Opening paragraph cliche, to boldly type out a space related quote. To plan out new references and old observations, to play while quietly going insane where no one has gone insane before. *waits for the music to kick in for this intro…*
Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander tasks you, with, well taking command of a starbase in the middle of hostile territory during the decline of the human race due to a cataclysmic series of events apparently wiping out all that remains bar yourself and the others under your temporary command aboard Halcyon 6. Exactly where numbers 1 through 5 are is unknown, hell there might not be a 1 through 5, sometimes people name things for curious reasons.
This doesn’t matter though, your previous commander in chief, and the federations greatest war hero went out during the tutorial mission and, well, things didn’t go so well for them. Now you are the last great leader, and hope for humanity as it faces a new and disturbing threat from the unknown. It’s now your duty to take command of the alien space station… Oh I didn’t mention that!? Yes, Halcyon 6 isn’t of human construction, we just found and claimed it for ourselves. This has maybe not gone down well with the galaxy’s other local indigenous factions, who it seems have also been searching for this old precursor race (there’s always got to be one of these in any space game hasn’t there) relic for a very long time and would all have an interest in its future.
For the most part this is a rather stripped back space management sim, dividing your time up into primarily three parts. Sending ships out to explore the local star systems and planets, exploring the undiscovered areas inside your very space station, and lastly dealing with diplomatic situations. The whole galaxy is in turmoil since the attack on humanity by a new unknown aggressor and dealing with the fallout from these events its top on your list.
The key to surviving your tenure as commander of Halcyon 6 is literally time management. While it costs resources and people to get anything done, time is the most difficult to juggle resource. Another high priority is deciding on your command team as it is these individuals who will take on the logistics of all your individually set tasks. If you want to explore and unlock more potential for your starbase, you need to assign a commander or first officer to the task. Different officers hold different fields of expertise and will level up in different ways as they complete tasks. The problem is that you start with just the one or two, you can have them in your space station clearing out new areas and building new facilities but they will also be the people you need to send out on galactic missions when required. Your top officer might need to lead a mission to rescue some stranded colonists, but while doing that they cannot do anything else. You are constantly at odds with the juggle you need to do with your people and the events going on around you.
A day could be well spent collecting resources from a local space station but the two days that it takes to get there could also be just what you need to finish building a new reactor or training new members of your command team. Sending your people off to do any tasks at all also runs great risk. Everywhere is hostile to you, including at times, your own space station. Aggressive factions will be encountered as parts of rescue missions, strange aliens are found hidden away on your very own station, and occasionally other factions will arrive and assault the base itself in an effort to take it from you.
For the most part, your dealings with other races is non-aggressive, taking a more diplomatic leaning, allowing you to converse with these local group leaders and representatives with tact. These moments are often where most of the games quirky sense of humour is on show, each race being an often funny twist on the different stereotypes you find in space operas and other science fiction storytelling. There’s the aggressive race of synthetic beings who we are told cant stand humanity, right before our first encounter with them is entirely pleasant and personable, a new personality type they have chosen to “test out” for the time being. Or there’s the race that is all about business, who want to obtain your space station from you because they think they can sell it on for a good profit down the line.
When diplomacy isn’t an option, or it simply breaks down, things shift to a very JRPG style battle mode, with you controlling up to three units on one side of the screen as they take on different collections of enemies. This is where levelling up your command team as quickly as possible comes into play as each type of officer has a different set of unlockable in-battle skills and abilities. You will encounter both space and on foot combat, and the format is exactly the same for each type of battle. An order bar shows the person to attack next and you can use that coupled with information about the aggressors strengths and weaknesses to adapt and survive. Different encounters will require different tactics to not only survive but also flourish. Victory means resources, and also, not becoming ensnared in deaths everlasting embrace, so making the best choices in battle is desirable, because when you lose a ship or commander, they are gone for good.
The game doesn’t take it easy on you, even on lower difficulty settings you can find yourself in such a situation that you will want to start over more than once. It’s hard to know if this is intent or consequence as there’s zero reward to going back and starting over, obviously, but the game is not super good at spelling out everything you can do and how to do it in a clear and obvious way before you are encountering things that can cause you some real trouble. It’s a frustrating experience at times, a title that has an illusion of depth more than a deep and rewarding growth path. There’s little here to learn, it’s all there to find quite quickly mechanically, but this information is so poorly told to you that it feels like deliberate obfuscation. This coupled with how tough many of the early encounters can be makes the early moments leave a less than pleasant taste.
It’s a visually odd title too, with art being different levels of simplistic, from stripped back but stylised and OK to look at, to downright ugly. The in battle human character sprites feel more like crude takes on off-brand Lego characters than part of the overall look of the game. This contrasts with the sometimes gory death sprites you’ll see in on foot battle sequences. For the most part you can get past these visuals, as there’s more here to hold your attention but it’s noticeable when you first start out. The soundtrack too suffers from this odd sense of place. Not that there’s much music you’ll be listening to, beyond the two main themes you’ll be hearing. One that loops infinitum and really makes you wish for a little more variety. Touches like different music for different parts of the galaxy or different faction encounters would go a long way.
There’s potential here for something special, when everything clicks the experience can be very good fun indeed, for the most part it feels a little too pressured though. Even lower difficulty levels can feel unkind in their challenge and the information presentation in game is often needlessly obtuse. You will need to have some commitment to see real success and longer lasting experiences with this, to see past the often simplistic to the point of ugly visuals.The multi faceted experience is one full of potential, just don’t expect it to be immediately for you.
Robin Smith is a freelance gaming journalist and contributor to PN2. He’s on Twitter @seiibutsu