Anthill | The Switch Island Review
“Any qualms I may have had quickly disappeared, as I was sucked into the world of the colony.”
Before finding enormous success with their ‘SteamWorld’ series of games, ‘Image & Form’ developed a small mobile strategy game: ‘Anthill’. Despite originally being released in 2011, like so many mobile games it has recently made its way over to the Nintendo Switch. The only question now is, is it just another shovel-ware port, or does it actually earn the right to suffer the polarising “Switch Tax”?
The first thing I realised about this game (though it’s hard to miss when the game practically shouts it at you) is that ‘Anthill’ can ONLY be played in portable mode, and is controlled entirely by touch controls. The first half I don’t mind so much; after all, portability is one of the Switch’s main selling points, even if I do still play most of my games docked. The second aspect however is harder for me to jump on board with; I’m generally not a fan of touch controls, and only ever really appreciate them when they’re offered as an alternative, and not forced on me by default. All that being said, I’m not sure that it would have been worth implementing a traditional control scheme as the game is just too obtuse and fast paced for it to be practical. Much in the same vane as other real-time strategy games, twin-stick controls are more likely to be a hindrance than anything else. So until someone develops a mouse and keyboard attachment for the Switch, best stick to the touch controls.
Despite my reservations about the mechanics it didn’t take long to adjust, and soon any qualms I may have had quickly disappeared as I was sucked into the world of the colony. The game itself is a weird hybrid of real-time strategy and wave-based tower defence. In a linear level-based fashion you tackle different scenarios of increasing difficulty where you must gather resources to gain points whilst fending off attackers and protecting your anthill. To do this you draw a path with you finger from your colony to either food or foe and choose a type of unit to patrol it; kill enemies with the soldiers and collect food from their carcasses with the workers, all the while making sure you’re never overrun. Survive for long enough and gain enough points to progress to the next level. It’s not exactly groundbreaking as a gameplay loop, but theres something about the balancing of the game and the timings of the level that work really well together to create that addictive “one more go” feeling when playing.
Part of this appeal, and true to ‘Image & Form’s reputation, the game has a very charming presentation. Several characters are introduced to you throughout the tutorial and larger game and strange as it seems, just having these characters goes a long way to making me more invested in the outcome of the level. In truth this is really needed as at times its not a very easy game, and losing a level over and over again would’ve undoubtedly gotten old much faster without the psuedo-empathtic connection I had to my fake ant friends. On the surface you probably wouldn’t imagine the game to be very hard, but like any good real-time strategy, it’s easy to become overwhelmed in a very short space of time, and it will take some time before you’re able to manage all the game asks of you with ease. Some levels in fact were so challenging that I had to rely on a lot of trial and error before I could finally devise a plan that worked. Dare I say this is the ‘Dark Souls’ of ant-based games? Not quite, I’m not usually that hyperbolic, but it’s worth keeping in mind that playing through this game won’t be a picnic. (Insert ant + picnic joke here…)
Of course like any well designed game, just because you cant beat a level now doesn’t mean you wont ever. As you progress through the campaign you’ll unlock different types of ants to aid you in the fight for survival. Starting off all you’ll have available are workers and soldiers; workers collect food and soldiers patrol to protect them. But pretty soon you’ll also have access to Bomber ants that fly straight from the colony to rain anty death from above, as well as the self-explanatory Spitters. All your unit types can also be upgraded a generous amount and even develop new abilities, so with a bit of perseverance there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to beat a tricky level eventually. Just keep at it and git gud scrub.
On paper it presents itself as a fairly simple take on the genre, but only a few levels in the difficulty cranks way up and you’re forced to take a much more thought out approach to most situations. At times it felt almost too big a jump in the difficulty curve, but for fans of the tower defence genre who are looking for a challenge, ‘Anthill’ offers just that plus an interesting twist on the conventional gameplay mechanics.