I’ve recently been having some fun with the closed beta of an indie game called Batalj (pronounced Batal.) Real-time strategy games are my jam, but I also enjoy all other strategy genres. Batalj is a bit hard to define, but I’d call it a turn-based tactics game. Players deploy forces in a small arena and contest the battlefield through tactical use of unit abilities. Batalj is very limited in scope to short PvP matches, but they’ve nailed the combat.
Rather than turns being split between player 1 and player 2, turns are divided by every unit on the board. The turn order of units is determined by the weight of the actions they took in the previous round. This sequence of unit turns is referred to as the timeline and is the basis for much of the game’s depth. Movement and abilities require lots of deliberation, often the best move is to wait with units to ensure they go first in the next round. The gameplay of Batalj is broken up into two different phases, Scheduling and Action. There’s also a strategic component of creating different unit decks and deploying specific units at the start and throughout the match.
In the Scheduling Phase, both players simultaneously have two minutes to apply orders to all of their units. The players can see the unit timeline and planning around it is crucial. You probably don’t want to attack a unit that moves first in the timeline because it’s likely to reposition, causing attacks against it to miss. When issuing unit orders there’s a lot of prediction and mind-gaming, you have to think about what your opponent is going to do and react accordingly. Most of the actions in Batalj aren’t just attacks; every unit has a range of different utility in the form of multiple abilities and passives. Tier 1 units are a bit more straightforward, but Heroes and Tier 2 units can do many different things. Making the most out of all your varied abilities and mitigating the potential of your enemy is the core substance of Batalj. After the Scheduling Phase, the Action Phase sees all of the units act out their orders as per the timeline.
Actions aren’t just about destroying the enemy units, Batalj has a point scoring system to encourage map control. Whoever holds most of the control points at the end of the round scores a point, gain 5 points and victory is yours. Most matches I’ve played come down to killing a bunch of units until one player concedes, but the control points make the combat more interesting by forcing players to be aggressive. The control points provide additional tension if one player is close to winning and also adds importance to cheap units with high mobility. There’s currently only one playable map in the closed beta, so the point dynamic gets somewhat predictable. I can imagine it being a lot more interesting when there are multiple maps with different point layouts.
The gameplay of Batalj is excellent, and it’s also a gorgeous game. Both the menus and gameplay are bright, flashy and colorful; the style looks like a copy of Overwatch, but its pretty so I don’t mind. The units all look cool and have nice animations making it feel top-notch and far beyond expectations for an indie game in closed beta. There are three factions with very distinct styles which reflects their gameplay. There’s great attention to detail such as how the units spawn in, the mecha faction drop pod in while the creepy blood-magic vampire dudes spawn in from blood portals on the ground. The only thing I don’t like about the presentation of Batalj is the voice acting as many units have goofy fourth-wall breaking lines. The performance and technical quality of the voice acting is fine, but they say stuff like “I get nerfed every patch!” and “I use to have three passive abilities.” Perhaps strategy games have a habit of taking themselves too seriously, but these type of lines seem awkward and weird to me.
One caveat is that Batalj has a brutal learning curve. The game is incredibly complicated, not just because of how the game systems work, but also because of trying to wrap your head around all the different abilities and passives. It can be quite frustrating to waste a move because you forgot the enemy Hero has a passive that blocks the first attack or wasting a couple of moves because you misjudged how the timeline would work. Batalj does offer a sandbox mode which allows you to play around with all the units and abilities to test things at your own pace, but that seemed boring so I never bothered. Instead, I faceplanted by jumping into the deep end with quick match games. I’ve got a good understanding of the game now, but I wish there was a rough single player portion to learn the game in a more engaging setting than sandbox.
The gameplay of Batalj would work great in a single player format, and the devs have mentioned they plan on adding scripted scenarios to help the player get a better understanding of the game. Ultimately, multiplayer is going the be the emphasis of the game rather than single player. As much as I’d love a campaign I have a great appreciation for hyper-focused games, limiting the scope of Batalj clearly helped an indie team to create a game that looks and plays like AAA game. Unfortunately, the closed beta of Batalj is currently lacking in multiplayer content, and there seems to be some questionable unit balance, but that’s to be expected for a game in its current state.
Batalj is probably different to the strategy games you typically play but I’d encourage you to check it out. Its combat is incredibly tactical because of the deep utility of your units and how the timeline forces you to anticipate the enemy actions. It elegantly handles simultaneous turns and the control points make the gameplay flow. It has excellent visuals and polish, especially for an indie game, but the voice acting is often overly goofy. While limited in scope to PvP multiplayer and currently lacking content for the closed beta it’s a great game if you can tolerate the steep learning curve.