Not every strategy game wants to be the next Starcraft or Crusader Kings, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. In an era where the cooperative action of multiplayer online battle arenas dominates the cold tactics of their stylistic forebears, strategy developers face an onerous fork: to double down on the spheres of interlocking complexity that have come to define the genre, or cast away their hard-won layers of play trying to chase the MOBA dragon by adding mechanics that test a player’s reflexes rather than their tactical acumen. Still, after a few hours with Bit Shifter, a game that tries to wrap the genre’s compelling micro-decisions into a lighter, more approachable package, the latter path may be more fraught than once thought.
It’s not for lack of trying though. By Early Access standards, Plastic Games’s new title takes on all comers with ease, offering a fully baked experience that impresses far more than the laughably incomplete tech demos that have made the service more of a scarlet letter than a viable business model. Indeed, with its 20-odd levels and attempts at an overarching plot, Bit Shifter feels like a throwback to the “shareware” model of the ’90s, when the first “episode” of games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D were offered for free as a trial to prospective buyers. However, while those titles were deft enough to lock the promise of bigger guns and badder monsters behind their paywall, Bit Shifter seems content to offer more of itself and little else—a proposition whose appeal seems apt to evaporate as soon as one vanquishes the last of the enemies currently on offer.
Bit Shifter’s core design is anchored on one simple belief: Players will care more about strategy if they’re part of the battle. And while this notion is far from new, its cleverness still lingers. The player controls an enormous flying disk equipped with lasers that doubles as a ferry for their devoted Bits, soldiers in the never-ending war against the Virus that threatens to corrupt the data stream. As you might expect, the combat capabilities of the player become increasingly limited as the game progresses (your laser blasts do little to stop the slow crawl of the red toward your resources, and satellite dishes will sap your mobility with lightning should you venture too deep into enemy territory), but the limited number of Bits available ensure that skillful flying is all but required during the game’s toughest missions.
This all makes for engaging, hectic stuff, as in the wails of three different warning sirens ringing in your ears as you try desperately to defend three disparate points from the encroaching virus, and the sudden rush of victory as your small army decimates the last of the red splatter. However, after a few hours of it, the game’s central flaw begins to reveal itself: In its attempts to bring player engagement closer to the fore, it’s abandoned much of the hard systemic breadth that constitutes much of the genre’s appeal. Generous health placement and ever-present power-ups always seem to tip the scales just enough in your favor, and most experienced players will find that the default difficulty offers little resistance to their expert strategizing.
If one yearns for the days when games could carve a tiny niche that a player could dwell in for just a few hours and call that “success,” Bit Shifter may very well scratch the itch. Others will find themselves wondering “Is this it?” as they load their disk with the bits for the umpteenth time. The answer is “yes,” but whether that’s enough will depend on the shifter alone.
Plastic Games’s Bit Shifter is available now for PC and SteamOS.