When I first started writing about Arknights last year, I had completed three-fourths of its main storyline. For all intents and purposes, I considered myself a bit of an expert of this gacha tower defense game, thinking of it as basically real-time chess with anime catgirls. Many months later, I realize that I was very very wrong. It’s not chess. Despite its emphasis on tactical strategy, the real Arknights is meant to be played blazingly fast.
One reason this took a while to realize is that mastery in Arknights is inherently time-gated, no matter how skilled you may already be with existing strategy games. That’s because the rarest gacha characters have fairly low drop rates, and even if I lucked out on obtaining a rare one, it can take weeks of resource-farming to fully max out their skills. And you’ll want to, because each character’s unique unlockable skills give them a completely different role in team compositions. Until I figured out what their most unique niche was, I was playing a cautious planning game. But the real fun came from rapid improvisation.
I started playing with lower-rarity characters for one simple reason: The rare ones are more expensive to invest in. Since the starter characters had fewer (and simpler) skills, they also made it impossible for me to adapt the popular strategies that I saw on YouTube.
But these three- and four-star characters (whom I affectionately call interns) are decent. In fact, the three-star Kroos can deal more damage than four-star characters in her class. But in Arknights, damage per second isn’t everything. Can a character hit multiple enemies at once? Can they hold multiple lanes? Do they have the cooldown to kill an elite enemy, retreat, and then do it again? Are they cheap to use, or will I have to wait for deployment points to regenerate? These were not questions that I had to answer in the early stages.
Despite having cleared four story chapters over my first few months, I didn’t really understand the meta, so I mostly stuck to my favorite interns. I planned around maps carefully, but I really only had one strategy: Block all exit points with bulky defenders, protect them with healers, and surround them with snipers. It seemed like an absolutely foolproof plan! That is, until the harder bosses arrived. I scrambled to stall them with slowers and fast-redeploy characters. My snipers worked overtime to keep pace with how quickly enemies were carving through my defenses. I got away with it for a very long time because Cuora is one of the chunkiest defenders in the game. I had grown to rely on her holding down my entire strategy.
Then one day, I failed while using a strategy guide. It was devastating. I didn’t have the exact specialist character that the streamer was using, and I had paid dearly for it. My best girl Cuora failed me. Or did she? I’d always pursued a heavily defensive strategy, rather than a flexible approach that was focused on gunning down most of the enemies before they could ever reach her.
There’s a major divide in gacha communities about why they should invest in certain characters. Some invest in their favorite personalities, while others are beholden to what’s “current” in the gameplay meta. While I paid attention to discussions around usability, I assumed that each character was interchangeable within their archetype, save for the power differences in their rarities. This was a mentality encouraged by older gacha games such as the launch build of Fire Emblem Heroes, where characters weren’t any more complex than stat sticks you’d use to beat your enemies.
I was also held back by how the gacha community approached Arknights. In almost every single game in this genre, communities keep tier lists of which characters are the best in their particular niche, which is important for planning which characters to spend premium currency on. I would go on websites to research which characters were worth the investment, and which ones weren’t. As a result, I overlooked a ton of units with specialist roles.
Arknights is a strategy game in which great units can’t make up for a mediocre tactician. It would take a ton of resources, but I couldn’t truly learn what these characters’ niches were unless I invested weeks of materials into each one. So, I stopped playing the main campaign for a few months and focused on grinding. While before new events would frequently steamroll me, I could finally go in blind. It wasn’t because I knew the enemies or the maps. It was because I knew my characters’ strengths and weaknesses enough to know exactly what to do with them. Even if the map sprung a surprise horde or an inconvenient infiltrator, I would neutralize surprises with my confidently aggressive tactics. I was no longer a beleaguered general trying to hold down a fort through a battle of attrition, but a warmaster who created their own opportunities to break down the enemies’ offense.
When freeze-inducing slugs crawl toward my base, I send Lappland to silence them before they hit my chokepoint. Multiple enemies incoming with heavy armor? Silverash can melt through their defenses, even with a wall in the way. If my guard wasn’t dealing enough damage, then I’d pop Warfarin’s skill to transform her from a pure healer into a sacrificial attack buffer. The game is so well-balanced that even the “weaker” units have unique roles to play, such as being cheap enough to deploy early.
When I really know what I’m doing, I ascend into a flow state where I play maps at double speed. Finally, I understood why the most common critique of its most powerful offensive character was “Surtr makes the game too easy.” There’s no tactics involved if your attacker simply deletes enemies off the map. Recently, I’ve also been taking Surtr off my teams, or switching to her weaker second skill. Time and failure have made me into a better strategist than the newbie who’d been trying to get her for months.
Who knows what kind of player I’ll be next year?