Wot I Think: Halcyon 6 – Starbase Commander

One minute, Halcyon 6 [official site] reminds me of XCOM, but with spaceships as well as people, and the next it reminds me of every JRPG I’ve ever abandoned. Every now and again I think everything is clicking into place, and there’s a little bit of Star Control flavouring, but before long I find another piece of busywork to take up my time.

I keep asking myself whether the good side of Starbase Commanding outweighs the occasional bout of tedium. Here’s wot I think.

In Halcyon 6, you start off on the back-foot. Sure, you’re in command of a starbase and it’s a potentially awesome starbase, but there are pirates and what appear to be extra-dimensional nasties coming to feast on you and the rest of your federation. The pirates have formed a union of sorts, and smashing that to pieces is one of the first challenges you’ll face. The non-human nasties are altogether more troublesome and mysterious, taking on various forms, all of which land somewhere on the cosmic horror spectrum. One of them looks like an angry asteroid with a face.

Despite all of their tentacles and other bits, both bulging and blade-like, these space beasties aren’t particularly dreadful. Dangerous, yes, but also kind of adorable. Halcyon makes cosmic horror cute, and even when one of your hastily ‘volunteered’ red green shirts splits apart at the seams after taking one too many globs of acidic spit to the torso, the whole thing still feels like it could fit in a block of Toonami programming.

Combat takes place in both ship-to-ship (or ship-to-monster) forms and down on the surface, where your officers and hapless crew members fight use phasers, lasers, hacking devices and much more. Whether you’re in space or on the ground, fights are turn-based JRPG style affairs, which is to say units act in a set order and can choose from several abilities, either buffing, causing detrimental status effects, chipping away at health or healing. Or any combination of those things.

The aim – aside from actually killing your enemies – is to use combos, whereby you exploit vulnerabilities and apply status effects that you can then exploit even further. You might be able to confuse a hostile, for example, which provides benefits of its own, and then use another ability that capitalises on the confusion, causing more damage than it normally would.

It’s all fine. Enjoyable enough and presented pleasantly, but incapable of creating the kind of dramatic tension that comes from a more kinetic squad-based skirmish. The lasting impression is of two teams of three lining up and slowly whittling away at one another, which is precisely what’s shown on screen. Combat is mostly about preparation, you see – take a team with complementary abilities and you’re likely to succeed much more quickly, and with less wounds to spend your hard-earned healing after the fact.

Preparation is where the starbase comes in.

It once belonged to one of those precursor races who leave their toys scattered across so many of the galaxies that live on the science fiction shelf, so it has all kinds of secrets to uncover and maybe even a god-shattering weapon tucked in one of its crevices. Think something between Farscape’s Moya – a sentient bio-mechanical ship – and XCOM 2’s reclaimed alien tech that must be cleared out room by room.

The side-on view of the starbase is where the first of the XCOM comparisons comes in. It’ll look immediately familiar to anyone who has played Firaxis’ games, the sequel in particular given how alien and wierd-tech everything looks, and you’ll be building officer training facilities and the like as well, so the comparison isn’t even skin-deep.

I found the galactic map trickier to get my head around. It doesn’t look like a Geoscape but it behaves like a Geoscape. Notifications at the bottom right of the screen let you know when something requires your attention, you accelerate time or pause using buttons at the top, and ships travel back and forth to hotspots as directed. At first, you’re mostly dealing with events as they unfold and as the game becomes more expansive, there’s a lot of defending to be done (that starbase is a prime target for all kinds of foes).

Despite preparing for scenarios by upgrading the base and levelling up crew being vital, I’ve never quite felt like I have enough control to define my path through a campaign rather than simply reacting to problems as they arise. That’s due to the busywork mentioned earlier, which is an important slice of the game’s structure. Rather than simply building manufacturing rooms for the resources needed to build and upgrade, you’ll gather many of them by completing missions, and by collecting them from various facilities scattered around the map.

If you’ve ever played a Heroes of Might and Magic game (and if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and go play III) you’ll recognise the way this works. Manufacturers make resources and you send heroes (officers in this case) trotting around the map to collect them. They only have limited storage space, those manufacturers, so you really want to stop by just as they’ve filled up, so as not to waste time and fuel on the visit. It’s kind of like learning the spawn points and countdowns for weapons and armour on an FPS deathmatch map – you learn the route and time your pickups to perfection.

There are workarounds that allow you to spend your time and attention elsewhere, but you’re going to be doing the collection rounds quite a lot in the early game, as you bring your tech and officers up to speed.

Halcyon does have peaks of excitement, usually linked to the big confrontations that crop up from time to time. Knowing that something powerful is heading toward the station and having to recall fleets and get everything running optimally before it arrives shows the game at its best – it’s where it most resembles FTL in playstyle. FTL bolted onto a slightly broader strategy game.

Imagine – and stick with me here – that every game is a word and like a word it’s made up of letters. Some are neologisms, others are simple but effective, communicating a great deal with a few letters. Then there are the ones that are a bit of a mouthful or that you can see the appeal of but would never use in conversation. I trip over Halcyon (both the game and the title; ‘lcy’ confuses my brain). The parts that feel like XCOM don’t quite fit with the parts that feel like Heroes of Might and Magic, and the parts that feel like a JRPG don’t fit with either.

The combination of features in Halcyon feels as if someone dipped their hand into a Scrabble bag and pulled out a handful of letters and then made one of those words that scores loads of points but that I’m not quite convinced is real. Muzjiks, say.

I’m not sure if I’d like the whole game a lot more if I hadn’t played all of the things that it references. The fact that it’s derivative doesn’t bother me in the slightest – everything is – but this particular combination of things that I like (or in the case of the combat, a thing that I can tolerate) adds up to something that makes me want to turn back to its inspirations rather than stick with it.

If XCOM and Heroes of Might and Magic meets Star Trek/Farscape appeals to you (it does, doesn’t it?), and you’re happy to force your way past some initially confusing issues with the interface, you’ll almost certainly enjoy Halcyon 6. I have, despite my gripes, but it’s less than the sum of all those parts that I couldn’t help but see the edges of as I played, and I was longing for more engaging combat long before the end. Even if the galaxy continues to grow, I don’t think I’ll return even.

Halcyon 6 is available now, for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is available through Steam.

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  1. draglikepull says:

    I have to disagree with this review. I’ve been having a ton of fun playing Halcyon 6. It’s extremely focused on the turn-based combat, as opposed to most of the base-building stuff, but as someone who really likes tactical RPGs, that’s cool with me.

    One of the things that works so well about the combat is that most fights take a few minutes and several rounds. That means there’s time to actually play out a strategy, unlike a lot of JRPG-ish games where most fights can be won by auto-attacking or spamming one powerful ability. You can easily lose almost any fight in Halcyon 6 if you’re not smart about how you use your abilities.

    The emphasis on status effects and the ways they stack and interact is a big part of what makes it all work. In a lot of RPGs status effects aren’t worth the effort, but here they naturally occur as parts of other attacks, so learning how to optimise the different abilities your team members might have is key.

    There are a couple of things I dislike about it. One is that there are huge difficulty spikes, especially in the 3rd of the 3 acts. The other is that, even though the combat is fun and smartly designed, it can get a bit repetitive just because of the sheer volume of fights and the somewhat minimal enemy variety. Given that Halcyon 6 is meant to be replayed several times, it probably would have worked better if individual playthroughs were shorter and less repetitive.

    That said, I’ve had lots of fun with it and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who’s into tactical turn-based RPGs.

    • Malarious says:

      See, I felt that the combat was just a huge bore. There’s no depth — or I guess, the “depth” is in the prep and when it comes to the actual execution, it’s all just by the numbers. Halcyon 6 seems to have ignored all the developments in JRPGs since the 90s.

      The combat system is basically Darkest Dungeon except without the element of positioning and the cool AoE stuff, which is literally what made that combat system good. Halcyon 6’s design is just SO thin. It really does feel like a mobile game.

      I don’t know how anyone can justify $20 on this game. If you like “tactical RPGs” then you can pick up Disgaea or Phantom Brave on Steam for $20 and they have significantly better combat systems. Battle Brothers is $20, has a similar XCOM-style character persistence, and has a very robust tactical combat system filled with interesting choices every turn.

      Compare Halcyon 6 to Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 6 and you’ll notice there’s nothing new or innovative in Halcyon 6’s combat system. It’s a complete regression. I’m not exaggerating here: I’ve played RPG-maker games with more interesting combat mechanics than what’s on display here. It’s the worst of every JRPG combat system paired with an unsatisfying XCOM-lite strategic layer.

  2. PancakeWizard says:

    I’m enjoying the game, but I share the criticisms. I’ve found my own personal workarounds for making the busywork easier, but the developers are actually listening to feedback and it looks like they’ll be making some changes in that regard.

    In the meantime, use that first fourth officer (I advise an engineer, as you can have them doing building stuff in the starbase in-between which ranks them up) in a shuttle to just gopher resources plus a single attack fleet. I didn’t have a second fleet until I could build tier 2 ships and a ton of resources so I just had instant cool ships manned with officers at that point. Hell, I didn’t even use an engineer in my fleet formation until then!

  3. Axyl says:

    Sorry, Adam. I disagree with you big time on this one. I honestly think the pick ‘n mix of mechanics from other games and genres works brilliantly here.

    There are also a lot of changes that occur after Act 1 that you make no mention of, like Resources being automatically delivered to your Spacebase rather than needing to send officers out, thus MASSIVELY reducing the “Busy work” you had a rather large issue with.

    Honestly, Adam, I have to ask, man..
    How far into the game did you get before writing this?

    I’m not saying you screwed the pooch or anything, but it does seem like you didn’t get much into Act 2 or beyond.

    I hope I’m wrong and this is just me disliking a less-than-stellar review of a game I really like.


    • noodlecake says:

      “There are workarounds that allow you to spend your time and attention elsewhere, but you’re going to be doing the collection rounds quite a lot in the early game, as you bring your tech and officers up to speed.”

      • Axyl says:

        It’s not really a “workaround” though, is it? It’s a mechanic that unlocks in the 2nd Act of the game.

        Maybe Adam’s wording was just vague, but it is still a valid question imo.

      • vahnn says:

        The”workaround” I imagine he was talking about is that you can research and then build production facilities in your base that both passively produce these resources and can be manned by an officer to attempt to produce an extra large batch in one go (which often leads to problems arising which require a decision and can result in the alerting of one or more stats of your base or characters. )

        The delivery of resources to your base from distant production facilities is not a work around, it’s an eventual and (I think) inevitable thing that happens and greatly improves the game and frees you up to do other things.

        • LukeW says:

          I got sick of going around and collecting those resources from the bases so I just evacuated them. Lol at me then when you unlock the ability for them to self-deliver.

          Didn’t matter though, by that stage I had so many resources collected that I was able to push all the way through to T5 ships without a pause.

          I think the balance is a bit off with this game. It’s really easy to accrue huge amounts of resources if you know the trick, but without that you can feel like you’re being swamped by invaders.

          Still, I’m coming to the end game now (I think, although it’s not the first time I thought I was almost finished) and I do love this game a little bit. One of my better KS purchases.

  4. hungrycookpot says:

    I agree that I think most types of combat would have been better than the JRPG style of “line up and whack each other”. I haven’t really been a fan since back in the FF days. But apart from that, the art style is good, the main gameplay loop so far is fairly rewarding, there is just enough of a strategy layer, but it’s also definitely not the next FTL by any stretch. $20 sits about right for me, but no more.

  5. HeavyStorm says:

    I utterly disagree with any comparison with FTL. This is not a angry fan, although I do like FTL a lot, but it’s more of a concerned customer seeing the comparison game all to often.

    I think the only reason why many people say FTL is the backdrop, space. But, if that’s the case, then let’s say, oh, Halcyon has elements of No Man’s Sky.

    I may really be wrong here – since so many people mentioned FTL – but I see FTL as a roguelike, real time strategy, linear (with branching, yes, but mostly linear) game. It’s main elements are a tactical eagle’s eye view, character evolution and resource management. Halcyon have the resource management thing, aye, but, it seems, nothing else. Oh, maybe the character evolution somewhat, since they level in both games, but there are no skills in FTL.

    That’s has nothing to do with halcyon being good. Actually, I would say that its to it’s merit that it isn’t that related to another game.

    In any case, my experience with Halcyon was good, but I dropped the game while I could refund: I reflected and I don’t like the JRPG combat system, which is the main thing of the game.

  6. DrDynamo says:

    I appreciate your review and want to give you some information to edit it with.
    The game is out as a 1.0, but it’s only it with what they promised initally for their funding.
    In other words they are planning to implement their stretch goals the coming months which includes,
    about 4 times more content than what is in the game now, for free :)
    Please check their kickstarter website, and go through their campaign and stretch goals
    for information on whats coming, Update number 54 on the copied link :)

    link to kickstarter.com

    And for comments about the resource gathering, there is already an in game tech
    you can reasearch to make that go automatically :)

    Sincerely, big fan and urgency to check what the developers are planning ^^

    • Ragnar says:

      That’s great to know, but I don’t see the need to edit the review. The review is of the game as it is on release, not as it is promised to be at some undetermined point in the future.

  7. Vermintide says:

    That headline screen-shot just screams GREETINGS, MY TALLEST!

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