Oh Boy. I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions over the past couple nights. I started out being impressed at the scale of the improvements that Strategic Mind: The Pacific has shown since it’s Early Access release. I was then cautious about its prospects while staring at a dead eyed monster child in the opening cutscene of the American campaign. I ended downright perplexed after I clicked on a Gato submarine only to hear, “I like rice, but can we have something else for a change?” delivered in a cringingly racist false Japanese accent that would make a 1944 cartoon blush. What does this game even want to be? I guess I’m the unlucky soul that must try to find out.

The general ‘series’ and I have a bit of a contentious past. Panzer Strategy, the first game in the series, was the first game I reviewed here at wargamer. I didn’t like it. While I appreciated that they tried to modernize the Panzer General formula with pretty 3D graphics and some interesting unit equipment and special ability decisions, there was so much wrong with the game that I couldn’t end up recommending it. I agonized over that fact. They were a small developer, trying something big and bold, and I hated that I couldn’t stand the end result. I didn’t want my first review to be a negative one but went through with airing my issues anyways. I thought that was it, but the developer, Starni Games, wasn’t done with me.

The cutscenes are horrendous. Stilted models and poor voicework. Here we see a child looking upon her deceased mother with less emotion than a cardboard box with crayon on it.

Panzer Strategy’s sequel, Strategic Mind: The Pacific entered early access in May 2019 and I was, given my experience, chosen to take a look at its first release. I wasn’t happy again. This time, its problems dug deeper. The clunky mechanics and plethora of bugs (some of which were identical to those that plagued Panzer Strategy) turned me so far off I tried to convince myself I didn’t need to finish the paltry 3 missions available during Early Access to give my opinion. I fought through them and the result was a long soul search about the utility of the Panzer General formula for naval combat, and for modern games in general. Recent successes like Fantasy General II, OOB Red Star, and Unity of Command II proved to me that the formula can hold for ground combat, but I stand by my conclusion that naval games just don’t work well with the system. To each their own of course, but I couldn’t see the use in it. There are far better ways to represent naval combat. I held the faintest glimmer of hope though, ending my preview with, “You’ve got 6 months Starni, I believe in you.”

With the full release, I wanted to be true to those words and go in with an open mind. A lot might have changed, and the developers were nothing if not determined. I saw that they had added a full Japanese campaign, a proper tutorial, and many more missions to the American campaign. For $30 CAD you might actually be getting a decent value. Maybe they’d learned their lesson and made some significant changes. I was ready to be hurt again.

The detailed upgrade and special ability system is the game’s strongest point. There’s a lot to think about when building up your fleet.

I started with the tutorial and was pleasantly surprised. Not only did it walk you through everything that made Strategic Mind stand apart from other Panzer General types, but it did so with a clear voice over and a manageable scenario for practice. These unique features have a lot going for them. The spotting, weather and day-night cycle systems add a lot of tactical depth. Reduced visibility can be used both to hide from a pursing superior enemy or get the drop on your foes. Night fighting was a speciality of the early war Japanese Navy and I’m happy to see that being represented here. Night penalties can be countered with unit upgrades, like better onboard radar. This brings us to the second big addition to Strategic Mind: the deep system of unit upgrades and equipment.

You can kit out your aircraft and ships with a variety of upgrades that dramatically alter their abilities. This is great. Anything that tries to model historically relevant mechanisms and give more tactical choice to the player is a good thing. The music too, had improved. There were several tracks now and none were especially terrible. That is a great feat, as War games as a genre don’t tend to put much into music. The voice acting was awful, but I was, at that time, willing to let it slide if the game panned out. Still, it irked me to hear an English gentleman declare in his most bored voice that carriers are a modern marvel as I clicked on the USS Yorktown.

After the tutorial, feeling generally good about the strides the game had made, I jumped into the American campaign. I was greeted with an opening cutscene that rivaled the recent blockbuster Midway in acting quality. After that I was presented with the first real mission, Coral Sea. Here, everything that bothered me returned to the surface. The first few missions were the same from the Early Access release, and they suffered from some of the same problems. Coral Sea still required the player to blindly fire off a scouting plane in the right direction in one turn to succeed at a secondary objective. Most designs these days will shy away from something so luck dependent, but that is what reloading saves is for, I suppose.

Battles can get visually ‘busy’. The graphics are nice but a lot is sacrificed for it.

As I progressed, I found that the tactical decisions that the game offers fall by the wayside as I poured more and more points into building a fleet that could slug it out with huge enemy numbers. Often it came down to sitting at a reasonable distance and hammering away, hoping that my combat dice roles and superior positioning carried the day. I rarely had the opportunity to use the night to my advantage or to do much with my upgraded units. I’m happy to say that they fixed some issues. Combat results are now much clearer and better simulate (but still not perfectly, in my opinion) the damage different guns and bombs do to ships. There is a lot just under the surface that might be great, but the scenario design hampers the game’s ability to actually let these interesting features shine. As it stands, I didn’t find it worth the effort to dig through Strategic Mind to find the fun of it.

Now, onto my serious problems with tone. I have no idea what they wanted this game to come across as. The opening cutscene involving a child’s discovery of her dead mother in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour attack and the serious, if trite, argument about Japan’s prospects between Tojo Hideki and Yamamoto Isoroku that open the Japanese campaign are completely undone by their shoddy quality and unit voice work. The unit voices are terribly done at best and downright offensive at worst. While I know there was some diversity within the ranks of the United States Navy during WWII, there doesn’t seem to be a single American voice outside of the tutorial. The Japanese side ranges from the aforementioned horrifically racist impersonations to a suave English voice that sounds like it’s trying to get me in bed rather than call targets. The lines themselves also run the gamut from the inane, “Bombs are heavy” to the so ridiculous I couldn’t believe I just heard it, including, but not limited to, “Take it, take it b****!” from a US Battleship. What were they thinking?

I still can’t recommend this game. And so I won’t. Don’t buy Strategic Mind: The Pacific. There are a dozen other games that better interact with the Pacific Theatre of World War Two. None of which have racist voicework making ‘gaijin’ jokes and many of which better integrate interesting mechanics. There might have been something here if Starni Games had focused more on highlighting the unique aspects they’ve worked so hard to shoehorn into the Panzer General format and less on trying to create a big 3D experience. Maybe they’ll get it right with their third game, which is coming along. Maybe there will be a fresh reviewer waiting for it. Strategic Mind and Panzer Strategy have already taken too much of my time.