A few hours in
I’m back from saving a man called Mule! I guess he’s actually called Samuel, but people call him Mule because he… can carry a lot of stuff? I’m fairly sure that’s offensive, somehow.
Sam the Mule wasn’t the only person I saved, of course. I got more: a hacker named Josh, and… no, you know what? I probably shouldn’t spoil everything right away. Let’s just say I saved a bunch of other people. I won’t tell you how many I saved, either, but let’s just say that they could comfortably play a round of Left 4 Dead Versus. No randoms.
It wasn’t easy to rescue all eight potential squad members, mind you. Quite some work, if we’re being honest: we’re talking about a dozen missions to locate, track, and rescue the lot of them. And that’s not even talking all the ‘optional’ side quests, which of course I’m doing all of those first.
Between the many main and side quests, and looking at the map and the structure of the narrative, I’d say that I’m probably quite a ways into Halfway. I don’t want to say I’m close to the end, but it feels as though I could be? It would depend a little on the twists and turns the story throws at me, but assuming nothing goes wrong, the next mission I have queued up should represent a major plot victory for our rag-tag band of space heroes.
I’m just not sure if I’m ever going to get to that major plot victory.
Halfway has, so far, been an incredibly mood swing-esque experience for me. I’d go from enjoying it, to being angry at it, to liking it, to hating it, up and down and down and up in spans varying from minutes to heartbeats. It has parts that I find myself enjoying a great deal, and parts that I loathe with a passion every time they come up, and the two sets of parts don’t really even out in any easy-to-describe way. I would say that it’s halfway between entertaining and annoying, but I’m fairly certain that’ll make me history’s biggest monster.
I don’t really know what the best way to untangle my jumbled thoughts regarding Halfway is. In cases like these, I like to fall back on my reviewing standby: first list the good parts, then the bad parts, and then watch as the interrelation between those two polar opposites slowly destroys what once looked like a nice, neat ordering of review aspects. A process that, I’ll admit, that previous sentence makes sound a little less than strictly amazing.
Easily my favourite part of Halfway is its writing. From the initial text-only opening crawl about space travel and supercorporations and FTL travel and whatnot, Halfway manages to spin an interesting tale about eight stranded people against the odds of a hostile environment, once familiar but now unsettling and alien. Limiting the cast to eight characters provides enough room for each of them to be developed as an interesting character, with traits and quirks and backstory elements. And the story and world-building at large are done not through more text-dumps and lore avalanches, but through gradual reveal during missions and conversations. Morten and Samuel served together on ‘Europa’. Jenna and Thirteen have a history. Josh’s favourite game is Starbound. And the reason these eight people are the only ones to escape whatever else has claimed the other crewmen is tied into the technology, class structure, and political organization of this space-bound human society, and parts and elements of it bubble to the surface every now and again.
I’m quite taken in by most of Halfway’s audiovisual aesthetic, too. Long-time readers may remember that I’m a big fan of well-done pixel art. And for those of only just joining us: hi, my name is Jarenth, and pixel art rules. And while I’d be hard-pressed to find a specific example, the electronic audio accompaniment tends to provide a good alien sense of space to this derelict, zombie-infested vessel.
I really dig most of the art design in this game, particularly the use of colour and the clever in-game HUD. The only thing I’m not a major fan of, in this regard, is the lack of any serious character customization from gear. I’ve touched on this before, on the previous page: Morten-sprite in the tutorial is already holding the gun he doesn’t even carry. And neither weapons nor armor have any appreciable impact on the way your character looks. It’s a little bit of a missed opportunity: why put something called ‘Tank Suit’ in your game, if it doesn’t turn the character into a human-sized tank?
And from the good writing and the interesting audiovisual aesthetic, this segues nicely into the major part of Halfway I’m not quite as positive about: the gameplay.
Halfway’s gameplay… didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d expected it would have, let’s put it like that. I was expecting something XCOM-esque, a smaller-scale tactical combat exercise through the halls of the Goliath, shooting aliens and changing equipments and making tough character decisions. And, well, technically speaking, it has that. It’s just… it didn’t grab me, that’s really all there is to it.
Halfway’s meta-gameplay loop essentially boils down to this: you start out in your safe base, where you can manage team equipment, talk to characters, access the shop, and select new missions to do. For each mission, you get a certain squad size (usually between 2 and 4), with some characters pre-selected and maybe some characters free to pick. You take these characters into the mission, where they shoot all the assorted enemies, complete the objectives, loot the lootables, and return home. Missions beget more missions, and so the cycle continues.
It’s a decent-enough gameplay loop in theory. In practice, however, I find all of it lacks a certain depth.
Halfway is, at the core, not a very complicated game. All characters possess three intrinsic stats: health, aiming and agility. Characters hold a weapon, which provides damage, and wear a suit, which provides a shield (and ‘armor’). Finally, each character has one unique active and one unique passive skill. And that, as they say, is that: you’ve encompassed all a character is, was, and will ever be.
Character powers are immutable, now and forever, so what we’re left with here are basically five axes of variation for characters to differentiate. And that’s not much! Still, you could imagine that there’s a decent possibility space inherent in these stats: maybe one character could be a highly agile corridor-runner, another character could have incredible aiming and function as a powerful sniper, a third character’s high health and shield makes them a tank…
And, again, that sort of differentiation is in Halfway. But… how should I put this? The stats don’t vary enough. The agile corridor-runner may have six or seven agility, while the slow but powerful sniper has two or three. Seven versus three. Does that feel like a big difference? It isn’t, not really. And similarly, the sniper has seven aiming versus the shotgunner’s three… which, in practice, is a difference that’s not even noticeable. Aiming is distorted through the lens of the chosen weapon type anyway, so the shotgunner is going to get up close and personal as a matter of course. And both characters will have decent health and shield values, because almost everyone has decent health and shield values.
Stats are further modulated by armor, which also provide armor and shield values. Again, though, there is relatively little interesting difference to be found here. Barring The Exoskeleton, there are basically three kinds of armor: Scout Suit, Assault Suit, and Tank Suit, each in a variety of tiers. Each type-and-tier-combo suit has a set shield value, a set armor value, and set bonuses to stats. Like so:
This combination of low, same-level stats and limited armor selection reduces the space of interesting tactical choices and makes all characters feel samey. There is very little sense of personalization and meaningful character development in Halfway, because all characters feel very close together in the senses of survivability and combat output, and because the limited availability of stat- and shield-boosting armor pushes them all together even more. Rather than be different on any way that convincingly relates to them as the people they represent, characters become only really differentiated by their active power and their weapon.
And speaking of: weapons work both differently and similarly to armor. There are three basic ‘categories’ of weapon: ‘short range’, assault rifle and sniper rifle. Within these categories, you will find a larger selection of differently-named weapons, but they’re all variations on the same shuffling of three stats. Will you pick the gun that has 18-20 damage, or the one that has 16-22 damage? This gun has a range of 5 tiles and a clip size of 10, but this gun has a range of 6 tiles and a clip size of 8. Almost none of the weapons feel different from another, in a way that matters: they’re all relatively simple vehicles for turning Standard Ammo into damage numbers on the enemy.
The point that these past couple of paragraphs have been disjointedly rambling on towards is that Halfway’s systems feel too simple and too homogenized to hook. Stats are so close together that they feel they don’t matter, even if they probably actually do. Correspondingly, armor is only useful for the shield and armor values it gives, and because ‘armor’ translates to tiny percentage reductions in damage received — 10% reduction on 10 damage is not as great as it sounds — ‘shield’ rapidly becomes the prime stat to look out for. And while I admittedly dig the flavour text and world-building information on a lot of the guns, the reality is that a combination of ‘general gun type’ and ‘unique power’ is really all a character boils down to.
Linda uses a short range gun and can self-heal. Jenna uses a long range gun and goes berserk. Nia uses an assault rifle and can paralyze. See how this works? The rest of the stats don’t feel like they matter.
And as an aside to this: I do appreciate that any character can equip any weapon, but the reality of the situation is that I’m probably not going to deviate from what Halfway starts them out with. Sure, I don’t understand why Josh would use a shotgun, since he’s clearly a wimp who’s made of cheese. And I feel as though Jenna’s berserk power could work much better in a shotgun- or assault rifle-situation? But hey, there’s probably a reason why they use what they use. No sense rocking the boat.
If Halfway’s player characters are easily reduceable to a few key stats, so more are Halfway’s enemies. Quick, which is your favourite Halfway enemy: the space zombie in the orange jumpsuit, the space zombie in the blue jumpsuit, or the space zombie in the white jumpsuit? I sure hope it’s one of those three, because man: you’re going to be fighting a lot of jumpsuit space zombies.
90% of Halfway’s enemies are jumpsuit space zombies of various denominations — those denominations being ‘melee zombie’ and ‘ranged attack zombie’. The rest are primarily pop-up turrets, yellow and red, and… I think I fought, like, five robots? There might be more robots in the later game, but I can’t be entirely sure I didn’t just make them up.
Complaining about enemy variety may seem a little spoiled: back in my day, we only had one kind of enemy, young man! And so on. But the reality of the situation is that here, more than anything, the comparisons I’ve heard between Halfway and XCOM fall apart the hardest. In XCOM, your soldiers were equally reduceable to a few key stats and equipment… but your enemies were many, and varied, and interesting, and cool. Fighting Sectoids was way different from fighting Snakemen, from fighting Mutons, from fighting Chryssalids, from fighting Cyberdiscs, and so on, and so forth.
Halfway doesn’t have this enemy variety. Halfway has, for the most part, two enemies: melee zombie and ranged zombie. That 90% line was not as much a joke as you might have been hoping. You fight wave after wave of these zombies so much. And it’s just… not very interesting. That’s really the most damning thing I could say, isn’t it? Fighting space zombies, nine-tenths of your Halfway play time and by and large core to the whole gameplay experience, is not very interesting.
The general mission design doesn’t help matters much, either. Most missions are built like this: first, you enter a map. You move through the map until you find a) enemies to kill, or b) an objective marker to click on, which summons enemies to kill. You kill all the enemies, then Halfway asks you if you want to complete the mission. You don’t, you never do, because you still have to loot every single container for weapons and ammo. You always do! Why wouldn’t you? So you loot the containers, fuss around with limited inventory space, and then you leave. Rinse, repeat, next mission.
I skim over some details, of course. Some missions have multiple objective markers to click! And some missions have multiple groups of enemies to kill, or even multiple waves.
Oh god, the waves. I was trying to carefully build up to this, but now we’re here anyway. Halfway’s combat design is mostly a little dull and low-interest, you see, but for the most part, it works pretty well. All complainery aside, fighting a whole bunch of zombie aliens with your crack team of two to four space soldiers can be a pretty interesting experience.
But then Halfway takes the worst possible page out of Dragon Age 2’s playbook, and incorporates randomly appearing enemy waves. At any given time when moving through the map, the spaceship you are on can ‘jump’ through hyperspace, causing the screen to flash white and depositing a fresh batch of enemies for you to kill god-knows-where.
I can’t express properly how much I loathe this particular mechanic. Having enemies pop up literally out of nowhere kills any attempt at pacing, tension, and long-term tactics. It’s so frustrating! I get that it probably plays into the story, and it’s probably a mechanic intended to evoke the unpredictable dread of this alien incursion and whatnot, but it’s also aggressively unfun. And, just a heads-up: having characters in your mission lampshade how many waves of identical mooks they’re mowing down? This does not reduce the actual tedium of having to mow down the identical mooks.
In one mission, Morten and Nia — only two people allowed — were walking through a hallway. Unbeknownst to me, crossing a certain threshold in that hallway would cause a jump to happen, bringing in new enemies. But the jump wouldn’t happen directly when my dudes crossed the invisible threshold, no: it would happen after the move that brought them across the threshold was completed in full. Which, in my case, because I was running across the place, meant my characters stopped moving more or less directly next to the place where like five alien melee zombies spawned. And have I mentioned these warped-in enemies often get a full turn to act before you’re even allowed to change position and find cover? Unsurprisingly, I had to do that mission over.
Sorry, I’m rambling even moreso than usual. I’m writing this article after midnight, the day before it goes up, without the benefit of an editor, and I just remembered how much that mission made me fume.
Getting back on track: Halfway’s combat is usually dull, but functional, except in the parts where it gets incredibly aggravating. The repeated, wave-like nature of it does very little to reinforce the survival horror-esque notions of the narrative that the bountiful availability of health, weapons and ammo, and the effective immortality of the main characters, incredibly efficiently undercut.
And everything outside of these combat missions is just… kinda meh. Talking to the characters is neat, that’s the exception: as I’ve mentioned, I like the writing and the implicit world-building most out of everything in Halfway. For the rest, though… equipment management usually boils down to fussing with health and ammo assignments in limited inventory slots, mission selection is a crash course in ‘do the side quests before the main quest, even if time limits are hinted at’, and I don’t even understand why there’s an item shop mechanic. An item shop that, I might add, only sells the same types of consumables that a) are supposed to be sparse, and b) I’m drowning in already anyway!
I just… I don’t think I even know.
So little about Halfway fits together with anything else about Halfway. Do you understand the jumbled thoughts I mentioned earlier? It’s a good-looking, well-written game, with basically functional combat and good implicit world-building, but it… messes up, so much. The almost endless supplies of health and ammo and the narrative-mandated invincible nature of the characters clash with the dread this setting is supposed to instill. The low variation in character options and enemy types turn combat into a rote activity, where the only surprise challenges come from enemies that are teleported in at the designer’s behest. Players are given a large amount of equipment-related freedom, but systems ensure that any option but the ‘best’ one is basically an idiot move. And why would there be dedicated medkit and grenade buttons on the UI, but not one for the shield cells? I’ve never used the shield cells, because I keep forgetting they exist!
I’m conflicted about Halfway, as you can probably tell. I’m interested enough in the universe to want to see the story through, but the gameplay bounces between functionally interesting and existentially aggravating so often and so rapidly that’s it’s hard to sit down and love this game. Is it a game I would recommend? I dunno. I honestly do not know. A brief look at other reviews show as many people who love it as people who are as conflicted as I am.
Halfway is currently available from the main site for about thirteen euro, netting you a Steam key and a DRM-free copy. It’s not pricey, so if my rambling and screenshots have made you interested, you could do worse than try it out. It’s… well, you know what I’m going to say here.
Jarenth is going to spend most of next week touring European capital cities, so next week’s Indie Wonderland will probably a short one. Fair warning! Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam to congratulate him for this bold quality move.