Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a video-game adaptation of the Netflix series in the style of XCOM, and other similar turn-based strategy games. Developed by Kuju (who seems to mostly create ports and a few oddities, such as Disney Art Academy and Zumba games), Rise of the Cartels puts you in control of either the DEA or the Columbian drug cartels. You’ll face off against your enemy by controlling both turn-based battles, and a bit of money micro-managing to hire new soldiers and units. Both factions feature an individual campaign, which mirrors the TV series somewhat closely.
Violence: There is an abundance of violence in this video game adaptation, and many times you’ll see violent clips from the TV series, though it seems like it has been toned down quite a bit. Some scenes stylize the violence so that it’s not nearly as gritty, gut-punching, or visceral as the show.
Language: To be quite honest, I’m having trouble recollecting if this game features lots of profanity or not. In other words, it doesn’t stand out to me. With the subject matter, I’d assume you should be ready for language, as I also didn’t finish either campaign, so it could crop up more later on.
Themes: Let’s get real here: this is a game about drug lords dictating the flow of cocaine into the US. If you are playing this game, you’ve already decided this theme is fine for you. Despite your views on drug enforcement, this game also pits you against US and South American officials, so consider this. You could totally only play against the cartel; the choice is yours.
Upon seeing a bit of gameplay footage for Narcos: Rise of the Cartels (henceforth referred to as Narcos), the game stood out to me as more than just a TV series ripoff. Manage your empire as you cruise through a gritty campaign. Customize and customizing your units for each combat encounter. Enjoy the X-COM-style back and forth. And yet, unfortunately, Narcos doesn’t match the thrills of the Netflix series or the highs and lows of playing an X-COM campaign.
Where the former offers an exciting and suspenseful game of cat and mouse between the DEA and Pablo Escobar, the latter provides a balancing act of tense micro-management of your beloved soldiers vs. deadly alien threats, along with a complex and challenging macro game of resource allocation and spending. Instead, Narcos shows the player a hodgepodge of edited TV episodes, then places the player into inconsequential combat situations. Of course, losing units within those battles means they are gone forever, but a quick save scum solves that issue. You can do this in X-COM as well, but we’ll get to why these combat encounters don’t feel weighty in a moment.
After each mission, you are treated to a score screen and granted points to upgrade units. While you are given a lot of options to move your units through various “tech trees,” losing a unit isn’t the biggest loss in the world. In fact, you can just hire new units, some of which are already upgraded. In the end, who cares if you lost your enforcer who carried you through 3 missions? He is effortlessly replaced with a small sum of meaningless cash. As far as I can tell, cash is only used to buy more soldiers anyway, or heal them.
This is one big strike against Narcos. I recognize that the game isn’t trying to be X-COM in every area, but I can’t help but wonder what penalty I’m suffering because I lose a unit on a mission. If this happens halfway through an X-COM campaign, odds are good that you’ve messed up your entire save file. There just isn’t that same sort of urgency and desperation here.
Funny to spend this much time in a review focused on the part of the game that doesn’t matter, when combat should be the star, right?
Well, it’s not much better.
Until I played Narcos, I didn’t realize how much I appreciate an initiative track or full squad movement back and forth between player and AI. In Narcos, you select one of your units, then move and take an action in any order. You’d think this would be interesting. Instead, it changes the game into a weird, unfun checkers match. It’s not strategic enough to use a Chess analogy.
You know how in Checkers your opponent can get their first king and just move back and forth until you finally decide to move your one piece into position for the opponent’s king to jump it? You were always destined to lose that piece because of how the game turned out—it was only a matter of time.
In other turn-based strategy games, you can use the initiative track to your advantage. When you know when your opponent moves, you learn a ton about when to move which unit to which space. Here in Narcos, you eventually have to move your unit forward so the AI will begin tracking them for an attack. It’s boring and devoid of strategy. You never get to use your team’s support actions to the fullest.
Instead, you need to move a unit forward to get into position to attack. On your opponent’s turn, they’ll move forward to attack you, which you’ll then attack and pull back to your forces, only to watch that same enemy unit walk right into your territory to finish gunning down your unit. It’s so lame. I’m sad to have wasted so much time trying to figure out how to make this better, but I just can’t.
Now, one way to counter this is to go through each of your other units and immediately end their turns, which gives them an “overwatch” eyeball so they can counterattack when an enemy moves into range. That sounds fun, doesn’t it? Let’s spend time ending turns so I can one-by-one, pull enemy units into my forces to kill them. The game gives you a slow-motion sequence where you can aim a crosshair at your opponent to gun them down. It’s… fine… just… It was interesting the first few times it happened.
Finally, let’s chat about graphics and UI.
I don’t care for ragging on games for weak graphics. Listen, we’ve got hundreds of incredible games out there which either tell great stories, or have engaging gameplay. Why spend our time being bothered about whether graphics are realistic or not? In my opinion, that’s half the reason the console wars started, and it’s not unusual for me to spend my gaming time with games from the last decade, or older.
All of that said, this game looks like putty. It’s probably because this isn’t a great port to the Switch, but it’s not flattering. I’m assuming it’s a resolution issue, but even the models look like a mobile game. Honestly, it might do better as such. Oh, did I mention load screens say “loading” then instruct you to push a button, then spend another 30 seconds loading?
The UI isn’t great either. It’s super annoying to select spaces on the grid to move to because of how the cursor slides around and locks into spaces. I think I spent 15 seconds trying to move the cursor onto a specific space because it kept sliding into a nearby space. This becomes much, much worse when you are dealing with terrain at different elevations or inside of buildings. Many times I would try to point within a house, but the house wouldn’t open up so I could see where I was moving. This is also made worse with the potato graphics, but what are you gonna do about it, ya know?
I just bought Cuphead for Switch on the Nintendo holiday sale, and I’m looking forward to playing it. I think I have plenty of space on my micro SD card to download it, but now that this review is written, I’m going to delete Narcos just in case.
Review copy generously provided by Homerun PR.
The Bottom Line