Rebelstar Tactical Command - XCOM, but... uh, smaller..


I think, pound for pound, it was tactical, strategy games that got the best life on the GBA. Iconic titles like Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - or my personal favorite, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Sword - and such was the embarrassment of riches this genre received, some of the most notable slipped through the cracks. Such is the case with today’s game, Rebelstar Tactical Command, one of the most obscure, non shovelware titles on the GBA. Surprisingly full of depth, providing maybe the most ‘pure’ strategic gameplay on the system, it’s only its age and general pace that date this diamond in the rough. Let’s dive in and fight (read: miss) some aliens!

Look, when I was hunting through lists of ‘weirdest GBA’ games, Rebelstar Tactical Command was one of the games that leapt out at me most frequently. Not just because of its North American box art which is… y’know, even if I just had the ‘normal’ box art right above this paragraph, I gotta show you the… the other one, because it’s…

Yeah. Anyway, that sticks out. But no, once I actually looked up whatever the hell… that is, I quickly learnt that not only is this an extremely unknown and unremembered tactical strategy RPG, but it’s made by one of the legends of the classic PC tactical genre, one Julian Gollop, who created the original goddamn X-COM franchise back in the day. Now, the GBA spans pretty much every genre there is, but it’s rare to see one of the genuine, bonafide legends of the medium we love so much.

But anyway, enough gushing, let’s take a look at the game itself. If you’ve played any of the many, many XCOM games that have come over the years, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into, but for you newbies, as I said, Rebelstar Tactical Command is a tactical, role playing strategy game. In that sense, you’ll be taking control of a squad of rebels, uh, rebelling against an alien empire that conquered Earth decades earlier. It’s an honestly basic story, with a few twists here and there, but it’s serviceable enough to get the ball rolling and justify the hordes of aliens you’ll be taking on. I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, at least in the first half of the game I managed to get through for the purpose of this review, but I didn’t hate them. So, uh, yeah? Gameplay takes place on an isometric, grid-based system, where you’ll be able to move, attack, and do whatever else soldiers do based on each character's AP, which is refilled each turn. Everything takes AP, but thankfully the game provides you with enough information to let you know how far you can run whilst still having an opportunity to fire your weapon. It’s a strictly mission-based affair, with little downtime in between, sans eventually unlocking the ability to outfit your squads before each mission. Trust me, the second you see this game, you’ll know how the basic stuff plays.

Rather than just picking a character and commanding them to attack a particular enemy with a ‘normal’ static attack, Rebelstar, as with many systems, opts for more choices. Upon selecting an enemy to attack with say, an Assault Rifle, you’ll be given *four* choices on how to fire upon your enemy. You might fire less bullets, but with more accuracy, or vice versa, and each different weapon class will give you different options on how to approach combat, creating a notably flexible combat system that helps beat back the ‘pray for percentages’ systems that are so common in XCOM-esque games. There are also consumable weaponry, like grenades, to spice things up, or melee tools (Carlos’s ability to stab fools in the back is unparalleled) if you find your ammo running dry. Characters can also be trained to use med packs, keeping your troops topped up as enemies rain hell upon them. Managing your ammunition and weaponry is a pretty core part of the game, and being aware of foes' weapons and stealing it once you’ve blown their brains out is a very, very important thing you should remember - unlike I did.

A character’s particular skill with a certain weapon class, which includes their accuracy, is dictated by skill points earned upon leveling up, which in itself is achieved by damaging and slaying foes. Most characters will start with a point or two in a certain archetype - Sapphire with medical supplies, or Carlos with melee weapons, for an example - but Rebelstar Tactical Command pretty much encourages you to mold these characters the way you want them to. Want a bunch of snipers? Sounds like a plan. Want a group of closer range, machine gun toting badasses? Might make some encounters a bit more difficult, but that’s up to you. Personally, I’m more of a fan of specific character classes - think something like Fire Emblem, as I struggle and agonize over if I’m making the ‘correct’ choice, but for those who want that freedom, you’re in for a real treat, making this truly a handheld successor to X-COM. Anyway, the better your skill with weapons, the more powerful and more accurate said attacks are. There’s a bit more to it than that, but thankfully the game’s robust set of tutorial missions will guide you through everything you’re capable of, without having to resort to the ‘ol ‘impossible to fail’ style missions. When I began to struggle in the mid game missions, it was a hundred percent on me and stupid, non-tactical brain, not on the game telling me how to actually play the damn thing. Just use the overwatch feature… it’ll help, trust me.

These deep, intricate tactical systems are stymied by one fatal flaw. This game’s pace is *slow*. Almost glacial, to be exact. Pretty much every element of the game - menus, movement, enemy turns, firing your weapons, everything has some amount of lag or just delay that slowly draws out the experience in an almost excruciating manner. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but it is beyond frustrating to go through more than a number of turns, screw up and get a game over, and then have to trudge through essentially the *same turns* to get back. This is helped by the game’s save system, allowing you to save pretty much at any time your turn, but it’s still frustrating. I’m not one to promote piracy, but if you have access to this game in some form that can speed up the pace of the game, I recommend it. It’ll help with arguably the biggest issue with the game, and it makes things significantly - significantly - more tolerable.

But back into the game itself. Taking place across just over two dozen story chapters, Rebelstar Command thankfully doesn’t just satisfy itself with simple ‘kill all the enemies’ mission objectives; in some missions, you’ll be thrown into retreat, getting your troops to safety against overwhelming forces, or dig in to defend a particular point. Even when repeating various objectives, little twists do much to keep the game feeling fresh. Early on, you’ll play a mission solely as Carlos, armed with only a knife, forcing you to take a slower pace, knifing foes in the back and picking your path carefully. The game certainly skews towards the more difficult end of the scale, but it oddly would swing heavily between easy to hard. For example, one map I could’ve just sprinted to the exit without any combat, whilst the next was a brutal, inch-by-inch slugfest of a map. It never swings *too* far, thankfully enough, but I just felt that was an interesting observation.

These more varied objectives do occasionally cause confusion; an early mission when the squad goes on patrol seemed just run of the mill, story-wise, and I quickly made my way to the exit zone and completed the mission. However, the next chapter implied that mission had been a disaster and our squad had been in a major retreat; I’m assuming I missed a cutscene or a trigger or *something* that implied I should’ve been retreating as a story beat, but the game doesn’t seem to have any kind of ‘fluid’ objective system. This is a bit of a nitpick, as I didn’t notice this issue crop up in my time with Rebelstar, but it’s still a bit of a weird oversight.

Whilst many of the menus have a slightly cheap or undercooked look to them, thankfully the main visuals and character designs make up for this in spades. It’s a decidedly ‘anime’ art style, but thankfully it doesn’t lead into any ridiculous tropes - no fourteen year olds piloting mechs here! The in-game graphics are cute enough, maybe on the simpler side, but this does not feel like a game that had exactly had the bank in their corner, so skimping on the graphics in the interest of really nailing the mechanics, that’s fine with me. They’re fine, but just fine. The music, though… it’s… I don’t want to say it’s bad, because it’s just kind of… nothing? So many of the songs just feel so blatantly generic and forgettable, I was pretty quick to just listen to a podcast whilst playing through the story. That’s kind of more damning than I realize, because I really make an effort to play these games with audio, since I want to give every element of these games a fair shake. There’s just nothing here, audiowise, and really (besides the general slow pace) was one of the few major elements to really fall flat, at least in my opinion.

Overall, Rebelstar Tactical Command is a total surprise. It has aged, especially in its general pace and somewhat opaque mechanics, but this is a bonafide strategic bonanza, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the best titles the GBA had to offer in this genre. It’s not going to satisfy everyone - casual fans should probably look elsewhere, and this is *hard* tactical action; having the creator of XCOM helps that, to be fair. But I digress - Rebelstar Tactical Command is one of the best ‘unknowns’ on the Game Boy Advance; with a robust story mode, more basic skirmishes, and with one of the most freeform character progressions I’ve seen in a while, if you’re bananas for tactics, this game should be your very next pick. Klaatu barada nikto, my friends!

Thank you so much for reading the Game Boy Abyss review of Rebelstar Tactical Command! I’ll be off next week, as I’ll be flying up to Sydney for SMASH! Con to help my partner out. In the meantime, I’ll be beginning to work through Yggdra Union as my next title, but beyond that… well, I just saw Across The Spider-Verse, so maybe I’ll play a title with a certain webslinger…? In any case, as always you can find me over @Lemmy7003 on Twitter (at least as long as that shithole is still running) or you can email me at or if you have any questions or requests. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in my next review!