Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
The landscape is unapologetic and hostile, with sand, dirt, and grime whipping around the vast swaths of flat terrain. Above the atmosphere, ships hover menacingly in orbit, sending support troops below for the various factions, and waging orbital war with one another. Terrestrial and orbital wars wage simultaneously, and graphically, giving the grand battlefield an unnerving sense of frantic urgency.
Etherium, Tindalis Interactive’ real-time strategy, has a beautiful capability with the urgency of the battlefield. Every skirmish begins with a primary base of operations drifting in from space, framed from above by bright gunfire and ships spread out across the skyline. That battle looks suitably heated and frantic, giving the player a brief glimpse of the on-going war raging overhead before bringing the view back down to the planet’s surface.
Once on that surface, everything seems hauntingly quiet by comparison. A quick timer counts down, and the level begins in earnest. Starting with a single building unit, you’ll need to expand your territory to acquire more etherium, and establish a stronghold for yourself to keep your etherium refinery intact against enemy assault. Maintaining a secure presence on the territory grids with etherium is pivotal, as the mysterious energy serves as the player’s income, which is used to upgrade bases, summon units, build expansions, and build turrets for base defense. It’s a familiar formula, but being traditional – some might even say a bit retro – isn’t a bad thing in this case.
Once the battles over territory begin, respite becomes entirely absent. Etherium is a game that relishes in the frantic battlefield, and momentum is an amazing resource for the player that garners it. Any given battle can become an uphill battle if given the slightest of advantages. This is, in part, due to the fact that base-building is tethered to specific locations, but the first command point is the only one of importance. You can’t move, change, or modify their home base in any significant way. That point, which is a known point on the map for all players, is where the skirmish begins and ends. Once an army manages to begin making solid headway into a base, the subsequent momentum becomes difficult to stem. The tide of battle becomes a living force, crashing mercilessly into every defense a player can bear.
Part of the reason for this is that units can only be built onto bases with spaceports, and spaceports take up valuable slots that many bases usually only have one or three of. In a game about amassing etherium, having to sacrifice one of limited slots to boost income speed is a decision one can only make at great risk. Doubly so because bases also need logistics bases in order to enable control of more than three units. Further, the airdrop nature of the units means that their production speed is stilted by how quickly ships can fly down from the fleets overhead, meaning that last-minute unit necessities will commonly come on the wire, or too late entirely. Despite the game’s base-building nature, the battles seem more determined by the first faction to build a strong advance force than the first player to accurately manipulate the units or manage bases carefully. Having a quick army to rush building an explosive momentum is invaluable, and skirmishes can quickly turn into massacres given fast enough reflexes.
In combat, though, Etherium is beautiful. The bursts of tracer fire, the strong lines of lasers that carve shapes into the air, and the interplay of units, scenery, and natural hazards presents the game’s strongest feature. In motion, the frantic and hasty combat feels entirely natural. The percussive rattle of gunfire accompanying the sound of metal squealing under the strain of combat is genuinely wonderful, and feels so very natural in with the sci-fi units, the bright and colorful alien planets, and the desperate war to control the etherium deposits in the universe.
Outside of skirmishes, Etherium eschews a traditional campaign in favor of a Conquest mode, a galactic-wide strategy mode where the three factions battle to control territories across multiple planets. Each of the factions have fleets in the galaxy, which can fly to various planets in turns, capturing territories, attacking enemy territories and fleets. Each faction has a home planet, in where that faction’s palace and starter territories lie. Each turn, players are given a number of action points which grant them moves to make in a turn, technology points which can be applied toward unlocking and improving fleets and units, and new bonuses depending on territories owned.
Conquest mode is genuinely an interesting addition to break up the RTS format, giving the depth of strategy a slower, more pensive edge to go along with the high-speed frantic combat found in the on-planet skirmishes. It can also be played as any faction, and the missions each Conquest are randomized, which gives the game a unique aspect every time it’s launched. The various factions have their unique perks, different command abilities in battle, and they all have their own specialty units in addition to the basics. While there is variety to the factions, though, they all feel quite similar. The special units and unique command abilities are all similar enough that their nuances can be understood in a quick sentence or two of mouse-over text. While each of the factions present a strong visual profile, they all feel really familiar in combat. Easy to slide into and out of on a whim, but doesn’t bolster the variety of the game mode as much as it could.
Paradoxically, between technology trees, missions, political cards, spying, fleet management, and territory acquisition, Conquest feels just a tiny bit too busy. As your options grow and expand, your choices become more numerous than entirely necessary. After all of the tools become unlocked, the need to have them locked behind a tech tree feels unnecessary and restrictive. Missions seem to add a strategy-limiting edge to the territories – and the number of moving parts takes away time and focus away from the interesting mechanics, and invests them into other slower, more distant behaviors. Etherium’s Conquest Mode can ultimately feel too busy: an interesting concept burdened by a ballooning list of options that seem to grow increasingly complex with every passing turn.
Ground skirmishes mirror this problem. The number of requirements for various aspects on the battlefield add complexity without really complementing the existing mechanics. Having the ability to ferry units for a low fee from the very first second seems to encourage players to build a solid army and ferry it immediately into a favorable position. But relatively low-power units can swarm easily, and if a battle can end in the first half-hour rather than spanning the full map and spreading resources to make each base defensible, the hurried option becomes terribly tempting to take – especially since the fog of war doesn’t conceal where the enemy’s central base is, and how hard it is to stop the momentum cold.
Despite the structural flaws, Etherium is an interesting game. The concept of Conquest mode over a traditional campaign is an idea worth indulging and exploring. The game is visually and aesthetically beautiful, the actual combat feels meaningful and interesting if the armies survive early game rushes, and when decisions manage to be big and meaningful, they feel as weighty and heavy as a good gambit in a strategy game should. That said, in motion, it doesn’t feel right. The battles are too fast, the Conquest mode too slow and preponderous, the options and requirements too numerous, and the sheer number of available tactics and techniques are a little too overwhelming for how well the Skirmish and Conquest mechanics feel without them.
Etherium is a good game, with the potential to be a great one when played with the right groups and in the right settings. However, with an antsy AI and more interlocking mechanics than are expressly needed, Etherium can’t bring itself to be as amazing as its looks at first glance. Etherium is, however, a beautiful and punchy strategy game that just didn’t quite capitalize as much as it could have, which feels as fleeting as its combat.