In a Gray Zone far, far away…
In the continuing saga of my impostor scamming innocent developers for keys (seriously), yet another title has fallen into my lap that I’ve promised to give a fair shake to make amends. The crazy thing about this whole ordeal (aside from the fact that someone is impersonating me for ill-gotten gains)? My impostor has yet to pick a bad game, and Gray Zone, a “tactical RTS shoot ‘em up with RPG elements,” is another solid title that doesn’t disappoint.
With one of four chapters currently available on Steam as Early Access from Slovakian game developer Eastworks, Gray Zone is an ambitious tactical RTS that tells the story of humanity fighting for its right to live in a war-torn wasteland on a faraway planet. Players take on the role of former slave-turned-merc Valern Thorn, a man who escaped certain death after defending his father’s life. The man’s last gift from his feeble father was a mysterious crystal — which projects the even more mysterious being, Anika — in a desperate effort to save his son from a slave’s ultimate fate. Anika leads Valern to a mystical portal, which transports the pair to a godforsaken wilderness where survival is never guaranteed. With no other options, Valern finds himself defending his new friends from slave drivers, mutants, and the sinister Union in an attempt to make sense of it all and live to see another day.
First up, the art and aesthetic is well done. I instantly got Fallout 2 vibes with 70s futurism flair. I really enjoyed the way the storyline unfolded, with beautifully illustrated scenes depicting events with the narrator providing more context. The environments had an undeniable beauty to them, despite — or perhaps because of — how desolate everything was. There was always something intriguing to explore, standout items that’d catch my eye, and enough asset diversity to keep the maps fresh. Even though most everything was shades of barren brown, there was enough depth and interest to keep the focus going.
The controls were honestly not all that intuitive to begin with, and only two controls are immediately explained. WASD controls the camera and the scroll wheel on the mouse zooms the top-down camera in and out, but it took me a solid minute to figure out that right click controlled movement — something not even laid out in the control scheme on the pause screen. Despite the initial hiccup, everything eventually became seamless, and it was more a matter of mastery instead of frustration soon thereafter.
The storyline in Gray Zone is interesting; as explained earlier, Valern now finds himself in an unknown land fighting for their freedoms. His companion, Anika, is housed in a blue crystal that hangs around his neck and sometimes offers advice; only he can see her, though, so she tries to lie low as to not make others think Valern is crazy. The storyline follows the map campaign, which is fairly linear — get from point A to point B. Along the way, there are optional missions Valern and company can take on, such as defeating a giant mutated wolf or saving an unarmed town from mutants, and it’s recommended to take those on as they pay off in terms of ammo and health packs. Be prepared to die a few times, however — sometimes you learn the hard way not to take a certain path or to heal up before proceeding. Luckily, Gray Zone is forgiving, and it’s easy enough to keep pressing forward no matter what happens.
At this juncture, I feel compelled to remind readers that Gray Zone is still a work in progress. Some cutscenes aren’t fully localized and there have been some bug reports regarding saves and loading, but the game is still playable, with six full missions and one smaller bonus mission available. Despite the hiccups, there’s more good than bad to be found here. The developers noted that, as time goes on, the price will increase to reflect the finished product, so if you’re even remotely interested in the title, it might be best to buy in at its current, cheapest price.
I must admit, I wasn’t immediately charmed with Gray Zone — the first 30 minutes or so felt cookie-cutterish, I fumbled early on with the not-so-intuitive controls, and Anika’s path-finding still gives me anxiety. After trying again a second time, however, I found myself hooked on not only the story, but how the missions played into the story. Recruiting heroes, looting fallen enemies, and stumbling across armored cars to plow through armies of mutant was actually really enjoyable, and having to adjust my course of action to take into account events as they unfolded in real time was a thrill. If Gray Zone doesn’t grab you from the start, give it a little time to warm up. You’ll be glad you did.
With seven missions to keep players satisfied for now and the promise of future chapters to be released as time goes on, Gray Zone certainly offers some lofty promises; however, if the first chapter is anything to go by, it’s safe to say that Eastworks will deliver on their word. If you’re a fan of tactical RTS games with an apocalyptic essence or new to the genre itself, you’ll find something to like about Gray Zone. Here’s to hoping this game holds a future as bright as Gray Zone’s wasteland is barren — I know I’ll be returning to save the day once more content rolls out, eager to find out what happens next.