Developer Kuju's Narcos: Rise of the Cartels doesn't redefine the genre, but it still offers a reasonably fun and polished turn-based experience.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, the latest game by developer Kuju, takes the story and events of Netflix's popular Narcos television series (itself based on the real life Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel) and adapts it into video game form. While the release trailer for Narcos: Rise of the Cartels didn't exactly inspire much confidence, and the game does have its graphical issues, the overall product is a very solid turn-based combat game. It never comes close to redefining the genre nor does it attempt to, but its promise of offering up a "brutal" turn-based game is anything but false advertising.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, like most turn-based tactics games, starts off with a big and elaborate tutorial, introducing players to its particular take on the genre. Players control up to five different team members of various classes (each with their own strengths and weaknesses) and can move one of these characters per turn. In addition to moving, these troops can attack enemies, most of the time with guns, should they be in a position to do so. Once a move is over, the AI-controlled enemy team makes their move. Again, nothing exactly new here.
Where Narcos: Rise of the Cartels really shines is in just how polished it all is. Maps are intuitively designed and enemy placement on said maps is smart enough that often enough, strategical thinking is an absolute necessity. This includes using the right class of soldiers in the right way depending on the mission and the location of placement points (where troops can be initially deployed). Stamdard DEA agents are equipped with shotguns, meaning getting in at a closer range is the most effective tactic in taking down enemies quickly and efficiently. There's also a counteract system, which allows both players and enemies to use special ability points to shoot at a moving enemy, even if it's not their turn. This adds a whole new wrinkle to matches and is one of the biggest strengths in the title.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels also somewhat implements the show's dual focus on both the DEA and Pablo Escobar's drug cartel by letting players play through story campaigns involving both. You will have to play through the first big mission on the DEA's side of things before the cartel side opens up, however. Other than more starting funds on the cartel side and obvious cosmetic differences, neither is at more of an advantage than the other, creating a good sense of balance (even if other areas of the game are disappointingly unbalanced). Both campaigns are more than worth playing through because, like the show, the differing perspectives offer a lot more context of what the opposing sides are going through as characters. This isn't to say that the game goes too deep into character development because, other than some cutscenes and random bouts of voiced dialog boxes, it really doesn't.
Speaking of funds, money in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is extremely vital in purchasing new soldiers. If one of your men dies on the field, they die forever (excluding the leader characters, which ends the match upon death) so it's important to minimize death as much as possible. This is especially true because funds are not easily replaced and troops can be downright ridiculously expensive. Main missions and side missions alike provide a cash reward upon completion, but some side missions require something of a down payment before they can be embarked on. It's at this point in the game where being intelligent with money would serve players well. And a lot of that comes down to, you guessed it, strategy.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels has some weaknesses too prevalent to ignore. Graphically, it's not a fun game to look at, and appears at home a generation or two ago. Thanks to this, character movement is stilted, awkward and not at all realistic looking. This isn't necessarily a big deal in a turn-based game where free movement isn't an integral part of the mechanics, but it's still frustrating and downright ugly to look at.
There's also an issue of balance that's widespread in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. Difficulty levels are determined by skulls: one skull is the lowest difficulty level while three is the highest difficulty level. The problem lies in just how much more difficult two skulls is compared to one. While this can be offset with leveling up characters, it's annoying when a higher level character dies suddenly in the field and all of that progress is simply lost forever. Difficulty is part of turn-based games like this, no doubt about it, but sometimes it feels like the title is actively working against you on every single level, and unbalanced difficulty levels don't help with that perception.
Despite these often vexing issues, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels' dozen or so hours of content (depending on how the game is played) remains polished and fun enough in its execution to be recommendable. It obviously never captures the sleekness or brilliant writing of its Netflix counterpart, but considering how often games based on popular movies or shows completely bomb at every level imaginable, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a breath of fresh air by comparison.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC. Screen Rant was provided an Xbox One digital copy for the purposes of this review.