Back in the eighties there was this very popular and completely demented TV commercial for Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups. Queue funky disco muzak: A circa 1980s youth struts down a city street wearing a groovy cowboy shirt and eating from a jar of peanut butter with a spoon—something everyone must do at some point in their life. Meanwhile, another guy is moseying up another street happily noshing on a chocolate bar. The two stumble into one another at an intersection and sure enough player two’s chocolate bar gets dumped into the center of the PB jar. Peanut Butter exclaims: “Hey! You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” Chocolate retorts: “Hey! You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” Inspiration dawns on both players’ faces simultaneously, each having decided that tasting the mishmash they have concocted is far more important than eating food that has dropped out of a stranger’s mouth. Beaming and for some reason staring deep into one other’s eyes they partake of the saliva covered crap they’ve made while a voice over assures us: “Two great tastes that taste great together!”
We can’t say for sure if the inspiration for Ticket to Earth stems from the goodness that is Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups, but we can say that like Reece’s, Ticket offers up a dubious hybrid of divergent elements that somehow blend together well. More than likely the inspiration for Ticket comes from 2007’s Puzzle Quest. Back around that time, seminal developer, Steve Fawkner, had the bizarre notion of combining a tile-matching puzzle game with an RPG, which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, also turned out to be a winning combo of disparate stuff. Since then a number of indie developers have followed suit cranking out a variety of tile-matching mashups. That said, we are pretty sure that Ticket to Earth is the first tile-matching turn-based tactical RPG hybrid and like Puzzle Quest and it’s delicious antecedent it’s all-around superb. Though released last spring, the devs are sporadically releasing free content for it, with episode two released this past summer and three arriving shortly. Since it recently climbed up near the peak of Google Play’s Best Paid RPG list, we thought it high time we gave the title a good hard look.
The game takes place on a dying mining planet. With one flight left to return to Earth, what’s left of society has broken down. The three characters you play in episodes one and two, local peace keepers called of all things, Peace Keepers, are trying to maintain order and we suppose trying to get on board said last flight, although that aspect of the story doesn’t come up that much in the first two episodes for some reason. That caveat aside the story, depicted in well-drawn anime-like film strips, is fun and overall rather well done. The three playable characters at this point are the earthy Rose who wants above all to protect her garden, the lupine Wolf whose sole desire is to crack open a can of whupass and the hulking and fatherly Doc who enjoys healing peeps as much as he likes shanking them.
Gameplay unfolds on an isometric grid, with tiles randomly arranged from among four colors. Each color corresponds with a category of your heroes’ skills. For every tile of the same color you match, your hero’s attack score goes up a point as does the relative skill meter. Within two actions per turn, you try to thread a contiguous path for your heroes across matching tiles and either attack, evade or place them within striking distance of the bad guys. With a decent attack score or a readied skill, you can either engage an enemy or employ a skill. Meanwhile on the AI’s turn, the bad men are doing much of the same. If enemies manage to score an attack on one of your heroes; they not only reduce their hit points, but diminish the attack score they have accrued from the previous turn.
When Ticket to Earth’s missions hit the sweet spot between challenge and accessibility, they are thoroughly entertaining. When in its stride, managing both Ticket’s puzzle and tactical aspects provides some seriously satisfying gameplay. Unfortunately, the difficulty balance sometimes slips off the rails leaving a number of missions either too easy or straddled with difficulty levels that border on prohibitive. To be fair, the latter is only true of a handful of later missions.
Ticket’s ascending difficulty level can be mitigated by the game’s RPG layer. Per usual players build talents (attributes more or less), skills as well as buy specialized weapons for each hero. There’s also a system by which players can redo their talent trees. The game’s RPG elements, generally compelling and well-balanced, are also a little dysfunctional. The game’s talent and skill trees are manipulated using in-game’s currencies; the allotment of said currencies however is where the game flounders. By playing and replaying missions, you can leverage “justice tokens” to either unleash a one-shot all-powerful justice skill or redo your character’s talent tree. You also earn “talent tokens” doing both missions and recaps to buy new talents. This works well. The skill system however is another story. Unlike talents, unfortunately, both the game’s skills and weapons wax expensive on the high-end and can only be bought using “credits.” Because the allotment of credits has strict limits, choices regarding weapons and skills can become fixed mid to late game. The credit rewards for mission recaps are nearly non-existent, making it possible to dig yourself into an entrenched poor-build hole. In my play through, I did what I always do in an RPG and manipulated the talent tree so that my heroes could use high-end weapons and ended up badly skewing talents, neglecting my skill tree and blowing all my credits. As a result I was unprepared for the game’s final battles. Since I could still manipulate the talent tree and my justice gauge by doing a ton of mission replays, I was able to squeak though but it was a slog, and an unnecessary one at that.
While the currency system is faulty and some of the missions are uneven, currency allotment is only one of countless otherwise finely tuned elements and the vast majority of the game’s missions are an absolute joy to play. And really what other reasons would you need to pick up a game in the first place? While Ticket to Earth may not be the perfection that is chocolate meets peanut butter, it is at the end of day a finely tuned hybrid and hands down one of the best games of its kind in the mobile space.
Is it Hardcore?
Ticket to Earth offers up a fun and compelling genre mashup, delivering at once an excellent puzzle game and an engaging tactical RPG.