If I slap the word "tactics" onto a game, it implies one thing: there will be some kind of tactical thought or strategy involved. By moving the pieces given to you, a goal is achieved in some sort of thoughtful way. The best tactical games reduce randomness, making the pieces you have and the rules laid down don’t change. Any issues can be fixed by reloading and trying a different way instead of reloading and hope that a random element spawns. Cube Tactics immediately makes the entirety of how to get units random.
By which I mean the game fails at the "tactics" part. There is a strategic element to placing cubes in good places, but it’s not substantial. The tutorial gives you two things to consider: same type cubes are stronger when placed next to each other, upgrading when a square of four is formed, and that you should face cubes in the direction of where you want them to spawn from. With these two tips in mind, you can go into different levels and retry them until you get the best possible random draw order. Let's say you need a fourth samurai spawn point, you can waste minutes trying to make the final block appear. When you lose it is because the final block, the crux of your strategy, failed to appear. The next time you play, it may randomly draw it earlier.
Suffice to say, I’m not a fan of that. If the game is going to involve tactics, give me more control over this. Even if the draw order was fixed and still out of my control, I could get behind that. But later challenges get so specific with things you need that if they don’t pop up with the right frequency, you’re completely out of luck. On top of that, it can be pretty unclear to understand what is going on regarding strengths and weaknesses of one unit type versus another. I get that samurai are strong, but how much stronger and what does it take to take them down? It’s never really spelled out, so trying to properly strategize isn’t really something you can do.
The game is based around building out terrain from randomly selected cubes that can spawn units. Said units can battle each other and destroy spawning stations, the end result being that you build a path to the enemy’s main block and destroy it. That being the case, it would be handy if the path finding was better. Since the game is just auto-spawning and auto-pathing units in a direction, you have to hope they go the way you want, but it doesn’t always happen. You expect a left and they go right. You expect them to take the easier way but they get caught climbing a wall. Sometimes they can even just mill about. It really sucks.
Making it so the combination of pieces, spawned randomly, with AI controlled path finding might make for the least tactical game I’ve ever played. It seems like the developers were really looking to make Cube Tactics a puzzle game instead, where the randomized blocks make more sense. Even still, it doesn’t work. The best block-based puzzle games work around the idea of every block being useful, and the ability to destroy incorrectly placed ones, something that Cube Tactics doesn’t have. If you place something wrong, you’re unable to fix it, and the wrong block in the wrong place is entirely useless. It wastes space, doesn’t provide the right unit, and can even provide an easy path for the enemy to get to you.
So does any part of the game work, then? It is cool to see a huge swarm of characters overtaking an enemy and destroying their base, like you’re commanding an army of ants. Additionally, it’s pretty fun to achieve victory on a hard level, but it’s not as satisfying as it should be. I never once felt like I was outsmarting the game, and more felt like I had just brute forced my way through. And the feeling just got worse as the levels got more difficult.
Basically, Cube Tactics isn’t a great tactics game. Instead it wants to be a puzzle game, but if that’s the case, it’s a pretty bad puzzle game as well. Failure is too easy and too based on randomness, but at the same time, so is success. It never feels like you got better or smarter, just luckier. But at least the title is right about one thing: there are cubes all over the place.