Jagged Alliance Review for Nintendo DS

Jagged Alliance Review for Nintendo DS

Hired Guns

Plenty of people have good memories of PC gaming in the mid-㥢s. Such gamers will probably have a good time with the new DS port of Jagged Alliance, a 1994 strategy-RPG title. Everyone else should probably take a pass, though: by today’s standards, this game is really, really boring, and ugly to boot.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

First, a quick note on false advertising. Despite the fact that an early version of the cover art (still shown on Amazon and other retail sites) matches that of Jagged Alliance 2, this is a port of the original Jagged Alliance. This is something of a dirty trick on the publisher’s part, given that the games are old enough that many players only remember them by the images on the boxes. To be fair, the art that actually made it into stores is based on the art from the original, so they corrected their mistake.

At the beginning of Jagged Alliance, you control a tiny corner of the island Metavira. Nuclear tests on Metavira caused mutations in some of the trees, and said trees now contain a sap that can cure diseases the world over. Unfortunately, the trees can’t reproduce, making them an extremely valuable and rare resource. There are two scientific teams on the island; you’re working on behalf of one, and the other has taken over the rest of the island (59 of the 60 sectors!) through violence, planning to harvest the trees for maximum profit.

The goal is to take the island back from the evil, sap-exploitative capitalists, and to complete several tangential tasks along the way. To do this, you’ll need to hire mercenaries to fight the bad guy Santino’s forces. In turn, to do that , you’ll need to manage your resources carefully so you don’t run out of money. The idea is to capture as much territory as quickly as possible without losing too many men or spreading yourself too thin. Whenever you capture territory, you can hire locals to tap the trees, which earns you cash to finance your assault on Santino.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

This is a perfectly fine idea for a game; trees aren’t exactly the sexiest objects of contention, but they work. The problem is that the gameplay, on an hour-by-hour basis, is painfully tedious. When you traverse enemy territory, each and every movement, from walking to shooting to transferring items from one fighter to another, uses “action points,” even if there’s not a single enemy in sight (you can view the whole sector you’re in, but the enemies are invisible until they get close). Walking quietly (“sneaking”) requires even more points, as does crouching down when your mercenary reaches his destination. This system works when you’re in the middle of combat, as it forces you to end your turn when you run out of points, giving the enemy a chance; when you’re trying to find the next enemy in a sector, though, it’s a real pain. To make matters worse, you have to wait for each mercenary to finish walking before starting the next one on his way.

When battles do ensue, the tradeoffs between shooting and moving can become annoying, and there’s rarely a sense of tension. The sheer number of options (move around, attack with various weapons, use items, end turn, etc.) may have seemed manageable with a computer screen and keyboard, but it’s harder to be patient and easier to feel overwhelmed when hunched over a few square inches of screen holding a stylus. The control scheme is a very good reason to buy the game or rent it locally, as opposed to renting it through a mail service like GameFly; without an instruction manual, it can take a lot of time to figure out what’s going on, because there’s inexcusably little in-game guidance.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

This isn’t to say the interface is bad. Aside from the lack of assistance, it’s about as good as one can expect outside of the PC experience. For the most part, it’s simply a matter of choosing the mercenary you’d like to use and telling him what to do, and it’s not until you want to accomplish a lot in a short period of time that it becomes too much.

In other words, the problem isn’t in the porting itself, but in the decision to port in the first place. Today, the original PC version costs about $10 and runs on pretty much any computer, and the same is true of Jagged Alliance 2 (widely regarded as the better and deeper game). It’s not like this is the kind of thing one plays in short bursts at bus stops (though the quicksave option, a welcome feature, makes this possible), so it’s not quite clear what purpose is served by cramming it into a DS cartridge.

Also, this is a faithful port, which faithful fans will like, but in terms of graphics the age really shows. Some of the game’s cutscenes look quite good, but during gameplay, the lack of visual updating is painfully obvious. The backgrounds, icons, and characters look downright awful, and nothing about the drab presentation enhances the experience at all. For those with opinions unencumbered by nostalgia, ugly is the only word that fits.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

Of course, no game is without its merits, even after 15 years. The music still sounds suitably ominous, for example. Also, Jagged Alliance demands a lot of thought and a lot of strategizing, especially in battle but also in resource management. It’s tricky to balance the need to be in cover with the need to have a clear shot at the enemies, and the more territory you capture, the more decisions you have to make about which sectors to attack next, and from which directions. It’s also hard to hire the right mercenaries, and the right number of them, to build a powerful, balanced force without running out of money. Once you think you’ve mastered the game’s techniques, you can put that thought to the test by turning up the difficulty, which adds a lot of replayability.

In addition, Jagged Alliance still boasts a great cast of mercenaries, most of whom don’t become available until you’ve established either a reputation or a revenue stream. Each of the fighters has a unique voice, skill set, and personality, and they even interact with each other in specific ways, forming friendships and the like. Jagged Alliance demands not only strategy, then, but a feel for human relationships. Even in 2009, few games manage to capture this aspect of life. Jagged Alliance is also one of the few RPG or strategy titles without a sci-fi or fantasy setting; sure, the plot isn’t exactly based on a true story, but compared to the tales told in most similar games, this is gritty realism.

In 1994, Jagged Alliance represented a genuine accomplishment, a blending of the RPG and strategy genres that a lot of gamers took to. Five years later, its sequel earned a lot of respect as well. After all this time, it’s clear what players saw in the game, but for newcomers, it’s hard to experience the same sense of wonder, and even harder to invest the same level of commitment. The overwhelming majority of DS owners should skip this one, therefore, and those who’d like to give it a try should download the PC version (or the sequel) rather than investing in a cartridge.

Yikes. They were undoubtedly fine for 1994, but they have not aged well. 3.9 Control
It’s about as good as it could be on the DS, with a few menus accessible through the stylus. However, if you rent via mail and don’t get an instruction book, it’ll take some figuring out, because the game does not help you along at all. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The drum-heavy orchestral tracks fit the game and have aged better than the graphics. 3.7

Play Value
This game, by today’s standards, is incredibly boring, but there are many hours of play time here for those who get into it. Also, those who enjoyed the original PC game will get a kick out of the faithful reproduction.

3.3 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Intense turn-based combat lets you plan every action you’ll need. Santino and his men are ruthless, ingenious, and downright dangerous.
  • Full-screen playing area and strategic view engulfs you in exciting action and maximizes strategic planning.
  • Heart-stopping suspense as you venture into hostile territory — more than 50 diverse playing fields.
  • Non-linear game play — how each game unfolds depends entirely on you.

  • To top