Wot I Think: StarCrawlers

StarCrawlers [official site] is a game about punks and rebels – people eking out a living on the edge of space by stealing, smuggling and doing odd jobs for the shady corporate entities that run the galaxy. It’s cyberpunk, but with the soul of Firefly and the mechanics of Eye of the Beholder. These different inspirations fit together neatly, rather than competing, resulting in a cohesive and ambitious party-based dungeon-crawler.

Whenever I’m perusing the job board inside the local saloon in STIX, the game’s hub, I think about Clerks. Specifically, I think about debate around the contractors working on the Death Star when it’s destroyed by the Rebels. “Speaking as a roofer, a roofer’s personal politics comes into play heavily when choosing jobs,” a customer interjects. So does a smuggler’s. At least this one’s.

See, quests in StarCrawlers are not glory-filled adventures where villagers are helped and big bads are slain. They are generally illegal, morally questionable, and tend to favour nasty corporations while screwing over their competitors. This means that almost every job you do is going to piss someone off, at least a little bit. And a Crawlers rep is their most important resource. It translates into new weapons and armour, information, help with avoiding the wrath of enemy corps – all purchased with favours earned from jobs or hostile acts against the competition.

The games of one-upmanship being played by the corps and the groups seeking to loosen their grip on humanity paint a vivid picture of the galaxy, with minimal exposition getting in the way. Though the story is fat with conspiracies, politics and revolution, it’s all told simply, and the game never loses itself in its attempt to construct an interesting galaxy. There’s only ever a few lines of dialogue between you and your next morally questionable adventure.

Mid-mission, there are even more ways to make new friends and foes. The grid-based dungeons are labs, offices and spaceships full of terminals to hack and lockers to break into, and along with loot, you might find secret documents or fancy prototypes. Special finds can be sold at auction back at STIX for money, rep and items, but some can also be sent directly to a specific corp for a big payday. All of these things affect a Crawler team’s standing, and also necessitates a team that can get into those hard to reach places.

StarCrawlers classes are an eclectic bunch, featuring sci-fi mainstays like Hackers and Engineers, along with more unusual ones, like the Force and Void Psykers – essentially the game’s magic users. Each has their own personality, as well as exploration and dialogue skills that unlock extra options, like hacking terminals or fiddling with people’s minds. They’re all helpful, though the Hacker’s abilities see far more use than the others. Unless a room is completely empty, the hacker probably has some work to do. Thankfully, there’s no hacking mini-game, just a dialogue box and, sometimes, a few different options on how to proceed. The rest is left up to RNG.

Expect to spend more time fighting than exploring and looting, however. Rare is the door that doesn’t hide an enemy on the other side. Robotic waiters, medical bots, horrible alien beasties and scimitar-waving pirates are just a few of the angry things waiting to murder your team of four rogues. They’re an odd bunch too, their designs skewing towards cartoony. Security bots lob orange cones, insane medical drops chuck toxic syringes – StarCrawlers is a bit wackier than your average gloomy cyberpunk setting.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these peculiar threats are very bad at the whole murdering thing. Aside from the visual diversity, there aren’t many differences between them. A challenging enemy is usually just a damage sponge, not an opponent with surprising or tricky abilities. Yet I enjoy the scraps in StarCrawlers a great deal. It’s all down to the Crawlers themselves, as each is blessed with three very distinct ability trees and, even more importantly, wrinkles that make using these abilities risky.

Take the Void Psyker, for instance. They’re big fans of Cthulhu, for some reason, and use dark magic to harm enemies over time. Their big attacks require void energy, which can be generated by lesser abilities. However, void energy is exceptionally dangerous to just about everyone, including the Void Psyker. Once their meter fills up, there’s a chance that the energy will erupt out of them, making them faint while harming everyone in the room.

Time is another resource that demands attention. Every ability has a specific number of units of time attached to it. The higher the number, the further back in the order of attack the character will be placed once it uses the ability. So a powerful or charged ability might force a character to wait for everyone else to get two turns, while a basic attack could be used twice in a row, potentially. It’s the system rather than the foes that require tactical thinking to overcome.

Engaging though battles may be, there’s still just a little too much combat. With the countless side missions and the optional but recommended grinding for loot and experience, there’s no end to the fighting, and by the halfway mark, it starts to lose steam. There are too many of the same fights that are a foregone conclusion. Objectives suffer similarly, but they start repeating right from the get-go.

Main missions fare better, though. They’re hand-crafted, so the dungeons tend to be more elaborate, and usually contain extra objectives and optional paths. And there’s the story driving them forward, a space yarn with its share of intrigue and rebellion. Like the side missions, however, it’s still very much tied to reputation and the squabbles of corporations.

I’ve found myself treating StarCrawlers like a game with a morality system, despite the absence of one. That’s not what the rep system is, but for me it serves the same purpose. Sure, sometimes I do jobs just to make ends meet, but whenever there’s an opportunity to help the vulnerable, especially when it cost the corps something, I take it. But unlike a lot of proper morality systems, the game doesn’t assume anything. Maybe I’m still just in it for the money. Maybe I just want to watch the galaxy burn. I determine why I’m doing something, not the game.

Making the most out of reputation means going on countless runs, procedural mission after procedural mission. Quantity is a necessity, and for a small developer like Juggernaut Games, the best way to create lots of missions and ways to influence the corps is procedural generation. It’s just a shame that procedural generation is also a really good way of making everything feel far too familiar. After a dozen hours, it’s all just variants of the same dungeons over and over again.

By the time I grew a bit bored of the dungeons, however, I was already invested. So that I didn’t need to keep checking the corp information menu, I even scribbled down my grudges or the names of groups I needed to butter up in my Little Book of Debts. Even more than Syndicate or Shadowrun Returns, StarCrawlers manages to capture the essence of cyberpunk and turn it into compelling systems. Despite the concessions made in the name of ambition, it’s an impressive dungeon romp.

StarCrawlers is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam and GOG for £15/$20/€20.

8 Comments

  1. LexW1 says:

    I kickstarted this and have played it at various times in development, though not yet the full 1.0! The way it developed as been pretty amazing to watch, and I’m glad the final product turned out well. It always was a little repetitive, but equally, always strangely compelling, especially with the class abilities and the way they work together.

  2. Premium User Badge

    mecreant says:

    It’s great fun at first, but then the tedium sets in. The fights aren’t difficult but they drag on for too long.
    The game is quite solid and only needs a few tweaks to make it enjoyable all the way through.

    • Alexander Chatziioannou says:

      Yeah, that was my take also. Enjoyed it at first, skill trees were excellent and I loved the whole corporate intrigue bit (which, moreover, was quite an original touch), but the actual dungeon crawling became a bit too familiar a bit too soon.

      I get what Fraser’s saying about an indie developer’s limited resources but I’m thinking perhaps a stronger overarching narrative might have helped alleviate the repetitiveness without being too much of a strain.

  3. Martell says:

    One thing the review didn’t state is that I found the skill trees much more interesting than about any other RPG I’ve played. Where most games unimaginatively does the ‘Lvl1 +5/Lvl2 +10/Lvl3 +15% dmg’ skill tree, Starcrawlers’ is more like ‘Lvl1 Hurt them/Lvl2 +Crit will taunt them/Lvl3 +Also lights them on fire and summons void tentacles.’

    And the factions metagame is deliciously varied as well, even if it’s a bit too grindy for my taste. All the 20+ factions feel distinct in their requests and rewards.

  4. Viral Frog says:

    Cool skill trees, an okay plot that’s not shoved down your throat, tedious, uninteresting fights, boring enemy designs, almost no real variation in the enemies besides appearances, and you’ve seen everything the game offers in the first 2 hours. Pass.

    Because of that, I got a refund. I wouldn’t mind picking the game up again (when it’s 75% off or so), but all the cons heavily outweigh the pros. Some new content and a rework of the combat system would make it more worthwhile, IMO. As it stands, unless you absolutely adore bullet sponge enemies that present absolutely no challenge, then there’s not much going for the game at all.

  5. DEspresso says:

    It’s Legend of Grimrock in Space. Pretty safe to base your purchase decision on that.

    • Caiman says:

      No it’s not. Not even close. It’s Might and Magic in space. Legend of Grimrock has real-time combat and exploration. Might and Magic (and Starcrawlers) is turn-based. Encountering an enemy locks you into place, and you fight a tactical battle. That’s M&M, not Grimrock. Also, Grimrock has far greater emphasis on puzzles and exploration, whereas this is more combat-centric with a larger metagame and character development.

      • poliovaccine says:

        When people say it’s Legend of Grimrock in space, then, am I safe to assume they mean that in the sense that it’s a first-person, 3D environment which you navigate more like a Rook or a Queen on a chessboard than being let loose to run freely? Is that what people are mainly referring to, the movement system?

        And if so, is there, like, a trick to getting used to that or something? Cus I bounced way, way hard off that system in Legend of Grimrock 2 – I didn’t persist past the crucial two hour point in that case. At first I thought it would be fine, cus I don’t mind grids or hexes in topdown or isometric views, but apparently it’s too wonky for me in a fluid first-person.

        Thing is, this sounds like it would *automatically* be a dream game for me if I weren’t so hesitant about the movement mechanic. The world frankly sounds worth getting over it. I just feel like, for how awkward and unwieldy it feels to me, I must be *missing* something…?

        Opinions?