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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.