Premature Evaluation: StarCrawlers

I’m writing these alt-texts on what is often now called Mother’s Day here in the UK, but can be helpfully distinguished from the American day of the same name by its more accurate title, Mothering Sunday. The origins of each are different, though intertwined, and certainly the popularity of both celebrations share a common factor: the pain many mothers felt at losing their sons to war - which is definitely entirely relevant to SpaceCrawlers and not at all a wild digression born of my waning attention span.

Each week Marsh Davies plunders the ravaged hulk of Early Access and smuggles out any stories he can find and/or succumbs to the terrors of the interdimensional void. This week he murders robotic wait staff and asset-strips sci-fi dungeons in space salvage RPG StarCrawlers. It goes on sale tomorrow.

Is it any wonder that some members of the gaming community nurse a persecution complex when, in the games themselves, so few people, animals, robots, or multifanged amorphous spacethings are ever pleased to see us? In StarCrawlers, even the cleaning droids and busboys want to have a pop, lobbing chinaware and squirting me with detergent. Admittedly, I am usually there to plunder their derelict spacestation, or sabotage their data centres, or “deliver a severance package” to a megacorp employee who has, in a literal and shortly rectified sense, outlived his usefulness. But still, it is a bit of a hit to the self-esteem that you can’t walk from one room to another without some haywire robot or grotesque alien hatchling flinging itself at you. “Where’s the beef?”, I mutter to the hatchlings, as I ruefully sunder them with psychic horror channelled from the abyssal nightmare of the void.

Ann Jarvis is credited with the creation of Mother’s Day in the United States, establishing the festival as a means of bringing together families torn apart by the Civil War - less a celebration of motherhood than it was a call upon mothers to action. Jarvis had previously organised women’s groups to aid in the sanitisation of army encampments during the war itself - Confederate and Unionist alike. Her daughter carried on the campaign following her mother’s death, at which point it became more of a salutation of top drawer motherin’.

The providence of said beef is, in fact, one of many randomly generated environments which form one of many randomly generated missions for me and my crew of Crawlers – happy-go-lucky space rogues working on the fringes of space at the behest of any corp who has the cash. No job too small, no paycheck too big. And with those paychecks I can hire new crew from a brilliantly vibrant roster of classes, outfit them with looted goodies and go on more missions, eventually blundering through a set of narrative beats – only the first chapter of which has been implemented in this otherwise refreshingly robust and fulsome beta.

Each mission benefits a particular corporation, sometimes at the expense of another, and your standing with each of the many, many corporations is tracked – and the story may unfold in different ways, depending upon which allegiances you’ve nurtured and which have explosively decompressed. I’ve not really seen the impact of this in what I’ve played so far, though I’ve encountered a few strands of narrative and an environmental puzzle or two in the more scripted missions: strewn datapads revealing conversation between smugglers and hints as to how to interpret codes left in the environment. But these instances are few in the Early Access build of the game, which is more concerned with scouring randomised dungeons and getting in scuffles with space-mites.

Certainly the British revival of Mothering Sunday just after First World War was inspired by similar motives, but it also harked back to a much older tradition, largely abandoned in Europe since the 16th century. Then, Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, was the one day in the year in which congregations normally served by local “daughter” churches, would descend upon the larger “mother” church or cathedral.

These missions take the form of first person sorties to abandoned space hulks, not-so-abandoned research facilities and so forth, all of which have been randomly but convincingly cobbled together into a grid of interlocking art assets. These do repeat, but the game still manages to make its locations credibly eerie and individualised with rare and witty detail – a variety that the devs are working to increase during the game’s projected six month stay in Early Access.

As in The Legends of Grimrock and its retro RPG forebears, you don’t have complete freedom of movement, instead moving around the grid square-by-square. You can, however, activate free-look – handy for spotting creds, tucked away in the corner of rooms, or the security panels required to deactivate the booby trap currently geysering poison gas. Enemies are represented by single units that move as and when you do – but engagement cuts away from the current murky interior to a separate battle stage, where your opponent is often revealed to be a stack of several creatures. I’ve never liked this in RPGs. It makes some sense, perhaps, when games are controlled from an overworld view: everything is taken to be an abstraction. But here the corridors you’re standing in feel like they should represent the base level of reality. In any case, having more options to assess threat and avoid combat altogether would only make the game richer. As it is, you are frequently bushwhacked whenever you open a door.

Perhaps this was itself inspired by the epistle for the day, taken from Galatians, which refers to “Jerusalem, which is above, and is our Mother” - so prompting a return to a place of spiritual origin. In Catholic tradition too, the introit for this day’s mass invites all people who love Jerusalem to come together and “be filled from the breasts of your consolation.” I do not recommend attempting this with your actual mother. I’m sure she’d just prefer flowers.

This is a quibble, however. Combat sometimes feels relentless, or a distraction from your main task of exploration, but it’s rarely boring, entirely thanks to the work that has gone into making each of your crew potent and asymmetric. I’ll get to how the turnbased, time-unit combat system works in a moment, but it’s the skills available to your characters that are the real core of the game: elaborate and deep, interlocking in emergent ways.

These skill trees take time to mine out, however. Each of the classes has three separate tracks of skills, and each tier along each track must be upgraded three times before the next unlocks. All the classes I’ve played so far have a similar central idea, in that each has a resource pool which empowers them, but the relationship between attacking and empowerment varies wildly. Tubsy is my main character, a Void Psyker, who I pick initially because she has a badass helmet: like an aerodynamic goldfish bowl, swimming with purple stars. With every attack she gains Void energy, which in turn empowers her attacks. This makes her an immense damage dealer in mid-to-late combat, but overload her with Void energy, and she’ll pop.

There are various unlockable skills which act as release valves for this energy, but they’re a tier or two down in the skill trees, and it’s painful to forego the advantage of damage output in order to invest in less glamorous skills that’ll eventually get me to those release valves. In fact, I’m supremely impatient to investigate any one of her skill paths: the Voidcaller path is the one that’s essential to her ability to absorb or expend Void energy, but the others are a lot more colourful – her Manipulator track makes her a nightmare for enemies with shields, draining them or overloading them, while the Summoner track allows her to psychically torment her enemies with visions of celestial unrealities.

Naturally, as with all festivals today, Mothering Sunday has become a commercial monstrosity fuelled by the appallingly tasteless greetings card industry by which unappreciative children can just spend money on empty gestures instead of actually making the effort to give a shit. As the founder of Mothering Sunday in the UK,  Constance Penswick-Smith said: “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.” Bosh.

The rest of the crew is made up of hires from the spacestation which acts as the game’s hub, with the exception of Thrasher, a prototype military AI who I best during one of the early, narratively guided missions. Having given him a new paint job with a big toothy grin, he joins the team as a class unto himself: he has a number of overwatch-style retaliatory powers, charged attacks and targeted shots that boost the chance of critical hits thereafter. The downside is that, across the course of any combat, he also accumulates malfunctions, increasing the chance that he’ll simply forget what he was doing and skip his turn. Even then, later skills like Core Dump calculate a percentage chance to automatically attack, again and again, based on the number of prior malfunctions. It’s a tough choice between that and the skill which prompts him to read out randomly generated inspirational haikus.

Plop is my second proper hire, again chosen for her bodacious helmetitude, and also a Psyker – although Force rather than Void flavoured. Unlike Tubsy, she starts with a pool of 100 Force to spend – variously on empowered melee attacks and defensive skills – and gains it back at a rate of 5 per turn. I struggle to find her terribly useful at present, though it may be because I don’t have the equipment to make her effective. The flavour text tells me she doesn’t do well in protracted engagements and I can see why: she doesn’t regenerate Force back at nearly the rate she needs to use it to do sustained damage. On top of that, a lot of her abilities trade short term benefits against her future health in a big way: Mirror Prism creates a shield that absorbs all damage to your entire team until it is shattered – at which point it inflicts that damage to poor old Plop across two turns. Youch. Currently, I don’t have the build to take that, but I could see that by investing heavily in shields and armour, you could make her into a giant damage sponge.

Interestingly, the word “mum” to mean mother arrives quite late in English, although its antecedents in italianate languages, like “mamma” go back a long way, and, in origin, are probably imitative of babyish sounds. The once-silent dramatics of mummery, meanwhile, share an origin with “mime” and “to keep mum” - onomatopoeic echos of the sound emitted when you try to speak with lips sealed shut. And the Egyptian mummies? From the Persian for wax: a component of the embalming process.

My final crewmember at present is a Cyberninja who I intended to call STABLORD, but ended up with an extraneous F thanks to incautious typing. STABLORFD has, potentially, one of the most interesting and precisely useful skillsets of the team so far. His powers involve building up Combo points against individual enemies. Once stacked, he can deliver almighty finishers – but this is really only workable in combat against fewer, tougher foes. Against a swarm of weak enemies, he doesn’t ever get a chance to build up substantial combo. However, his other principal trait is even better: STABLORFD can game the entire combat system.

Turns are assigned by the position of character portraits along a time track. When the character at the front of the track takes an action she or he is reshuffled back into the track – how far back depends on the Time Units the chosen action required. Individual weapons and skills have their own time cost, and the tactical nuance comes from juggling these abilities to eliminate threats before they advance to the front of the time track, felling them before they even have a chance to do damage. STABLORFD is particularly adept at this – one skill, for example, allows him to deliver an attack and then, ignoring the usual time cost, vault over the next character portrait – giving him the turn after next. If he vaults over an allied character portrait, however, his attack is hugely empowered. This, and several of his other skills, allow you to reap big rewards for clever team/time interplay.

The oldest surviving “yo momma” joke is Babylonian, and, annoyingly, we’ll never know the punchline. The fragment of the 3500 year old riddle that we have reads: “...of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?” A little later, and the bible has this retort by the rebel Jehu to King Joram: “What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” Sick burn, bro. Anyway, StarCrawlers, something, something. Give your mother a call.

On top of this there are other nuances: the particular stats of your equipment, the damage absorbency of shields and threat levels to buff or debuff respectively. I haven’t yet touched the hacker, engineer, smuggler or soldier classes. It doesn’t all feel perfectly balanced yet – but that’s why it’s in Early Access. Primarily, this imbalance manifests itself in an extreme itchiness for quicker, earlier progression. There’s a lot of combat in this game, and it can feel a little monotonous, walking from one scrap directly into another, and then another, while exploring no more than three boxy rooms. Having more skills to play with early on would keep things lively.

There are other tweaks: the game generally feels extremely stable, but menus could do with some work. It’d be nice to be able to see entire individual character loadouts while in the shop, rather than as wordy tool-tips; information on character sheets could be more economically and clearly displayed; switching weapons between characters should be a lot more straightforward; available skillpoints could be more clearly flagged; the map needs to show stairwells and elevation changes. Minor things, in other words. StarCrawlers is already a comprehensive game which shows real delight and ingenuity in its skill system. It’s enough for me to fling open my arms and embrace any chitinous hatchling, whether it wants to be friends or not.

StarCrawlers will be available from Steam on Tuesday 17th March. I played the version available on 13/03/2015.

17 Comments

  1. Philopoemen says:

    The devs have been quite responsive, insofar that most of the quibbles that you mentioned have been largely addressed in the recent updates (and when I say recent, they’ve been putting out nearly one per day). Caveat that I’m a backer, and have had access since alpha.

    I’m actually looking forward to more in-depth character and narrative options (as in the Stella Marin missions), but the EA seems more concerned with tweaking the combat thus far, which certainly makes sense. In early builds you didn’t really have any issues re: combat until around lvl 8-10, so I’m interested how they’ll address that and the fact your gear is so important.

    But the different classes play very differently, and give you an interesting mix of abilities – just the utility classes like hacker and engineer are so far underutilised outside of combat, and there are much better choices for pure combat builds.

    • LexW1 says:

      Having up-to-date gear seems a bit too important right now – it’s much more important than actual level (save for to qualify for the gear), particularly with weapons, I do hope they tone that down, but otherwise it seems on a good course.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    Read the Alt-text first (brilliant as always), now to actually read about the game!

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      tigerfort says:

      Glad it’s not just me :)

      (And Marsh’s alt-texts are, as always, a masterpiece.)

      • Kempston Wiggler says:

        Beautiful.

        I had no idea this was happening. Love an Alt-text, I do. I thought RPS had all but given up on them!

        • Elusiv3Pastry says:

          Yes, more of this, please! Make Marsh the official alt-texter!

  3. Themadcow says:

    This looks superb. Sci-Fi has so much potential for this type of game, especially the visual aspects which can get veeery samey in fantasy settings.

  4. liquidsoap89 says:

    Is it possible to get a masters degree in alt-text? I only ask because Marsh must have something similar.

  5. malkav11 says:

    “Legend of Grimrock” – please don’t have real-time combat please don’t have real-time combat…oh thank god.

    That is to say, everything you discuss sounds really really appealing but I can’t get into Grimrock-style combat so invoking it briefly raised that specter. Sounds like it was more about the first-person party based dungeon crawling, though, so I’m sold.

    • LexW1 says:

      Yeah, this Grimrock comparison is little inaccurate – there are essentially two strands of “first person grid-based party-based dungeon crawler RPG” – Dungeon Master-style and Wizardry-style.

      Dungeon Master-style is full real-time, all the time, and Grimrock is the most recent “big name” game there. Also every monster in a pack is seen, because it’s all real-time, and they have to be.

      Wizardry-style, on the other hand, is strictly turn-based, in and out of combat, and one monster show on screen will typically represent many when you get into an actual fight, and that’s where StarCrawlers is coming from. (Tons of earlier RPGs are in this style, of course)

      Starcrawlers does have one element which is kind of in-between – the “camera” traps keep moving even when you’re not, but it feels right and I only realized it wasn’t quite the same when thinking about it just now.

  6. jasta85 says:

    Backed this on kickstarter and am loving the early access, the biggest thing that needs to be fixed is balance as some classes are just a lot more effective in 90% of the situations you come across. the hacker is probably the weakest because she relies on buffs/debuffs and don long term damage over time, the problem is most fights are over long before she can actually get into the swing of things. but again, it’s just balance tweaks that they need to work out.

    I’ve been trying to keep myself from playing too much so that I can enjoy the full release version but it’s really really hard to stop playing.

    • LexW1 says:

      The Hacker has two problems which sort of make each other worse:

      1) All of her actually-effective abilities seem to be on short cooldowns, but cooldowns nonetheless.

      2) You need to invest 3 points in any given ability to see it actually have an impact on battle (unlike with some other classes).

      If you had all of her “basic” abilities at 3 points, and the spreading passive, and a fast weapon, you could get a lot of trouble out there, enemies infecting and reinfecting each other with various viruses, but that requires being level 12+, and even then would take at least 3 turns of basically doing nothing to get rolling – and a fast weapon would mean what damage you did was much reduced. It’s particularly awful that you can still miss with your hacks, wasting even more time!

      So I think the Hacker is in kind of a tricky place. Other classes seem to be doing much better.

      I do think all the “base of tree” abilities should be more like 1 point = 60%, 2 points = 80%, 3 points = 100% effectiveness for pretty much all classes, rather than most of them being 33/66/100, but with a random few being much more initially effective.

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    phuzz says:

    Three unrelated thoughts:
    1) I might have to check this out when it’s released, it’s been ages since I played a ‘proper’ RPG.
    2) That third picture down looks very like the bridge of a Firefly class.
    3) Marsh is the monarch of alt-text.

  8. The_Ramen_Within says:

    But is it better than the gold standard, Etrian Odyssey?

    • LexW1 says:

      Will anyone ever know? :( Etrian Odyssey is Nintendo DS-only, with none of the sequels coming out on anything but DS or 3DS, so not really directly comparable to PC games. I’ve literally never met anyone who has actually played it, which is sadly unsurprising as outside Japan the sales seem to be have been in the low five digits.

      In any case, it’s a very different approach, as far as I can tell, designed more for replayability and less for toughness (though it doesn’t let you save in dungeons or heal much, so there’s a bit of that), and it’s very early in the design process.

      • Kempston Wiggler says:

        Well, if one absolutely must develop a game for such a niche device….

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          Risingson says:

          Etrian Odyssey was an exercise in frustration for me. After restarting that for the fifth time and realizing that I ran out of everything always and I never would reach the proper strategy to do anything, I gave up. It’s like taking the worse of oldschool – the trial and error after many hours wasted in a set of characters – and I have not the mood for that.