While tactical-RPGs might be associated with Japan, the West also has a history of its own. The main difference is that the games created in the West allowed more freedom than their Japanese counterparts. Games such as X-COM defined the genre, much in the same way Fire Emblem did in the east, but Jagged Alliance perhaps gave the most freedom in the genre.
Developed by Madlabs Software and published by Sir-Tech, released in June of 1994, two months after X-COM, it offered a different take on a similar formula, but with more personality and charm.
The story is set on the island of Metavira, which after nuclear testing now houses unique “Fallow Tree” which can cure any disease. These trees are harvested for their sap which is processed and then sold for profit, but there is a catch the trees can’t reproduce. Scientists Jack and his daughter Brenda Richards who discovered the trees established a research facility in order to study the trees, its sap and solve the reproduction problem.
One of the trusted employees Lucas Santino saw the potential for greater profit and managed to persuade Jack to give him permission to establish a second facility on the island. Soon Santino hired mercenaries, burned the Richards’s research facility, and has nearly taken over the island. The player is hired by Jack and Brenda and by contacting mercenaries from Association of International Mercenaries (A.I.M), it’s the player’s job to recapture the island, get Richards into business and eliminate Santino.
The catch is that you have limited funds: you are being paid by an amount of sap which is collected by your workers (tappers). Funds must be wisely used to hire mercenaries, and also pay guards and tappers.
The player must hire mercenaries, and there is a wide range to chose from (about 60 of them), and this is where the games really shine.
Some of them are inexperienced and cheap, those with experience are more expansive, and the can be hired in late game when the player can pay their fees and has a good reputation.
Each mercenary is unique, some of them are ex-military, doctors, mechanics, criminals and psychos. They have their own voice, personality, and relationships. Personalities are very well written and players will become fond of some and wary of others.
Some of them have style, others have grudges against one another and will refuse to work as long as the player has the other one the team. Some will form grudges after day or two, and in some cases, mercenaries will try to kill each other, others will steal from you, abuse substances and snitch for you. There are also stubborn mercenaries that will refuse to move until the enemy they’re targeting is dead or moves from their line of sight. When mercenaries level up they will demand a raise, and if the player refuses, they will leave. Some assignments such as rest and patient, will pay half of their salary.
Not all of them are willing to work for the player, because of their reputation or having too many deaths during the campaign, or will refuse the player for some other reason.
The player must also hire guards to protect sectors and workers to collect the sap. However, only healthy trees can be harvested and the player must control processing plants if the player wants more income. As the player gains the natives’ trust more of them will be willing to work for Jack and the player. Of course, too many worker deaths and the player might resort to raising salaries to keep them working.
At the beginning of each day, a map of Metavira appears on a square grid. Each square represents a sector, and the player starts in the lower right corner. The map shows how much Fallow trees are in the sector, the number of guars and tappers, terrain info, and who controls the sector.
Here the player can choose what equipment and mercenaries to take and what player controlled sector to start the day.
Also, the player can leave mercenaries at the base and give them orders to, train skills, heal and repair items. From time to time Jack and Brenda will contact the player with important objectives, which can be ignored but can cause problems later in the game. If the player takes too long to do the job, Jack will complain, or if a stalemate happens, the price of the sap will stagnate, and so on. The plot is nicely combined with the gameplay, and objectives include such things as securing processing plant or clean water, rescuing people, etc. The enemy will use tactics such as detonating buildings you try to capture, kidnap key NPCs, kill tapers, and lay down traps.
The main part of the game is played in the top-down view, where the player can give orders. The buildings will show interior when the player enters them. The starting sector is free of enemies and can be used to explore and collect items, but when the player enters an enemy controlled sector, the game switches to turn-based mode.
A turn-based mode is played with the usage of action points (AP), to order actions in a similar way the X-COM uses their time units. The game offers a very large amount of tactical options for its time.
Tougher terrain and rivers use a greater number of action points. If the player saves enough points, the enemy can be interrupted. Using all action points will tire you mercenary and in turn reduce action points, during next couple of turns.
Mercenaries can also crouch, to take better aim focusing fire on a target to increase the chance to hit, which will reduce AP cost for a next shot or make themselves harder to hit and take cover behind objects and trees. The player can also sneak and walk backward to sneak up on enemies, pick locks, deactivate traps and explosives. Each one of these actions requires a skill and mercenaries gain experience from the actions they complete.
When the player attacks, a chance to hit is calculated and the player can use firearms, knives, grenades, and explosives.
If mercenary takes damage, the player must treat it to prevent further or permanent injury. They might also lose attribute points from injuries, such as a hit to the head may reduce wisdom or a hit to legs may reduce agility. Once treated, the player can assign doctor and patient roles to restore them to full health.
The game also features a simple crafting system items, where the player can use items by combing two of them in order to either improve items or create new ones. There aren’t many combinations, but those offered are very useful.
Each of the mercenaries hired, come with their own weapons and equipment. The player can equip body armors, camos, radios, and vests. Vests with pockets are used to store items, and can have two to five pockets, and can be used to stock identical items. Unlimited items can be stored at the base, but mercenaries have to travel from sector to the base. The player must make use of the environment, and enemies will run for cover, outflank the player, and appear to have a variety of skill levels.
The game, however, is not without problems. The player can spend an entire game day, searching for the last enemy, and moving the mercenaries can be a menial task.
Graphics are low-res but have some charm, but also can be a problem because the player can’t zoom out and it can be difficult to see which way the enemy is facing. The map is small and the player will be doing a lot of scrolling.
Because each day is a work day (7 AM – 7 PM), the day can end during battle, and mercenaries can suffer damage as they retreat. The player must use their time wisely, as spending too much time in one sector, can lead to not being able to take the key objective in another.
The game doesn’t feature a tutorial, and player must look up either a manual or a strategy guide. For instance, there are two ways to end a day: the player can either abort or press “C” to compress time, and there is no way to know this because it’s not specified in-game.
Overall the game is also intelligent and unforgiving. Combat can be difficult, and the player will find themselves outflanked and a chance to hit relies a bit on luck. Also, it is way to easy to die by an enemy grenade, which can be infuriating.
Jagged Alliance aims to be simple and streamlined combat, then the other turn-based games, although those expecting X-COM style strategy might be disappointed, the voice acting and personalities make up for it. It might be hard and unfriendly to newbies, but for those with patience or those who like turn-based games, give this one a go.