Majestic Trials hits a lot of bases; it’s a turn-based tactical fantasy game with RPG elements. Oh, and it’s an indie title, still in Early Access on Steam. Majestic Trials fills a niche all of its own and deserves some attention for it.
I’ll be honest: I don’t often consider turn-based tactical fantasy games. It does fall under “strategy and simulation” (as a broad super-genre) but my attention was brought to Majestic Trials because it was developed by a husband-and-wife team, also known as Alpha Strike Games.
Majestic Trials is the brainchild of the wife in this relationship, Katie. The husband is a person who has until now made a name for himself as a quality modder. “AlphaAsh”, as he’s known within modding circles – just “Ash” outside of it – has produced many, many mods for various titles, not least Stellaris, a few of which have featured on Odin Gaming before, the best known being, of course, AlphaMod. His wife, Katie, while not known in the same circles nonetheless has a technical knack.
Outside of modding and Majestic Trials, the pair have also dabbled in mobile app design with their Space Invaders remake, Die Alien Scum!.
I suppose I’m obliged to let you know that Ash provided me with a Steam key for Majestic Trials free-of-charge. Ash and I have had some contact previously (and managed to talk about something other than the fact that we were, in fact, both named Ash) and informally discussed his various projects.
Odin Gaming isn’t a video game review site. That’s not the niche I’m in. There will be no score at the end of this article. This article, then, is a shallow dip in the pond of turn-based tactical fantasy games and Majestic Trials’ place in it, for the enquiring mind.
Ash contributed, perhaps surprisingly, Majestic Trials’ retro/hand-crafted artistic assets with his wife, Katie, acting as the technical lead for the project. The technologies behind the game are unassuming and it’s a credit to the pair to have come together to produce what I can only describe as an “artisinal” video game. When I asked about tools used to make the game, screwdrivers and pencils were prominent in the resulting list.
I’m a software engineer by trade. I was therefore naturally curious when Ash gave me a short list of technologies used by the game. The team runs an incredibly lean operation, not even opting for an established game engine. Alpha Strike Games produce all assets in-house, down to music composition and sound effects generation. Ash gives some insight into his design process:
I do a lot of concept work with pencil and inks. Sometimes acrylics. Some modelling with Lego, physical stuff or the digital tool. I use whatever medium I think will help me realise a concept. Some of the ‘hard’ art will be scanned or photographed to give me a digital prototype to build on. Some I’ll just translate in by hand.
This gives the pair an advantage in terms of the control they have over their technical foundation. As a result, the system requirements of the game are minimal.
Turn-Based Tactical Fantasy
Not a lot of games jump forth when I think of turn-based tactical fantasy. “Turn-based tactics”, sure; XCOM is the quintessential example. “Turn-based fantasy” means Endless Legend, Age of Wonders, or the Civ IV mod Fall From Heaven 2. Endless Legend actually has a tactical layer, too (with RPG elements), which is puts it as a firm bridge between the turn-based strategy and tactical sub-genres.
Examples of “well-known” turn-based tactical fantasy games are the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Banner Saga. But they don’t have this retro-artisinal vibe that I’ve already alluded to. Majestic Trials appeals to me because of the team’s dedication to having personal input on every pixel, every sound, and every animation. Few games today get that sort of attention. It reminds the player of a simpler gaming era, before DLC, before ubiquitous and free-to-use game engines, and before endless media libraries.
I’m glad that this was the impression I got form the game, because Ash seems to agree that this – or something close to this – is what makes the game appealing:
For me [the game’s selling point is] the untarnished indie-ness of the game. There are no compromises in the game for wide-market appeal or even a pretence at achieving AAA levels of production.
It throws away some of the gloss that I think some old-skoolers don’t really want in a squad-based TBS. I prefer the original UFO Enemy Unknown over XCOM any day. It just has that distilled gameplay that I enjoy without all that visual gore I don’t need to be immersed. I want to use my imagination still when I play a game.
Made with Love
So we’ve got that settled. Majestic Trials has a retro vibe. The game is most certainly a labour of love for Ash and Katie with oodles of their own personality poured into the game. Katie composed the music for the game and Ash created the sound effects. It’ll transport you back to PC gaming of the mid-90s with every blip, buzz, ding, and pop.
The game isn’t devoid of any modern sensibilities, though. It does have zombie pirates.
The influence from pen and paper RPGs and tabletop gaming are clear; Ash and Kate are a couple of hardcore geeks and Majestic Trials just oozes with that geekiness. In fact, Ash has a number of unreleased tabletop wargames of his own, making “use of a large amount of Lego”.
Retro Difficulty and Summoning
This is a difficult game. At least, I found it difficult. Early on, your wizard is very sensitive to wrong turns; you don’t want to get stuck down an alley with a Skeleton Warrior. You will die. And everything up until that point would have been for nought.
There are also only subtle clues in the game to the best way to play. It turns out that you really need to rely on your allies in the game. As the wizard, you can’t hit particularly hard, you can’t take much damage, and you can’t move as fast, although all of these stats can be upgraded as you progress through the game. It’s the hordes of minions that will do your bidding and be the determiners of your success in Majestic Trials. Summon bats, goblins, troglodytes, and more. Befriend the creatures of the world as you encounter them – and by “befriend”, I mean brainwash with magic – and go forth with a horde of beasts to conquer your foes.
There’s something satisfying about steamrolling your opponent wizard with a mob of disposable creatures; something satisfying about sitting behind these monstrous ranks and casting death and destruction upon the foes that can’t break through your wall of flesh.
A Veritable Zoo
These creatures, of course, have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are tough but slow. Some are fast, but weak. A great example of the latter is the Giant Bat, which can “Fly”, elevating itself above the field of play, and be used to great effect to scout the arena. Some creatures have ranged attacks, which can be used to surprise your enemies across the battlefield. And some creatures are cats.
Your engagement with the enemy will be helped or hindered by the terrain around you. This has come to be expected in modern games, but what’s great about Majestic Trials is how it represents this on a 2D field of view. You can see more from a balcony and cast ranged spells from relative safety. Trees can be set ablaze. Spells can be cast through windows.
There is a chess-like element of positioning your allies in sometimes cramped quarters to make sure you come out on top of a skirmish; make sure you’re “pinning” your opponent so that there’s no real option but to lose, for example. Your allies are somewhat disposable, which is good for the tactics. It’s harsh to say, but they don’t carry the same sort of attachment as, say, squaddies in XCOM. You certainly think of them more like chess pieces than squad-mates, and I think that’s OK; it makes Majestic Trials a different sort of turn-based tactical game, one where you can consider tactics apart from your emotional attachment to the characters.
There’s plenty I’ve not addressed above because I wanted to focus on some of the stand-out points to me. There is, of course, character progression, loot, magical items, and a story with lore to keep you focused. The normal stuff you’d expect from a turn-based tactical fantasy game.
The big draw, for me, is the retro-artisinal vibe I’ve mentioned a few times already. There is a lot of nostalgia in this game. And there’s a lot of hard work in this game. It conjures fond memories of demo CD-ROMs taped to gaming magazines and hours of exploration because this is the mid-90s and there’s no Internet. It’s an unforgiving game that does away with the trappings of modern corporate gaming and gets to the heart of the genre, opting for thought and imagination over flashy sales-inducing gimmicks.
Majestic Trials is still in Early Access, but the domestic duo have earmarked a release date of early next year. This comes with all the usual caveats – software project estimation is a notoriously difficult beast to tame – but rest assured that Alpha Strike Games are using every waking hour to press ahead with development of Majestic Trials.
If you’ve got opinions on the niche that Alpha Strike Games are trying to tap into, get in touch on Twitter. If any of the above has caught your attention, check out Majestic Trials on Steam and give the devs feedback directly. Subscribe to Odin Gaming if you want monthly updates with content like this.