I realised earlier that today was the last day of Steam Next Fest, and I panicked. I remembered seeing one particular demo on Steam which made my ears prick up and my eyes expand to thrice their usual size, and until now I hadn't the time to try it out. So today I carved out a small portion of the day to download and play the demo for Dome Keeper, a wave-based survival game about protecting your glass dome home from alien invaders using a gigantic laser.
Unfortunately, I ended up playing it a little too long, and now I've left myself no time at all to write about why it was so great. Argh. Let me try anyway.
Dome Keeper began life as Dome Romantik, a Ludum Dare 48 invention that turned a lot of heads last year. The game starts you off housed inside your squat little dome, wondering what you're meant to be doing. You play as a wee jetpack lad who slowly floats about in his little bouncy spacesuit. I spent the first 30 seconds just looking around at the outside world, taking in the sights. The style reminds me a bit of Kingdom, but more bubbly. Everything has nice friendly rounded corners, both above and below the planet's surface. But I learnt quickly not to trust the friendliness. This game has no qualms about tearing your bubbly little home to shreds in ways that make you wonder how you could have stood any chance at all.
Once I tore my eyes away from the world outside my dome, I saw that there was a hole in the bottom of the dome which leads underground, and I could bump my little jetpack lad against rock tiles to mine them. Mining feels lovely in Dome Keeper, really tactile and satisfying. Which is good, because half of the game will be spent mining, trying to find precious materials and hoist them Wilmot's Warehouse-style back home, so you can spend them on upgrades for your dome and character.
The other half of your time will be spent defending your dome against attackers. Though you only gain the ability to see it later on, there's a progress bar which repeatedly empties, and when it's empty the next wave of enemies will come and start hammering on your dome. When that happens, it's time to head home so you can manually control the laser on the outside of the dome. It felt very Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime, having your little player safe inside twiddling the controls, moving the giant death laser around the edge of the dome and blasting the approaching nasties to smithereens.
The underground is split into different layers, each of which is harder to mine through than the last. I quickly realised that I'd made a huge mistake in my first run, sinking all my resources into improving my dome health and my laser, because it turns out I should have set a little aside for improving my mining speed. It got to the point where I'd wipe my brow after defeating a wave of enemies, fly down to the very bottom of the cave I'd been digging, bash myself fruitlessly against a couple of super-hard pieces of granite, and then have to fly all the way back up again to prepare for the next wave.
That sounds like a judgement of the game, but after playthrough #2 I realised it was a problem with that run, and my strategy (or lack thereof). In my second attempt I went in with a gameplan, and balanced my upgrades more sensibly, and I found it to be a much easier and more enjoyable time.
It turns out that would become a theme of my time with Dome Keeper. Every time I thought, "hm, that's a bit of a black mark on this otherwise good game", the game would counter me with a new feature or upgrade that addressed my complaint. For example: at just the point where I was wondering if anything would appear to make the underground more interesting, I happened across a buried relic, which I took back home to unlock a new gadget (in this case, it was a secondary laser that moved around stunning enemies automatically).
Another time, I was just starting to lament the distance that I had to travel from dome to bedrock between each wave, when I unlocked a teleporter that I could grab and manually place anywhere I wanted underground which provided the perfect answer to my woes. Each time I had a complaint, it would barely survive in my mind for 5 seconds before something happened that shut me up.
I will say it was a very stressful time playing Dome Keeper's demo. It reminded me an awful lot of rymdkapsel, another wave-based survival game which I do adore but which also awakens some intense anxiety every time I play it. In both games, the difficulty of the waves ramps up very quickly, with the game hurling hordes of tiny bombers, ethereal flying creatures, and many-limbed galumphing monstrosities towards your base within the first 10 minutes. I also ended up being very pushed for time trying to accomplish all my goals between waves, because the further I progressed underground, the longer I had to spend travelling and the less time I had to spend mining. I did end up beating the demo on my second attempt, but it was a very close-run thing, and I have a suspicion that I was lucky enough to get a couple of very good gadgets along the way which helped me out.
It's a fantastic foundation for what could become a brilliant game. But there was a little voice in my head telling me that I want Dome Keeper to be a grander game than I'm afraid it'll turn out to be. The underground is the bit that needs the most work. There are no caves, no ruins, nothing beyond the materials you need for upgrades and the occasional buried gadget. So everything down there feels very dull indeed - which is a colossal shame considering how much pleasure I derived from just bumping my jetpack lad up against the walls to mine them. How can they make mining feel that good, and then not give you tonnes of interesting things to discover underground? It was of course just a demo, but there wasn't even a hint at the possibility of procedural terrain generation in the full game. It makes me a bit sad.
That said, Dome Keeper has got an awful lot of things right already. It has a deliciously sinister atmosphere and a handful of great ideas executed beautifully. I just hope there's a huge amount of content in the full release, because the game honestly deserves it.