You’ve all got Spoiler Warning Josh to thank for this one. Long-term readers will know that I generally don’t pretend to ‘follow game news’ or ‘be on top of recent developments’: I’m all about getting blindsided by the unexpected. And then Josh thought it’d be a good idea to launch Massive Damage Inc.‘s Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander while I was online. On Steam, where he knew I’d be able to see it. And once I saw Halcyon 6‘s Steam page — which describes it as a colourful pixel-art sci-fi RPG where you control a Babylon 5-esque border-guard space station — it took all of two minutes of self-convincing before I had it bought and downloading.
Let’s see if I’m gonna have to thank him, or smack him.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium-ish. Mechanical, high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Halcyon 6, the space station that very vaguely looks like an H!
I am already and immediately in love with this graphical style. It looks so nice. A lone, alien-looking station, floating in the coloured clouds of a starry nebula, a solitary baleful red orb keeping its own watch nearby… add to that an appropriately eerie background soundtrack, and the mood setting is complete. Space: the final unknown. I want to know what happens there.
Plus, look at that number in the lower left corner. Version 184.108.40.206. The absolute first version. I’ll be exploring not only the untapped mysteries of space, but also the unpatched mysteries of Halcyon 6.
The options overview is nice and aesthetically matching, if a little bit limited. Graphically, all I can change is a number of resolutions (laid out in a 4×3 cube for unclear reasons), yay or nay to full screen, and a ‘bloody mess’ checkbox (that defaults to on). Sound-wise, your standard set of audio intensity sliders (music, sfx, ‘buttons’, and master). Hotkeys shows an unchanging set of possible inputs. And under Gameplay…
In contrast to the sparse options, the new game overview goes pretty much whole hog. Two campaigns, with five difficulty levels each, set against the background of a blue remembered Earth (tm). Like so:
I opt to launch the tutorial, because I’m a sucker for well-executed tutorials and how else am I going to learn how to be the best space boss? And I opt for the Commander difficulty level, because playing a game called Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander on any other level just feels weird.
On y va!
Space: the final clusterfuck.
I’ll summarize the flat text intro: space used to be a Machiavellian warzone until humans arrived. Humans are cool, both because their officer class is oh-so-amazing (no, the game actually says this), and because they managed to grab and use your standard space setting Precursor Race Super Artifacts. As humans would.
The Starbase (Halcyon 6) is the human Federation’s premier outpost in the Halcyon sector, which is a place. There’s a fleet, and an admiral, and all sorts of detail-first world-building, and all is fine for everyone involved.
Until suddenly the Zerg attack.
What happens is: the Starbase’s main fleet is recalled to Earth, where it’s ambushed by organic space-monsters that emerge from an unspecified portal. This neatly and immediately serves as the game’s combat tutorial, as well as whetting my interest re: whatever the hell is happening. Space monsters?
Combat is a very JRPG-style turn-based maneuver. There are three ships on my (left) side of the space-field, and three ships on the aliens’ (right) side. Ships take turns to use abilities at each other. Like this Incisor Beam, which deals a hefty chunk of damage to the spiked ‘Chruul’ alien.
Or this Backstab Maneuver, which not only deals damage, but has a chance to ‘disable’ the enemy ship, taking it out of commission for a short while.
Or the Living Cannonball attack, where one of the aliens bounces between my ships dealing… hey, hold on, that’s not what I wanted to talk about!
The battle takes a few more turns like this, during which both my and their ships start looking progressively more and more like burning space garbage. Or, bleeding organic space garbage, in their case. I lose one of my ships, because the tutorial mandates I must learn about losing one of my ships, but I win the overall battle! Eat defeat, space aliens! Earth is safe again and it’ll be safe forever.
Well, that’s effective as a scene-setter. The camera flits back to Starbase Halcyon 6, where I’m told that I know the following things: the 12th Fleet is destroyed, Earth is under attack by trans-dimensional space monsters, the rest of the Federation might be equally down the drain, and I and the rest of the Halcyon 6 crew are effectively stranded in hostile alien territory, with no supplies beyond what we can make or scrounge up, no friends, and no idea if the terrible monsters of space are on their way to finish up the human extermination job as we speak. Merry Christmas.
My missions, should I choose to accept them: before their death, the admiral was working on experiments to ‘unlock the true power of the space station’, whatever the hell that means. So, keep doing that. We’re surrounded by alien lifeforms and other enemies, and it’s not going to take long for them to think that maybe they should be living on the cool precursor space station instead. So, fight those off, or maybe try to make some friends? And parts of the Federation might still be functioning/not annihilated by aliens. So, safeguard those, and bring them back into the fold. Easy enough job for one Starbase Commander, right?
Luckily, I don’t have to go this all the way alone. Remember that vaunted Terran Officer Class from the intro? We have one of those on-board the station right now. I even get to pick which one!
I don’t really know what I’m selecting here, but I know a space combat trinity when I see one. Do I start out with a Scientist, an Engineer, or a Tactician? Halcyon 6 helpfully gives a little bit more briefing on each.
I know it’s expected of me to pick the scientist here (note to new readers: I am a scientist in daily life) but the engineer description just looks so sweet. Plus, I like ‘Isolde Freehold’s’ character background: being human drools, being cyborg rules, and nothing bad ever happens from stitching technology onto your own body. I’m rolling with that.
No sooner have I selected a first officer than the plot picks up. Pirates incoming! I know we have this whole thing with planet-eating Cthulhu-monsters and whatnot, but listen: there’s a fleet of pirates a few planets to the right and they’re coming over this way. They’re slated to arrive in 48, the game says; then I click away the popup and time rushes forward two days.
The pirate invasion serves as a tutorial on ship construction. In the top of the screen, I see my resources: crew, metals, dark matter, and fuel. In the top left, my options: ship construction, and a bunch of other options I’m not allowed to touch. I can build exactly one ship, a Knight-class engineering ship, which fits my chosen officer perfectly — what a coincidence. The ship costs crew and dark matter to build, which we feed into the Starbase’s automated ship construction module (well, the dark matter, at least). And three days later in the blink of an eye…
I assign Isolde Freehold to the newly-minted Knight, then create a fleet consisting of that one ship, and then send out that fleet to the pirate fleet (also just one ship) right outside the Starbase — in the exact location all enemies will always sit when attacking the Starbase, in its own word. Combat with two low-level ships is quite different from combat with six high-level ones, but the principle is basically the same: turns are taken, shots are fired, quips are said, and lessons are learned re: status effects.
What follows is a spirited talk with the pirate leader. The concept of ‘missions’ is introduced: for instance, a good mission in this situation is ‘try to find where the pirate leader threatening your Starbase is hiding, build a fleet capable of taking them out, and then do so’.
Halcyon 6 isn’t just one-sided pirate battles. The tutorial quickly thereafter introduces the research functionality, where I can pay metals and dark matter to unlock new things. And the Starbase Construction button, which gives off incredible XCOM vibes.
With some research and construction, the Starbase’s scanners come back online. I get a more complete overview of the erstwhile Federation space, which consists of… four of five planet types. I see some planets, and some neutron stars, and some asteroid belt… The automated advice function tells me that there might be Federation ‘facilities’ in some of those systems. They would produce resources that I can use. But the only way to find them is to explore. Or ‘get lucky’ and hope that enemies — for instance, the Chruul — attack the facility, in which case we can pick up the automated distress signal. And hey, guess what kind of signal is coming from the white dwarf star closest to the Starbase?
After sending my modest one-ship fleet to smash the Chruul raiding party, I learn that the facility sending the distress signal is a fuel distillery! Which is incredibly convenient. See, sending ships to places beyond the Starbase actually consumes fuel from my stock. No fuel means no coming back. Luckily, this facility has more than enough for me. And after loading on the fuel, I get a choice. I can tell the facility to stay open and active, meaning it’ll keep stockpiling fuel over time — I’ll just have to come by and pick it up from time to time, and defend it against attacks. Or I can tell the facility’s crew to hop on-board and go live in the Starbase instead, giving me a one-time crew boost and nothing else. For this particular facility, that choice seems like a no-brainer; what do I even use crew for, again? But maybe for facilities that are farther from here… and closer to the Chruul staging grounds…
It’s only when the game decides to recap everything that’s happened so far that I remember: wasn’t this supposed to be a tutorial? Seems like I’ve learned most everything I needed to learn, here. How to research, how to build, how to make ships, how to fight, how to collect resources… it even snuck in a quick explanation of where new officers come from. And the missions I’m getting seem to turn pretty long-term: ‘build a good enough fleet to kill the pirates’, ‘hold back the Chruul’, ‘maybe take Earth back at some point’. Did we… slip out of Tutorial Mode and into Real Game Mode when I wasn’t looking? It sure seems that way; I’ve been playing for half an hour at this point.
Or maybe we’re on Final Fantasy (XIII) rules? ‘The game doesn’t really leave the tutorial until you’re four hours into it’? It’s possible that this whole ‘take out the Space Pirates’ angle is a larger-than-average tutorial, and the Chruul angle is a clever smokescreen. Tell you what: I’ll report on the next page what it looks like when I get all that done.