other titles, here are some games you’ll also likely enjoy!
- Advanced Wars: If you’ve read our interview with the devs, you’ll know that the Advanced Wars series was a big inspiration of theirs. Featuring similar turn-based combat and a heavy focus on micro-management, Advanced Wars is one of the most addictive strategy games I’ve played – and its awesome cast of characters is the icing on the cake!
- Into the Breach: With a decidedly bleak tone, brutal difficulty, and pixel art aesthetics, this title’s grid-based strategy will put you through your paces. While not a direct influence, its general feel reminds me a lot of Cantata.
- Factorio: Boasting deep logistical management and bespoke art style, fans of Cantata will no doubt also enjoy Factorio. The game revolves around building sprawling 2D automated factories — perfect for those with a keen eye for architectural efficiency.
Cantata Review: FAQs
Question: I’m new to strategy games. Is Cantata for me?
Answer: The answer to that question will depend on whether or not you have the patience for strategy games in general. If you do, Cantata is nothing you can’t master with practise: it can get complicated, but the tutorials do a great job at teaching you the ropes.
Question: Will there be a console release?
Answer: As far as we’re aware, there are no plans for releasing Cantata on consoles right now, but who knows? During the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of strategy titles make their way to consoles, so it’s certainly a possibility.
Question: When will multiplayer be available?
Answer:: According to the published road map, you’ll be able to try out multiplayer in Phase 1 of the main launch.