Neon Squad Tactics Review: Demeo With Droids

Neon Squad Tactics might feel to some like it was borne out of one of those desperate meetings – that people outside of game development assume happen all the time but likely never do. The kind where one person twirling a pencil-thin mustache names a successful game and suggests the team make something similar but in a different setting:

“Demeo is killing it on VR right now. Let’s do that but with robots!”

It’s easy to be cynical about Neon Squad’s formation because it basically is Demeo, only with robots and quite a few mutants. More pertinently, while it features more maps and, therefore, more stuff compared to VR’s premier fantasy board game, it’s certainly not as varied or as slick as you’d expect a Demeo-with-robots-and-mutants to be.

Neon Squad Tactics – The Facts

What is it?: XCOM-inspired battles in a Demeo-inspired cybercafe.
Platforms: Quest (Reviewed on Quest 2)
Release Date: Out now
Developer: Tin Man Games
Price: $14.99

Take the backdrop to the game: Demeo’s is a convivial D&D-bedecked basement that is welcoming and familiar. Neon Squad’s equivalent is intended to be some kind of Snow Crash cyberpunk nightclub but it actually feels closer to an edge lord fever dream. As a space, it doesn’t make much sense. There’s a bar but no punters, a couple of robo-DJs that shudder like they’re about to blow a fuse. You won’t find a dancefloor, dancers, or much you’d want to rattle your bones to, even if the place was buzzing.

Lose Yourself To Dance

Yes, Neon Squad Tactics has a significant multiplayer element, and the cyberspace juice bar aesthetic is intended to backdrop a social space. However, for the solo player, it’s like being the first to a party that only exists in the host’s imagination. There’s very little reason to poke around or take in the scenery; not even a nod to some cliche or trope gleaning from watching too much of The Matrix. If the developers were minded to patch in something worth discovering, a shoebox hiding a damp sock would seem the most obvious.

Thankfully, while you’re surrounded by the trappings of a flaccid imagination, your main focus is the holographic table in the center of the room, upon which the selected battlegrounds are projected and from where you direct your units and their abilities. It’s here that two aspects distinct from Demeo will hit home; the interface and the gameplay.

Enemy Known 

Let’s start with the latter. As with XCOM and many other like-minded turn-based games, your units – up to four – are afforded two action points, which can be spent moving, firing weapons, throwing grenades, or using a gadget such as to revive or heal a fallen comrade. Unused APs are usually lost, although depending on the character and your journey through the research tree, they could bank you some much-needed health or protection at the end of a turn.

It’s important to note that there are no dice rolls and no cards to pick up. The only surprises to worry about are which troops will be targeted by the AI and where its reinforcements will appear midway through a level. Those being easy to figure out, inevitable success rewards you with various types of credits to unlock new tech trees and upgrades. As you’d expect, there’s all the usual gear: a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, missile launcher, sniper rifle – all in a variety of flavors that more or less do the same thing.

Safety In Numbers

I quickly realized that the strategy of least resistance is to equip your units with fundamentally the same gear: a long and a short-range weapon each, a couple of grenades, and some protective gadgets. If you keep your units within one or two spaces of each other, you can pull the nearest enemy towards your position and concentrate your fire to bring each down in turn. Consequently, if you do lose someone to a rash decision or the UI (more on that shortly), you can easily revive them on your next turn. 

While the maps are small and the battles across them tend to play out in much the same way, there is a generous number of them. The rally of bullets and bombs can be breezily enjoyable in spite of the limited tactics. One memorable map is set across a maze of broken pipes oozing toxic slime, with giant spiders rushing your position while snipers take potshots from across the map. You’ll find one or two special units to up the ante later on, though the playbook remains much the same. If you do come up against any difficulty, a judicious unlock or two should see you through any subsequent playthrough.

Control, I’m Here

Where the game feels slightly shambolic is with the controls. Viewing and moving your way across the digitized landscape is painless enough when the maps have limited elevation. Once ladders and platforms make an appearance, expect to utter a few swears as they hamper you from trying to move units and select weapons via the wrist interface. As a result, often your units will end up in entirely the wrong tile, a frustration made worse by there being no undo or rewind option.

The problem is entirely down to the way the game forces you to float above your units in order to pick them up and move them around, unlike with Demeo where you can stay out of the way and select them with a pointer. Even the enjoyably clunky way the developer implemented unit selection and movement in its previous game, Table of Tales, works a lot better than it does here. 

One Finger Death Punch 

Perhaps the reason why the developers want you to remain in close contact with your troops is because pouring drinks on them from on high doesn’t have the same visual impact. Why would you want to do that, you may reasonably ask? Well, you may recall I mentioned that there are no cards to collect or play, but there kind of are: Neon Squad calls them mocktails, which you can buy from the droid behind the bar as required.

There’s one to boost health, another to strip away armour, another to add an extra AP, plus a few others you can select from a menu. To apply, simply pour on the affected unit or required area. It’s a bit gimmicky, sure, but you can imagine drinks being an effective way to break the ice in a roomful of strangers.

About that… Unfortunately, I was unable to find anyone to sit down with in multiplayer. Whenever I searched for a table to join there were none, and when I tried to set one up for others to sidle over to, no one did. What that says about the game’s potential future nearly a week after release, I’ll leave you to surmise. It could just be that players were working their way through the single-player campaign first. Hopefully, it’s something we can come back to in the days ahead.

Neon Squad Tactics – Final Verdict 

Neon Squad Tactics is a genuinely likable and generous game. The presentation is subjective, so if you like the look of these headache-inducing colors, there’s a good chance you’ll like what you hear and have an enjoyable time with the rest. It’s a shame we couldn’t try out the multiplayer table options, but what there is for the solo player is worth trying. It’s not the most challenging or diverse game, and the controls could do with an overhaul, but if a snarky sci-fi take on Demeo is what you need right now, Neon Squad Tactics should do you tactically until a more polished offering comes along.

UploadVR uses a 5-Star rating system for our game reviews – you can read a breakdown of each star rating in our review guidelines.