From developer Tindalos Interactive and publisher Focus Home Interactive, Etherium is a new entry in the strategy genre, taking elements from different subgenres and combining them all into one game. It has real-time strategy (RTS) gameplay, turn-based gameplay, and then lastly a card based system. All of these combine in a way that works well (when the game works), but feels a little too much when you take in account the steep learning curve.
Let's set the galactic framework though – interdimensional beings that arrive once a millennia lay eggs containing etherium, an incredibly powerful form of energy. Three distinct races: the Consortium (humanity) in its futuristic glory, a cyborg race called the Vectide Empire, and lastly an ancient and advanced race named the Intar. These three races are attempting to harvest as much etherium as possible before the creatures' eggs hatch, and the valuable resource is unavailable for another 1,000 years. The story is actually neat, and while most of the races seemed similar in many aspects, they're each very unique in their design.
Etherium wants players to tackle the tutorial, and I highly recommend it. The game has a steep learning curve, and while I got to try the tutorial twice (more on that later), it was much needed. The design and layout was odd for me as an RTS veteran, and some of the controls felt off. Initially, the game presented the camera move controls as the Q, Z, S, and D keys, with Q and S handling up and down, while Z and D did the side-to-side movements. Yet, if you go into the options to turn them back to default, it resets to the traditional WASD setup most are familiar with. The tutorial covers both the ground and space elements of the game, but nothing is truly exciting until you get into the true Conquest mode of the game.
Players diving straight into Conquest initially start on the space side of the game, which is the comprised of the turn-based and card-based portion of the game. Players alternate turns with their enemies, moving their invasion forces from planet to planet, capturing worlds in the process. Some planets offer bonuses, and "buildings" are created as turns progress, helping the overall war effort. Moving fleets around, attacking enemy fleets, or capturing new locations on planets all consumes Action Points. No AP, no nothing. The space side is also where research is handled – points are spent at unlocking new research levels, new units, or abilities for use in battle. I felt cheated on this aspect though as each new tier costs its relative value (Tier 3 costs 3 points) and the research therein ALSO costs that same amount. Gaining the extremely powerful tanks for the Consortium costs 6 research points overall – 3 to unlock Tier 3 and 3 to research. I'm guessing there are cards that provide additional research points that I never saw, but other than that possibility, players can only earn more by waiting until their next turn. This makes it so some of the later tech takes a while to reach. The tier levels are also important when in battle on planet's surfaces. Lastly, the card system yields a new card every turn, or AP can be spent to earn a new one. Some cards provide additional damage for fleet attacks, while others add research points, and more.
Once on the planet side of Etherium, the best part of the game shines. The RTS element forces players to constantly push forward in an attempt to capture control points on the map. Some control points offer new etherium deposits to harvest, but others are merely additional segments. On each of these, outposts or colonies are built, granting the option to build new additions to your overall setup. You need more research points to build those better units? Construct more research stations to increase your tech level and unleash your colossi. Or perhaps your current unit capacity is too small – build yourself a logistics center for more units. It's important to set yourself up for success, and understanding the implications of building one thing over the other is important since building slots are so limited.
Aside from capture points and building management, the game handles much like a traditional RTS. Units are easily moved across the map, and gain levels from killing enemy units. The neat aspect here is depending on what buildings are made, it's possible to recruit existing neutral units on the map to your cause. These include raiders, guardians, and parasites, all of which can quickly help you turn the tide of battle.
The game's victory system is what really threw me off. Players must reach as close to 12 Victory Points as possible. If they reach 12, they must hold that VP for one full turn, meaning another race can swoop in and prevent that from happening. Some cards can automatically provide a boost to VP, and has the potential to disable similar cards in play. Earning VP is a varied affair, but mission objectives can be viewed at any time, for both yours and the enemies'. This allows you to to tailor your plans accordingly. It seemed like most objectives involved controlling planets, so figure a true conquest as the best course of action. It is also possible to rally A.I. factions to your cause as well, further securing additional VP for your win.
On the technical side of things, my chief complaint with Etherium is the constant crashing to desktop. I trolled around in both the Steam forums and developer's forums, and while others have experienced the same issued, I could not find a solution. I'm not even sure what's causing it, as I meet all system requirements, but it seemed to happen at random times. It took two attempts to finish the tutorial, another attempt to get through the first turn in the conquest mode. The game then lasted almost four turns before it crashed again. The first patch for the game fixes some stability issues and I have not seen it crash since, but just be mindful and save often as a precaution.
Etherium isn't a bad game by any means, as the RTS elements of the game are perhaps the most enjoyable, combining the best pieces of other strategy games. However, the turn-based sections of the game seemed to slow the overall pace down, and the card system seems disconnected from the rest of the game. Toss in a myriad of crashes, and I feel this one could have used some additional time to polish the experience.
Note: The Etherium review is based on a digital PC copy of the game, provided for review purposes.