Narcos: Rise of the Cartel
Nintendo Switch

Developed By : Kuju Entertainment Ltd.
Published By : Curve Digital
Category : Strategy
Release Date : Nov 21, 2019

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is based on a Netflix TV series that details the rise and fall of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the Drug Enforcement Administration that is attempting to shut his empire down. The game itself covers the first season of the show, showing both sides of the conflict. You start as the DEA, trying to take down various gangs and find information on the higher ups in the cartels, but after a few main missions the ability to play through the opposing side’s story. 

As someone who hasn’t watched the show, Rise of the Cartels does a poor job at conveying the scale of Columbia’s drug problems, since most of the time you’ll just be going through each area mowing down gangs. Characters from the show appear as hireable units, but none of them are particularly unique compared to the regular units. If it wasn’t for the cutscenes that use footage from the show, it would be hard to tell this was a tie-in game at all if you didn’t know beforehand. 

This lack of representation of the show is apparent in the gameplay itself. Before heading out into a mission, you can hire new units, level them up and heal them if injured. That’s it, there’s nothing else to do outside of the strategy sections. Even just checking out trailers for the show, it’s clear that there’s more to it than just endless violence, so the game not having any of this seems like a missed opportunity. 

When actually taking on a mission, the gameplay at first seems similar to the modern X-Com games. You have the same grid-based movement, same cover system, same aiming system with a percentage chance to hit your target. However, there are a few changes made to try and differentiate it from other X-Com style games. Some are interesting, and some – one change in particular – are game ruining.  

One change that isn’t too bad is the way a character’s turn plays out. When deciding what to do with a unit, you have to take into consideration their movement and action points. Movement points are self-explanatory, with action points being used to attack, reload or use special abilities. It’s a simple change, allowing you to do an action and move afterward, instead of the X-Com system of using up all your action points even if you haven’t moved a unit yet. 

Another positive addition to the strategy gameplay is counteract. If you don’t your movement or action points on a turn, that unit will gain points that can be used to attack enemies even when it’s their turn. It’s similar to X-Com’s overwatch, where a unit could shoot at enemies that enter their line of sight, but there’s a slight twist here. In Narcos: Rise of the Cartels you have to aim at enemies manually during counteract, breaking up the turn-based gameplay with small real-time moments. Dropping enemies to one health after an attack triggers a similar effect, helpful for finishing off your opponent but not as impactful. 

At a glance, Rise of the Cartels seems to have had more thought put into it than more tie-in games, but there’s a massive flaw with the gameplay. Unlike X-Com, only one unit can move per turn. And no, this isn’t like some SRPGs where turn order is based on a character’s stats. You can move the same unit every single turn, taking away the whole point of having more than one member in your squad.  

Most missions can be beaten by taking one unit and taking down one enemy after the other. Characters can rest on a turn to heal one health, so you’re rewarded for turtling up instead of doing anything risky. Since only one enemy can move on a turn, there’s no way for them to punish you for staying one place. There’s no way to reliable surround an enemy or offer covering fire for your allies. Some abilities can let more than unit move during a turn, but every ability is on a cooldown timer. This makes the damage related abilities, such as being able to act again after killing an enemy, much more useful. 

There are more annoyances on top of this. Enemy reinforcements can suddenly appear in the middle of the mission with no warning, and no real logic as to how they appeared. It’s annoying to be near the end of a mission and suddenly have three enemies materialise around one of your units. The enemy AI is also incredibly stupid most of the time, rushing at a unit that can counteract or taking shots at a unit far out of range. Enemies do seem to have better accuracy than any of your characters, but this isn’t enough to save them most of the time. 

If all the gameplay problems weren’t enough, the Switch version of Rise of the Cartels is incredibly ugly. This does at least help with performance, buteven docked mode the game looks dated. Ugly character models and an overall lack of detail remove any sort of realism the game is going for. In handheld mode, the low resolution makes an already ugly game look even worse.  

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a massive waste of potential. It focuses almost entirely on strategy gameplay, but said gameplay is hampered by an incredibly odd design choice. With a few tweaks and the movement limit removed this would be a serviceable strategy game, but there’s no real reason to touch this even if you’re a fan of the show. 

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$29.99

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*The Switch Effect was provided a code for this game*