Played on Windows
Also Available on macOS
Disclaim at the end (Review copy, requested by me)
On Steam I was browsing and saw someone had a game called Chessaria on a wishlist or had just purchased it. I took a look because I’m a fan of chess. Maybe not the biggest fan but I’ve played over 100 games on lichess.org (my profile page) and more elsewhere, so I know what I’m doing. Chessaria brought back memories of when I first got into computer chess and promised tactical puzzles with Chessaria: The Tactical Adventure. Alright, it had my attention.
It’s pretty easy to know where the idea for Chessaria came from. In 1988 a little company known as Interplay left EA’s publishing and made their own game, Battle Chess, and pretty much was THE chess game on computers for quite a while. Not only did it play chess, but as you attacked each piece would play an animation. You could see a king pull out a pistol and shoot a piece. The rook became a rock monster and smashed a pawn into his hat, the knight would slash enemies. Every interaction was different and unique.
That became almost the gold standard in computer chess games. Not only was there a call for a good chess engine, but there also was a place for graphically beautiful chess.
Chessaria attempts to return to the time of Battle Chess, and bring back the animations and style. However, that’s not all Chessaria claims to have. They say they have a 2800+ ELO engine as well, which would be a very strong chess engine.
The first thing I noticed with Chessaria is the graphics, this is a very beautiful game especially for chess as you can see in my first look. The levels are detailed, but the core of the game still remains on the board. The game takes a more Battle Chess style to the pieces, with each piece looking more like a video game character rather than the classic designs. You, of course, have the stately king and queen, but you also have Rooks that are knights with a giant shield, Knights with a sword, and Bishops with their staffs. Each piece is well detailed.
In fact, there are actually three factions. The High Elves, the Dark Elves, and the Orcs. Each one plays the same, as this is chess, but has different looks. The High Elves and Dark Elves are more what people would expect for chess. Very similar pieces but one light and one dark in color. The orcs have more variety in style but ultimately are the same types of pieces just a radically different look for a different faction.
There’s a rather involved story between the three races that play out in the adventure mode and that’s decent, but it’s typical Tolkien fair. High Elves, and Dark Elves fight and then the Orcs show up and change the battle. It’s acceptable but it’s not going to be the big draw here, this is chess, so you’re coming to play chess.
Still, the pieces look great and are detailed. The graphics aren’t that distracting, as again this is chess, but at the same time, the level and pieces are more detailed than I expected and the levels are beautiful to look at. In addition, the game pans over the field before a battle. It’s not a necessary move but it does let you look around and see the beautiful art style.
It really does look good.
The game also allows you to pan the camera around and zoom in and out. It doesn’t seem necessary though, I will talk about that when I talk about the adventure maps later as well. You can look at the board in different ways if that will help you. Whether it be from the side or from the enemy’s direction.
Since we have been talking about Battle Chess, the question becomes “Are there Attack animations?” and of course those are still here. When your piece captures another, a simple attack animation plays. These are rather entertaining at first, but there are two minor problems with them. With the better graphics and more going on with the board, it’s hard to make out exactly what happens in the game. If you ever played NES Battle Chess, the game brought the attack animations to a different stage that was more visible. I honestly would have been happy with that at first, because I wanted to see the animations.
However, all the attack animations are the same for each piece. The Pawn jumps up and attacks the neck of their target. The Knight flips in a somersault in the air and strikes down. Sadly once you’ve seen each piece attack once, you know what you’ll see when you attack again. It’s a shame because part of my personal love of Battle Chess was those “What will I see next” moments and that’s not here.
The attack animations become a bit much after a couple of hours and eventually, I turned them off. I’m glad that there is the option because it shows the developers are considering the best way to present their product. Overall I liked seeing the attacks, but the ability to turn it off for a little more speed and focus on the game was also worthy.
My favorite view was the version where I zoomed the view all the way out. It’s sad to say, but the piece designs did get confusing after a while. Each piece got introduced but I often confused a queen for another piece or a piece was hiding behind another. Personally, when I switched to tactical, I felt more in control of the board. Sadly there’s a problem. I turned off the attack animations and they were off, but the move animations still occurred in the tactical view. I’m used to Lichess with its fast movements so I can focus on the chess, and the movement animations don’t feel necessary in the tactical view. It’s a bit of an annoyance when playing a lot of moves because it feels like there’s a little lag necessary to move the pieces around.
Ahhh yes, tactical, though you can see the pieces are shuffled around.
There’s also a flashing red blood splatter when you’re in check that seems very over the top. It’s distracting and it makes the game feel like it’s a critical situation. When you’re in check and checking your opponent’s king is good, but it’s not the life and death the game makes it out to be.
But, overall the graphics are good. There are some changes I would have made, and I really wish the tactical view was just that but I see what they were doing and it works. Now we need to move from how the game looks to the gameplay and see if it holds up.
It’s chess, it holds up.
Ok, it’s not as simple as that, but Chess is one of the oldest games for a reason. The last major rule change was over a hundred years ago, and it is an esoteric rule where a pawn can only be promoted to pieces of the SAME color. Yeah, it is pedantic but without it, there’s a famous mate in one puzzle that works.
The point is Chess as a game is pretty much a standard at this point as long as you code the game to accept the agreed upon rules, you should be good. For the most part, Chessaria plays it straight. There’s both proper castling and en passant.
It’s when the game moves to its main mode called Adventure mode that everything gets a little more complicated. Adventure mode is made up of 100 puzzles. It progresses in a slow ramp-up of difficulty and challenge, taking the first twenty puzzles and giving challenges to teaching how each piece moves. From there, the game quickly moves to actual puzzles and they do get pretty challenging. They are broken up into sets of twenty, and honestly, the fourth set (61 to 80) was very challenging to me.
In fact, it brings up an important problem. If you can’t beat a puzzle, you aren’t able to move on and see the rest of the story or the next puzzle. There’s a comment by the devs somewhere saying there is a way to skip puzzles but I don’t know how it is triggered. I’m currently stuck on the 80th puzzle I believe, and I am unable to move on with the game because of its difficulty.
That’s a bit of a shame. I feel like the Adventure mode is a good challenge but if something doesn’t click, you’re locked into the specific puzzle until it does. There’s a grading system, so you’re never required to do things perfectly, but there are a couple of puzzles that are overly hard. At least a few that require near perfect play and one that I think requires the AI to make a mistake.
The grading system could be better though, and could show what the targets are for the three stars, that the game awards. The first star is winning the puzzle but the other two seem to have unspoken rules to achieve them, the third seems to be for perfect play but sometimes it is all about how the AI moves as to which is achievable.
There is also a decent amount of variety in the puzzles. Many puzzles don’t require a king on both sides of the field, and many don’t have a king on either side. I mentioned before that the first 20 teach you about moving various pieces and for the most part they aren’t hard. However, as you hit 20, the game switches it up on you and while the story has you sneak into the dark elves area, it also has you deal with “Sleeping guards”. If you don’t capture a piece or move into any of the opponents’ attack areas, they don’t take a turn, and you get another turn until you beat the puzzle or make a mistake. It seems odd, but it is teaching the player to avoid hanging a piece.(Allowing the opponent to capture your pieces).
Learn about Knight movement.
There are a number of levels that rely on story elements, like “Catapults” or “Canons” which are really just stationary pieces that are there to be captured. There are also protecting the back row puzzles, attacking certain spaces, and even acquiring the majority of a certain set of spaces.
Each puzzle is different but overall they’re interesting. They do teach some concepts but the majority of them seem to be made for fun and, when they work, they work well.
However, the game keeps going back to a few standard puzzles. Mostly “Kill the Knight” which becomes beyond frustrating since the AI is smart enough to rarely give you a chance when it gets down to the last move. If a move will make it lose the puzzle it will never make that move and instead find the optimal move. Though if there are two moves left before the end of the puzzle though the AI might “flub” on purpose. It’s an odd system and I’ll dig into the AI in a moment.
There’s also an idea of reinforcements that I’m not fully on board with. It’s cool to have a puzzle where you have to hold out for x amount of time, but in that puzzle, you just randomly get reinforcements without a hint of where they will appear or what pieces will be dropped in for either side. I had one situation where a piece I had got killed because reinforcements just appeared where he was. Kind of a cheap move.
Now there are a couple of puzzles that have a major flaw. It seems intentional, but there’s a specific puzzle that I remember that looked simple. You have to deal with two pieces and can beat the puzzle in a few moves. You start to make moves, and all of a sudden a Rook appears. I retried the level and admittedly the rook doesn’t appear out of nowhere. Instead, it’s worse. There’s a column that takes up space on the board. The rook is behind that bookshelf. You can’t see through it, so even if you are in tactical view, you don’t see the rook. You could rotate the camera but it isn’t apparent to the player. What kind of rule is that? The graphics suddenly block the players view sometimes even in a tactical view?
It’s not the only level that this can happen on but it’s the most egregious example of it. It’s still a relatively easy puzzle, but the fact is Pixel Wizards seems to think that their graphics can affect the field. Quite often, the fields are shorter or misshapen, and I don’t complain about that. Sometimes spaces are occupied (though a symbol in tactical view that you can’t move to certain spaces would have been preferable) but I can live with that. The problem is when pieces are able to hide, that’s just a cheap tactic, and the designer of the puzzle probably should be ashamed of himself for it.
There are a couple more quirks. I had a chance to try en passant on an Adventure map. It didn’t work. There were only 6 rows on the board instead of a standard 8 but I still think that could have been a good change, and it would have still kept the spirit of the rule if not the letter in some way. (When a pawn moves two squares, another pawn can capture either the square it’s on or the square it moved through). Oh well, maybe it would have broken the puzzle.
Overall the Adventure mode is good, and it’s clever, because most of its puzzles aren’t simple tactics and can’t be solved with a normal chess solver, since the enemy king usually isn’t the goal, if he’s even on the board.
So let’s talk a bit about the AI. I believe there are really two AIs at play here. There’s the standard AI that plays Chess and can just be put into a quick match, and then there’s an AI used for Adventure mode that understands and knows how to play by its special rules. A normal AI that just plays Chess is very impressive, but it’s the second AI that’s more interesting.
A solid puzzle where you have to take 12 units from the enemy.
But the second AI seems to have an intentional flaw. It likes to make boneheaded moves on purpose. This is to give the player a chance to win matches, and, like I mentioned, I think there’s at least one map (one where I’m protecting the back row) where the player has to get lucky as I believe perfect play on that map could ensure the computer wins every time. I do like when the computer plays suboptimally but often times you get different experiences. Using the same moves each time would sometimes end up with a different board state because of that randomness and I’m not on board with that for a puzzle.
There was one map where I had to capture two knights, the AI’s first move was moving one knight out in a direct attack from my queen. I immediately traded my queen for a knight but this would be like a king moving into check. That is not allowed in chess but in fact, in adventure mode, it’s doable with the king. Checks don’t have to be avoided and the AI can capture your king without a checkmate. This might be to avoid situations where you can win but the check would not allow the correct move to be played, but it’s crummy when the game doesn’t tell you about your check until you realize it too late.
So I decided to challenge the AI. I knew I couldn’t match a 2800 ELO, but I knew someone who could. Or rather something. I decided to pop open a Lichess match and pit Stockfish 9, the best chess engine in the world (supposedly), against Chessaria. You can see the results here.
Yeah, Stockfish is supposed to be a 3448 Elo, so it’s not even a surprise that it beats Chessaria’s engine, but it’s interesting to see two top engines work against each other, and the fact is Chessaria didn’t do that poorly in that example.
So how is the AI system, well the answer is I don’t know. I think the Adventure mode is flawed because the player can do the same moves two or three times and the AI will often give you a random result, but at the same time, I think it’s strong enough to be used outside of tournament level chess engine play.
And if all of this isn’t enough there is always multiplayer as mentioned. You can play local, online, or vs the CPU multiplayer. If normal chess doesn’t interest you, there are more possibilities. Chessaria has a long list of alternate modes so just to give the names; Horde Chess, Pawn Battle, Barricade Chess, Crystal Attack, Race, Battle of the Two Kings, Regicide, and Thanos Chess (kill half the enemies).
So there are clearly a lot of variants of chess here, though I’d be lying if I’d say most of them sound overly exciting. However, if you really enjoy Chessaria, or just want a chess game to play with friends, there are at least some variations for multiplayer besides just normal chess matches.
So there are a couple of things that still need to be talked about, Chessaria lacks a few niceties that would make it a superior game. There are no take backs, whether it be in the local multiplayer or the adventure mode. If you drop a piece in the wrong position you take the loss. It’s a simple request and I realize it could take a decent amount of time, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s a standard request in chess.
In addition as mentioned before there’s no way to skip puzzles, without it, if you can’t figure out a solution (or luck into it) you’re stuck in the story.
There’s no notation on the screen in ANY mode that I saw. Whether you play adventure mode or head to head, there’s nothing to tell you what moves lead to that position. It’s a useful tool and sadly one that’s lacking here. Of course, a way to capture the PGN notation as well would be good, but at the very least, a way to record a game or see how you reached the current state would be a huge benefit.
As I played, I also found some bugs, and they’re a mixed bag, some are really bad, some are minor. The worst is that most achievements get unlocked for some reason at some point. I got 21 achievements unlocked in a single moment. Don’t know why, but it was all the story achievements. I didn’t earn an achievement for beating the AI in the lichess match, but I did earn 6 achievements for playing matches against the computer (for 1x, 5x, 50x, and so on) in that one single match, and it wasn’t my first vs CPU match.
There was a level where a piece appeared to stick around after I captured it. It never moved again so it’s possible it was just a graphical bug, but it was worrying.
When switching to the quick play mode, in the First look video at the end you can see me play a game against the CPU. In it, the game plays voice lines from the Adventure mode map I was just on.
Similarly, the game treats head to head modes as a level, while the result screens are correct. When I pause it offers to “Restart level”. Odd.
I saw a couple of crashes after I finished my first real game in adventure mode (somewhere around level 60) the game suddenly crashed and I had to beat the entire level again. A couple of other levels crashed on me for no reason that I know of.
Finally, there are a few adventure mode maps that countdown a turn count. They start with the player having to hold out for around 30 moves, but then suddenly around 20 moves, the game just gives me the completed screen with no explanation why it suddenly stopped.
So, yeah, there are a few bugs here but overall, Chessaria is what it says it is. It’s a tactical adventure. It’s not going to convince non-chess players to suddenly pick up chess, but if you enjoy chess, there’s some fun to be had here.
However, I have to admit that the bugs are a bit disappointing. The lacking features are also a shame. But for me, the biggest problem with the game is the tactical view as it’s called, still showing pieces moving outside of just the icons, which slows the game down, since I’m in tactical view for a reason and the fact that the animations for attacks are so over-designed and repetitive that I felt I had to turn them off.
Still, I enjoyed my time with Chessaria. In fact, I recommend it. If you enjoy non-standard chess such as Chess960 which is also known as Fisher Random Chess, with its random deployment style, you’ll probably enjoy this. The puzzles are not standard tactics puzzles and there are a lot of interesting things the game does over the course of the levels without violating the feeling of a chess game.
So I award Chessaria a
Final Thoughts: While it is a chess game, the adventure map uses non-standard puzzles to challenge players. There are a lot of interesting styles here, and a rather solid AI to challenge you in the puzzles.
Stats: 13.8 hours, “26”/41 achievements
Disclaimer: I was interested in Chessaria, and reached out to Pixel Wizards to see if I could get a copy of it so I could review it. I explained my style and what reviews I would make. They agreed and provided me a key at no cost to me. This did not knowingly affect my review in any way.