Merry old London: a capital of the empire where the sun never sets. A bright beacon of civilization, art, and culture. However, if in the Victorian times you’d stray from its brightly lit streets into Whitechapel, Spitalfields or, god forbid, The Old Nichols, you’d see an entirely different picture. Crime-infested slums with London’s trademark polluted fogs, affectionately known as pea soup, hiding countless crooks, scallywags, scoundrels, rogues, rapscallions, knaves, ne’er-do-wells and other scum eagerly watching your every move. Seriously, with such a rich and colorful criminal nomenclature, Brits must’ve known a thing or two about crime in those days, as is amusingly shown in Antihero, a game that will put you in the silent footwear of a master thief bent on spreading his sly influence across the unsuspecting city.
Developed by an indie developer known as Tim Conkling and published by famous Versus Evil, Antihero is precisely a game that all of us who had secretly longed to experience the life of crime had been waiting for. This delightful turn-based strategy/board game and thieves’ guild simulation perfectly showcases this shady, less glamorous side of London life, and drops you right in the middle of a hidden gang war waged on its grimy, gas-lit streets and back alleys.
As befits a game that aims to satiate our grabby thieving urges, Antihero offers several modes that will showcase the life of an honest thief from several different angles – the basic one being the single-player campaign. The main hero, or rather, the antihero of the campaign is a shady character aptly called Lightfinger. This master thief has only one ambition in life – to bring his own guild to the top of the London criminal ladder. Now, as usual, the one thing that stands in the way of his success is a rival gang led by devious Lygrave, an imposter who cast an eye on Lightfinger’s turf. The game is initially focused on the hidden powerplay between these two rival gangs and their fight for supremacy over the London underworld. Both gangs will stop at nothing in order to chase each other away, and when I say nothing I really mean it – murders, assassinations, beatings, burglary, booby-trapping, blackmails, kidnapping, corruption are just some of the things from their thieving repertoire. However, later on, you’ll also cross paths with other opponents, even more dangerous than Lygrave.
There are 11 levels, or chapters, in the campaign, and each one is set in a different district, chronicling your clashes with Lygrave’s and other gangs. Each level is divided in turns: the first turn is yours, and then the opponent takes charge and does his thing – when he finishes you’ll be able to see his red footprints and that of his units, clearly trailing their nocturnal misdeeds. Your basic and probably most important unit is a Master Thief which can nimbly scout the streets and break into buildings relieving them of valuables. You’ll start with Lightfinger, but you’ll soon also be able to take control of Emma, his talented protégé. These Master Thieves are extremely important since initially the streets will be covered with a fog of war. In order to locate all the potential targets and gain better understanding of the opponent’s movements, they will scout the area and thus remove the fog. This is also important because of the fact that other units can walk only on the cleared parts – once cleared, the streets will be prepared for other units and movement on clear areas won’t cost action points.
There are two main resources in the game: gold which you’ll use to recruit new additions in your gang, and lanterns used for unlocking different skills, abilities and new units. The first you’ll acquire by plying your thief trade (i.e. by burglary and robbery) and the second are generated by certain types of buildings such as, for example, some sort of trading house. However, in order to benefit from these (and other) buildings, you first must infiltrate them with your men.
That’s where this colorful Dickensian cast of characters comes in handy. You’ll virtually have a unit for every possible situation in this game. If you want to infiltrate some structure and make it your own, send a couple of Urchins to claim itfor your cause. The more the merrier – one Urchin will generate only one lamp, but if you bring three of them (which is the maximum), you’ll not only double the production, but Urchins will also get the ability to defend themselves and fend off the possible evictors. Gangs (which are the spitting image of Bill the Butcher from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York) have several roles in the gameplay. First of all, they are your basic bruisers, tasked with beating the living daylights out of all those who look at you the wrong way. However, it’s interesting how they work in combination with thugs. Their role is to guard buildings and streets, but they also can join the gang – with each new addition, the health of the Gangs will increase by one point. Gangs can also be used to evict urchins from rival buildings, thus freeing them for your own associates.
Now, there are also units which have pretty specialized roles in the gameplay. For instance, particularly sly and disgusting characters are Truant Officers, which kidnap Urchins stationed in buildings and take them away for cheap labor. Of course, the gameplay of the Antihero is extremely well balanced, so for each action, there is an appropriate countermeasure. In this particular case, if you want to get rid of Truant Officers, recruit a Saboteur which can booby-trap buildings and protect them from all those who want to mess with your Urchins.
All new abilities and units can be researched in the skill tree which is appropriately divided into three branches – Skullduggery, Sneakery, and Stabbery. There you can learn new skills that every self-respecting thief should know, such as Art Critic (lets you steel artworks from buildings) or Safecracker which will get you an additional gold coin from robbed buildings. Cooking will get you Urchins, Brewing will unlock Thugs, Explosives gives you Saboteurs and so on and so forth.
Of course, since your goal is to basically beat the rival gang, you’ll achieve it by accumulating a required number of victory points before your opponents. There is a number of ways to do that, such as completing assassination contracts and blackmailing churches. And if you’re hard-pressed for time (and you have a surplus of lamps) you can even bribe an official, and thus gain a victory point.
This nail-biting story of gang war in the Victorian times comes with great, cartoonish visuals and attractive stylized bobblehead characters, done in the bold and fetching style that somewhat resembles the technique of old woodcuts. When you inevitably master the single-player campaign and defeat all your wily opponents, you’ll probably want to try out what multiplayer has to offer – a shrewd decision that will confront you with new challenges in the form of PvP online multiplayer as well as local hotseat skirmishes. Cute graphics and intriguing premise are certainly a plus, but the gameplay that’s simultaneously engaging and straightforward is something that we don’t see every day. All of the above make the Antihero an invaluable addition to our mobile gaming libraries.