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In August 2015, Narcos released on Netflix and immediately took the world by storm. A true story full of drugs, kingpins, cartels and cops, it had all the elements worthy of a binge session. In 2019, Kuju decided to release a game based on the first season of said show, giving the player the perspective of both the cartel and the DEA. Does the game hold up against the Golden Globe-nominated series? Or will it go down as just another half-baked licensed game? Let’s find out….

Story and Narrative

The game is based on the first season of the show, and as such takes place in 1980s Colombia, a country brought to its knees by El Patron and the Medellin Cartel. If you’ve watched the first season of Narcos, you already know how the game goes on and how it ends, but that’s not all.

You can play the game from both perspectives, and your actions in the game can turn the tide of the battle, that will “Shift the war on drugs”, according to the steam store page.

You also get to go on missions with iconic characters from the show, such as my personal favourite, Javier Peña. Each mission is set up in true-to-life locations that closely mirror the show, and is instantly recognisable.

However, this is where the narrative falls apart. Yes, it’s all from the show, but the missions are terribly repetitive. From collecting evidence, to collect more evidence, to finding information and killing someone, the missions all feel same-y. The story is told in a smooth way, with cutscenes and audio clips in the background, but there’s no weight to it. It almost feels like watching an animated version of the show with a slightly worse director, interspersed with missions.

The campaigns are mostly linear with a few side missions thrown in here and there. These are ways to earn money and level up your squad, and I’ll talk about these mechanics in detail, but suffice to say, they just feel like padding.

Gameplay and Mechanics

The gameplay is slightly similar to XCom, in the sense that you have a squad of crack soldiers with one leader and combat is turn-based. With a twist. Each turn lets you move ONE character and take ONE action, with the enemy doing the exact same. All units have one movement point, and one action point for the same. Reloading, firing or using abilities all consume the action point. The game also has “counteract”, which is also based on points. Every turn you don’t fire gets you half a counteract point, and each full points acts like “Overwatch fire”, shifting into third-person mode and letting you take one shot at a moving enemy.

Not all great, however

As innovative as all that sounds, it gets terribly tedious. It takes a LONG time to position all your troops in strategic locations, but there’s no point to any of it. Thought of a strategy where you can fire and take cover? Well, you do that and in the next turn, another enemy unit will flank you and shoot you from behind. Yes, this is a nice spin on tactic, but it’s time-consuming instead of fast unless by fast you want all your units to die in record time. The unique boardgame feel is instantly lost as you’re either going Rambo on the enemy, or your squad is moving at snail pace.

Another pointless mechanic is the “Money”, which is relevant when you’re not fighting in the game. The game literally tells you on one of the loading screens that someone will always bail you out, instantly turning your soldiers into faceless nobodies. There’s no need to form a bond with anyone, simply spend money on the most expensive unit, progress through the campaign and spend level-up points on them to unlock a couple of abilities, which are pretty useless anyway. You just need the leader of the squad to survive the mission and you’re done.

The damage mechanics?

Damage does not work like you would expect to in this game. For instance, if the enemy has one HP left, you enter KillShot mode, where you can take a free shot to kill them as long as you have ammo. This always happens, practically reducing the number of enemy HP by one. Additionally, Assault rifles are extremely underpowered compared to shotguns and it’s sometimes better to use your pistol. AR shots do 3 damage, and put you at risk of being flanked by the soldier you hit. Oh, and losing over half your hitpoints causes the character to limp, but functionally does NOTHING different. It looks cool, but a penalty to attack stats would be appreciated. Overall, the gameplay felt mediocre at best.

Visuals, Performance and Music

What about the graphics then? Surely they’re gonna hold up the game, making you feel like you’re right there, fighting alongside Peña? Well, sort of. The graphics look dated for 2019, with a lot of fuzzy looking character models. Of course, they serve the purpose and the HUD is as clean as it gets in such games. However, I was expecting something much better, especially for something that uses the Unreal Engine.

The game performs as one would expect, maintaining a solid 60fps at 1080p with absolutely no crashes or freezes. The animations were smooth and the gunfights looked crisp, and felt as immersive as they could be.

The soundtrack is where this game shines, though of course, that could be because it uses the same theme as the show. Not knocking the devs for that, though, since it works perfectly. The voice acting is superb, with all the shots and effects coming through nicely. Full marks on the audio front.


Narcos : Rise of the Cartels tries to be a turn-based tactical strategy game, but stumbles in a lot of places. Yes, it’s fun at times, and listening to the music as you play the missions is a fun way to pass the time, but it ends up feeling like a generic XCom clone. With repetitive gunplay, tacky combat, and the detachment from your squad, the gameplay feels boring, even with the presence of the excellent Season 1 storyline. I would recommend this game only if you’re a die-hard fan of the show, looking for more Narcos theme action. Otherwise? Maybe give this one a pass. Especially with the asking price of ₹699.

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