Phasers To Stun: Ancient Galaxy

By Kieron Gillen on June 9th, 2009 at 11:03 am.

Being away means that I’m enormously behind on the indie game situation. There’s about half a dozen open tabs plus e-mails marked as IMPORTANT for me to investigate. I’ll be catching up as well as I can, but the first thing I took a look at was Ancient Galaxy. And it’s… interesting. My mental note-pad is covered with scrawlings like “Outcast”, “Early Tomb Raider”, “Quasi-Star Trek”, “System Shock” and lots of other similarly intriguing things. It’s basically an oddly late-90s feeling action/adventure – in that it swaps elegance for piling on ideas and mechanisms. It’s a very PC action/adventure, in other words. The shareware version can be got here, and there’s some more thoughts from my quick play beneath the cut…

You play a Star-Trek-esque officer, exploring an alien ruins, before uncovering Dark Secrets ™. The most noticeable initial feature is the game’s unique take on dual-wielding. Not totting two shotguns – but packing a gun in the left while you carry a proper scanning device in your right. So you alternate between poking thing with the scanning device, and opening up on the enemies. Other systems are quickly introduced – there’s a role-playing game system, where you’re able to upgrade your characters’ abilities. You can collect weapons, dismantle them aboard your space-ship, and then re-construct them. And upgrade them – if you’ve collected enough scrap metal (either by mining veins with the scanner or just taking apart whatever unwanted trinkets you’ve found) to afford the costs. There’s also crystals, which provide more oblique abilities, and can be similarly broken apart.

But most impressive of all is the cloning mechanism. If you scan fallen enemies, you can collect their DNA. Get enough, and you can use the cloning device aboard your ship to transform your consciousness into an alien body, with all its abilities. Apparently the full game has nine aliens for you to try out. I have no idea what abilities being a big lizard allowed me, but frankly, I was happy just stomping around with my special agreeable tail. The cloning device is also how the game deals with death, re-constructing yourself aboard the ship when you get blasted by those darn lizards. Your best equipment and anything you found is still on your corpse, requiring you to get close and scan it to get it all back. At least in the early parts of the game I played, this isn’t too painful – you get dropped at a checkpoint on the planet relatively nearby, plus you’re able to manufacture a lot of your basic equipment for free. The obvious comparison would be a corpse run in an MMO if it wasn’t for negative connotations of the phrase. When enemies aren’t respawning and the distance is small, it’s hardly the same.

Problems? Well, combat isn’t exactly hyper-slick. Despite the relatively lacking aesthetics compared to a modern commercial release, frame rate wasn’t exactly sterling on my moderate system. Voice-acting near the start is of the quality which gets RPS podcast threads full of people complaining about noise compression or demanding microphones or saying Alec and I have annoying voices. The game’s story is primarily told through the retro-text pop ups. It’s a little unfair – it’s in that odd position of being an indie game which looks enough like a mainstream game to be judged against it and found lacking. With the resolution turned up, I found the lighting and landscapes of the game quite seductively alien – their softness seemed to recall Outcast most of all.

Me? I found myself working through it due to its undeniable sense of vision. The combat may not be great, but the exploration was the key for me. It’s a game which while not free-roaming or anything like that, is open enough to make exploration feel like the point. And I especially liked how it dealt with the traps, forcing you to actually pay attention. The Indiana Jones-qeue rolling balls which were dropped towards me worked well with the real-physics too – the first missed me because I was just running too quickly, which added vesimilitude to what was a scripted sequence. That is, there was an alien waiting with a trap… but it was a trap which the alien fucked up. As such, the whole thing feels credible, or at least human (as opposed to the cinematic-perfect way most mainstream games would take). And the quick thinking on a later one where I switched to my rocketlauncher and used it to send the threat bouncing off the cliff was cute real physics.

The full game features 20 levels and four character classes, promising a lot of exploration – and its just over ten quid. If you’re willing to see through the indie-finish, it’s an interesting, slow paced and agreeably modernist-retro arcade adventure. I’d say it was worth a look.

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25 Comments »

  1. Tei says:

    Ancient Galaxy: There was a good game and good ideas somewhere inside this game. And… I don’t know, maybe some people can locate these. I don’t. So I don’t like it at all. It lack polish, but also the something X. Can I say is a bad game? Playing this game is a metagame activity, searching on what room is the fun hidden.

  2. Yontan says:

    Cheers Kieron, Will check it out.

  3. Zerotime says:

    …is the game’s unique take on dual-wielding. Not totting two shotguns – but packing a gun in the left while you carry a proper scanning device in your right.

    Oh, so exactly like in Clear Sky?

  4. Kieron Gillen says:

    It’s a fancier scanning device, but you’re right.

    KG

  5. noom says:

    Tih sounds like exactly the kind of game in which I could tolerate a pretty severe lack of polish if it all ties together and plays well. Installing now ^_^

  6. Jonas says:

    Seconded, noom. It sounds potentially outright brilliant, I shall have to give it a try after work.

  7. Markoff Chaney says:

    Thirded. This does sound as though there can be some real promise in here and the blending of genres and some nice mechanics scratch at my explore-levelup-killstuff itches. Downloading the shareware version now and I’ll check it out this evening. The screens do look rather Outcastish, color scheme especially, and that was such an outstanding game. I loved the music and the whole faux voxel rendering engine from 10 years ago… Thanks for the tip!

  8. PC Monster says:

    Installed (eventually). Game wouldn’t even start. Uninstalled.

  9. Inglorion says:

    Downloaded it and tried to install, but it wouldn’t commence.

  10. Lewis says:

    Will get more to grips with this later, no doubt.

    It’s very rough. There is no excuse for voice acting that sounds like it was recorded through a five-pound headset microphone. And every time it wows with some delicious sunset lighting, it then throws something ludicrously boxy or bizarrely scaled in your direction, and the illusion dies.

    What strikes me so far isn’t a lack of money, resources, or whatever, but an unfortunate lack of ambition. It doesn’t even seem to try to think around its problems: it just accepts that it isn’t going to be all that great. Which is a shame, as I think it could have been (and, to be fair, could well be – I’ve only played half an hour) with a little more thought.

  11. floyd says:

    “after the cut…”
    almost every article posted here uses that expression and it is exceedingly annoying. please stop using it. it serves no purpose and makes you sound stupid.

  12. Jim Rossignol says:

    It’s a funny expression, isn’t it? I don’t even know where it came from. Is that click a cut?

  13. Lewis says:

    If my emo-teenage memory serves me well, it may have been Livejournal that first called page-breaks that.

  14. Nerd Rage says:

    I always thought it was akin to broadcast journalism where they grab your interest, and then tell you to come back after the commercials. No idea where it actually came from, however.

  15. Jad says:

    I thought it came from newspapers or magazines, where there was a short lead paragraph (the “lede” in newsie speak), then a photograph or graphic or something and then rest of the story. Words to the effect of “continued after the jump” reminded you to “jump” over the picture to continue reading. I’m less familiar with “after the cut”, but that might just be a America-British thing.

  16. Kieron Gillen says:

    I believe I got it from LJ. The code for the [more] is actuall < LJ-CUT> or something.

    KG

  17. Gap Gen says:

    It’s not that annoying. Not as annoying as, say, having your face stomped on. By a boot. Forever.

  18. Nox says:

    You had me at Outcast.

    I can’t believe that site is still up.

  19. the_magma says:

    verisimilitude.

    sorry to be verisimilar

  20. Markoff Chaney says:

    This was actually quite enjoyable, all things considered, and I look forward to spending more time with it later on. It seems to have a vast framework of RPG aspects, but put on a Third Person Shooter veneer. However, in replaying the first level twice, I saw variations in the DPS of my weapon and a couple other things that leads me to think that despite its seemingly linear play style, it actually has randomized elements to make the game worth replaying. I also read through some of the developer’s dev diary and, other than an odd year between almost having an RC ready and releasing the game, his team has been working on this for over 5 years.

    If anything, I almost think it’s too ambitious for what it is trying to do. The voice acting is distracting and of horrible fidelity. I can’t map my keys quite the way I want. I’ve found at least 3 grammatical and/or formatting errors in the first level. Animations are stiff and wooden. And I could care less. I’m loving it, warts and all. It may not be the prettiest game that has come out in the last month, but it sure seems to have the depth and replayability and variety that I enjoy. I’ll play through the demo a time or two but, right now, I’m thinking of putting the 16 dollars down, if nothing more than to support this labor of love and hope for a more polished vision down the road.

  21. Jonathan says:

    It’s about time someone finally trademarked the discovery of Dark Secrets. Thank you!

  22. Stromko says:

    I’m in some temple complex and can’t figure out where to go next, but that bothers me less than my inability to figure out how to get back to my ship. My DNA buffer is full, and there’s weapons lying all over that I’d love to convert into metal, but apparently you’re only allowed to go back to the ship inbetween missions? I could die but then my DNA samples and gear would be left on the corpse, so that wouldn’t solve it.

    The pacing and the level design leaves me a bit cold. For example, after finding the one mineral deposit that the tutorial told me about, I’ve been looking around and scanning all over but not found another. It makes me think the developer simply forgot about that feature.

    Being able to acquire DNA and new forms is interesting, but otherwise this doesn’t strike me as an ambitious title at all. You can’t really choose where to go or what to do with the ship and you have no crew. Compared to Star Command on a Commodore-64 emulator, to Star Control 2, all the way to Mass Effect on the PC and 360, Ancient Galaxy really doesn’t offer anything in the way of spacey exploration. Sadly there’s really not many games that allow a sense of exploration and couple that with character advancement mechanics. AG isn’t really even trying for that, it appears to be an entirely linear experience. There’s some really good linear experiences out there so I wouldn’t see myself buying this, not even sure if I’ll give the demo another try.

  23. Alex says:

    Playing a succession of clones in a Trek-esque universe? Now all I want to do is play a game as a Vorta.

  24. Wulf says:

    This has a lot of things I want in a game…

    - An interesting environment.
    - Alien cultures to explore.
    - The ability to be something other than a boring human.

    There are moments in this which bring about some moments of genuine joy, exploring an alien ruin, the first huge discovery one makes (I won’t spoil that), the well thought out alien race and all their artefacts lying around, the scanner which allows one to learn about the World around them, a detailed World, the first time one gets to adopt a non-human form, the sense of open exploration it provides (even if it is slightly an illusion), and some wonderful set pieces.

    On the latter count, I remember one scene yesterday that stuck in my head.

    “Hey, I have a party member, and he’s helping me fight stuff. Yayyy!”
    “Look, there’s our way out!”
    “Hmmm… but there’s blood in front of that ledge, I wonder why… oh look, a drawbridge on the other side!”
    “Find a way to activate it!”
    “Okay! :D Hmmm… I’ve found a button. I wish to push this button but I don’t know what it will dooo… oh well. Let’s push it!”
    “The drawbridge is down! Let’s get out of hereEEYAAGH!”
    “Hm… my friend seems to have died, in the same spot that that blood is. I wonder what’ll happen if I move his body from that spot. *SPIKES!!!* Ow, crap. So that’s what happened to him, and that explains the blood!”

    The moral of he story, if you see a patch of blood, it probably means other people have died there and you need to be wary.

  25. HokeyCokey says:

    Despite looking like a ten-year old game you might pick up cheap from poundland there’s something interesting about this title. Having played the demo for a couple of hours I will probably buy, if anything to reward an indie developer.

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