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After finishing Tales of Illyria: Beyond The Iron Wall, I wanted to take a break and play a different mobile game before diving into the third and final game in the series, Tales of Illyria: Destinies. I looked around online for recommendations and eventually stumbled upon the excellently-named Ticket To Earth, by Robot Circus, which is also available for PC and Mac via Steam but seems at home on a mobile touchscreen. It looked to be something in the vein of Puzzle Quest and its ilk, combining tile-matching puzzles with role-playing tactical combat. I enjoyed (but never wrote about) Puzzle Quest and its sequel, so I decided to give Ticket To Earth a try. It turned out to be much better than I expected.

Most games that merge puzzle and role-playing elements are abstracted, using a tile matching game or something similar to represent launching attacks or casting spells. But in Ticket To Earth, the tile grid is physically present on the battlefield, and the playable characters (one at the start, four by the end) run across it to get into cover or position themselves for attacks. Combat is turn-based, and each character has two action points to use on their turn. They can use one to run along a path of the same color tiles, which builds up attack power for each tile and also collects energy to fuel different special abilities. Attacks and certain special abilities also use an action point, but many abilities are instant and do not. Initially, this felt pretty similar to something like Puzzle Quest, where I often spent a lot of time matching tiles to collect different colors of mana to eventually power my big abilities. But the physical positioning in Ticket To Earth makes all the difference.

Special abilities are useful, but a big part of Ticket To Earth is powering up regular attacks, which start pitifully weak but can become strong enough to dispatch enemies in a single hit if enough tiles are collected. Taking damage, however, knocks that attack power back down. Early on, I often found myself without a clear path of tiles to an enemy, so I’d use both of my action points to approach, queueing up a fully powered attack for the next turn. Then, the enemies would march in and whack my character, each hit lowering her attack power until she was left with a measly 1-damage attack for her new turn. I needed to adjust my strategy from what I was used to in other puzzle role-playing games, and really think about where I wanted to be on the grid. If there was a long enough path of a single tile type to run up to an enemy, I’d take it, using my second action point to land the attack (which also resets attack power) before the enemies had a chance to stop me. If no such path existed, I’d think about making defensive moves, getting out of range of attacks or trying to power up a useful ability for later.

Once this clicked, I started to really enjoy the tactical challenges. It helps that I got more options as I got farther in the game, which let me be more flexible when approaching fights. The first character I controlled, Rose Khouri, must get right up next to enemies to attack with her sword, but quickly learned to throw an electrified dart at anyone on the battlefield if she collected enough Eye tiles first. This was particularly effective against enemy robots. Other abilities might be powered by Hand, Heart, or Mind tiles instead. There’s a good variety of these, unlocked as the story progresses, opening up many tactical options. Some affect the grid by creating new paths by changing some tile types into others. Others might grant buffs, or different special attacks, or some other strategic boon. Characters who join the adventure later can use ranged attacks by default, and have their own sets of special abilities. Once these all start to come together, the combat gets much more engaging.

If the early sections are a bit of a slow start for the tactical battles, they’ve got plenty of story to keep players interested. In fact, Ticket To Earth is as much a visual novel as it is a tactical puzzle-combat game. While there are no choices or diverging narratives to explore during its story scenes, they are plentiful, including many optional ones that check in with different characters at each point in the story. That story is a detailed science fiction tale, set on the offworld mining colony of New Providence, on the day that a starliner from Earth is due to arrive. People generally seem very excited to get on that ship and return to Earth, even though the price of a ticket means few will have the chance. The ship’s arrival sparks some harrowing events, and as I played through these I learned the history of the colony and the structure of its society, including the all powerful Justice Engine which keeps law and order.

The story gets surprisingly dark, including a bit of body horror, so those looking for a lighthearted adventure should look elsewhere. But the cast shows admirable courage and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds, and I enjoyed the themes of rising up against an oppressive ruling class. It’s well written across the board, and in a rarity for games, has a very satisfying ending, resolving many story threads but leaving enough mystery to keep me thinking about it after the credits had rolled. And, of course, leaving plenty of room for a sequel.

I really like how all of the mechanics are integrated into the story too. The tile grids are real, sort of. The mystical sect known as the Stellar Consciousness Movement (or just “The Movement” for short) teaches acolytes to see the grid, and use its energies to boost their prowess in battle. Our heroes are all Movement trained, and their extra abilities are granted by the Justice Engine itself. Too often, role-playing mechanics are at odds with their games’ worlds, letting characters become powerful demi-gods without any explanation for how this could happen. In Ticket To Earth, the Movement’s power is real, if poorly understood, and the characters combine it with cybernetic implants to become fearsome fighters able to defeat packs of untrained adversaries. Even the ability to repeat earlier missions — to chase optional bonus objectives which grant points to unlock passive bonuses for characters — is framed as a type of Movement meditation, remembering previous battles and replaying them in one’s mind.

Some of the systems for upgrades do get a little confusing. Those points earned from completing bonus objectives are spent on a big tree, different for each character, full of all sorts of perks. I found it difficult to plan what I wanted to unlock on this tree, especially since individual perks tend to make only a small difference during play. They do add up, though. Some perks boost a character’s stats (like Strength or Agility), which in turn are prerequisites for more powerful weapons (each character can get a few weapon upgrades) and also determine the power of certain abilities. That was annoying, actually, because a new special attack might say its damage “scales with Agility” without telling me the actual amount. And since new abilities cost money to purchase, I couldn’t tell ahead of time whether they were worth getting. In the end, I had enough cash to buy pretty much everything I wanted, but it can be overwhelming earlier on. There’s even a system for crafting gems that socket into weapons to grant bonuses that I barely used, unsure of the best strategy for it. Fortunately, I got by fine without needing gems, so those who are less interested in number crunching and optimizing can ignore them.

I would be remiss not to point out how good Ticket To Earth looks. Every fight takes place in a fully rendered 3D locale, the grid superimposed over it. Characters and enemies are beautifully animated as they dash around, take cover behind crates, or launch attacks and special abilities. They celebrate after dispatching foes, double over in pain when hurt, and brandish their weapons when it’s their turn to act. Every battlefield looks different, and they’re all linked together through gorgeous map screens. Character art for story scenes is lovely, and particularly important moments borrow from graphic novels, with scenes spilling over multiple frames. Ticket To Earth is a slick production.

It’s also pretty lengthy, its tale told across four distinct episodes. I think these were initially released separately, but I was happy to get them all at once with my purchase (and also happy that the game is just a single purchase, without any of the microtransactions that distract in many other mobile games). Episodes tend to take the team to new places, with new maps tying together the missions. The early chapters contain optional side missions that combine into little sub-stories, although I don’t know why anyone would want to skip them. These are abandoned later, which is good because they never really made that much sense to begin with. They’re fun to play, but the urgency of the main missions makes it odd to see the team run off somewhere else.

As a completionist, I naturally tried every side mission, and went back to all the main missions to unlock their optional objectives. These are nice excuses to play through missions again, and the missions are always fun. But many of the bonus objectives are nearly impossible to achieve before unlocking advanced abilities later in the game, and others rely on a certain amount of luck. I needed multiple attempts to pull off complex combos of abilities and positioning in some cases. On the other hand, they do give an incentive to try out different combat abilities rather than sticking to one’s favorites. Even so, I felt there were clear winners at most points in the game, and sometimes I didn’t even purchase abilities that looked less useful or too situational.

But I’m getting into nitpicks at this point. Using the tactical tile grid in Ticket To Earth works far better than I expected it would, and its story gripped me until the end. Its various upgrade systems and collectible resources gave me enough things to think about between missions without getting in the way too much, so it doesn’t really matter if there are some dud abilities or underwhelming perks in the mix. I had a blast with Ticket To Earth and it’s an easy recommendation for anyone looking for a mobile game. I do suggest enabling the option that asks for confirmation of a move, though. Before turning that on, errant swipes messed me up on a few occasions. If you want to try it yourself, Ticket To Earth is available for Android, iOS, and PC and Mac via Steam.

New Providence is not always a pleasant place to live, but you’ll enjoy your stay all the same. And maybe you can even earn a ticket to Earth by the time you’re done.