Indie Wonderland: Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander

A few hours in

Four hours into the game, almost to the minute (if my FRAPS timing is to be believed), and I’ve just beaten back the Chruul’s ultimate attack fleet.

It wasn’t no thing.

So, that’s an ix-nay on the whole ‘extended tutorial’ angle, don’t you think? Well, here’s the joke: it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, I did just spend four hours working towards this goal in absolute freedom. There was a little bit of guidance here and there, for the game elements that hadn’t been introduced yet.

For instance, how to deal with yapping green aliens!

As far as I can tell, I did all this: I made the choices, I planned the tactics, I built the Starbase and recruited the officers and planned the research and defended our interstellar way of life. I’m pretty sure I could have failed, too, in no small part because I actually did and then had to reload.

On the other hand…

The weird thing about Halcyon 6 is that is early on, it has a pretty clear slow-building storyline. There are peaks and valleys of engagement, clear twists, and narrative high-points that neatly align with your technological possibilities and your resource levels. The aliens ramp their stuff up just as you increase your power, along the clearly visible paths that have been laid out since the beginning. So, from the outset, it really looks like the game will end around the point where you find all the colonies and develop your ‘tier 3’ ship fleet (which Halcyon 6 actually calls ‘tier 3 ships’).

I played the game from this perspective. I saw some things that I liked, like the art style and the mixing of space exploration and combat with lower-intensity ground engagements, and somethings that I disliked, like the unclearness of why diplomatic relations with the other aliens should matter, and the increasing repetitiveness of resource collection. I was particularly sour on the space facilities, which you have to manually send a ship to every time to collect their accumulated resources. I thought it felt like needless, boring busywork, and I was planning to bring up in the review that this just as well could have been automated.

And then I defeated the climactic ‘final boss’, and got what looked like an associated victory cutscene…

‘Congratulations, you have finished the game.’

…and then the main game screen came back into view, and a whole second chapter started! Suddenly the world map opened up. Suddenly the tech tree expanded to indicate ships for tier 4, 5, and maybe even 6. Suddenly the alien factions had diplomatic influence ratings, and missions, and associated rewards. Suddenly, an entirely new enemy faction was introduced. And suddenly, it was totally possible for facilities to automatically send me their resources!

The game explains that this is because ‘with the destruction of the Chruul Chimera and portals, freighters no longer have to worry about alien attacks and pirates’. And then immediately undercuts that by having Chruul parties and pirates still attack your facilities.

Stuff like this makes it tricky to talk about Halcyon 6. I didn’t get out of this ‘second chapter’, for reasons I’ll bring up. But there’s no way of telling which of the criticisms I’m offering will be invalidated later on. Maybe Halcyon 6 becomes super fun over time. If you play it ‘long enough’?

Except, obviously that doesn’t matter. I can’t review a game on a hypothetical fun-improvement four or eight or ten hours in. All I can do is review Halcyon 6 from my own 10-hour perspective. Take that into consideration, I guess. And what I’ve seen during these ours is: a game with an interesting narrative idea, a cool audiovisual pixel-art aesthetic, a combined ground/space combat system that leans on turn planning and interacting status effects in a fairly clever way, and a systemization of ‘Babylon 5 as the last remnant of the Galactic Federation’ that’s neat and engaging at first, but that very quickly starts feeling like a terrible grind-fest.

Your doom is here.

What parts of the game do work? First up, the art style is great. It’s cool and colourful, using bright and simple primary-colour schemes to great advantage. And the animations are crisp, particularly when it comes to mid-battle ship degradation and death animation. I mean, just look at how nice all of this looks!

It’s so pretty, you’d almost forget this a life-and-death battle against an alien eating monster.

The adaptive semi-electronic background tune helps with setting the right space-mood. It’s a good game to get audio-visually immersed it. At first, at least.

And I love the narrative ideas that Halcyon 6 initially presents, and how these are supported by an evocative systemization. Here you are on the last space station of humankind, final bastion of the Federation, kept running solely by the grit of its officers and its disposable greenshirt crew. It seems like the perfect background setup for any Star Trek episode. And the officers are all lovingly characterized: they have background stories, they banter in combat, they grow in power to gain new abilities that fit their personalities and new traits that match their combat experience.

Isolde gained this trait after surviving a tough battle by the skin of her (ship’s) teeth. On the flip side, I’ve seen officers who had to run away from battles gain phobias against that particular enemy type — which they’d later lose when winning again.

This extends to ships too! Ships have personal stats and customizable names, they track their victories, and they gain permanent bonuses in the form of named ‘cadets’. It just makes the whole game come so alive. It has personality and charm in spades.

The impact of these cadets dimishes almost immediately when you learn you can’t transfer them from ship to ship. It’s still neat initially, though.

Oh, and your heroes have traits, too! And sometimes stuff like this happens with those traits!

In my first hour of play, I was hoping that the game would build on this promise. I wanted to see a combination of long-form space adventure (the survival of the station and the battle against the Chruul) and small-scale personal interactions (officers talking to officers, the adventures of cadets, the going-on of the Starbase). I wanted the officers and the cadets and the ships and the Starbase to all be meaningful, and meaningful to me individually — the result of my play and choices, distinct from everyone else’s. If Halcyon 6 had kept that up, I’d have been very happy and probably super positive about the whole thing.

Needless to say, it did not.

Pictured: a more accurate description of Halcyon 6’s long-term gameplay.

Halcyon 6, sadly, is not a game about recreating your favourite Babylon 5 episode or arc, obvious spiritual influences notwithstanding. What is is is a game about grinding. Grinding space battles against aliens, so you secure facilities you need to grind resources into your Starbase, so you can grind out technology and ship upgrades, which allow you to stay on grinding par with the inexplicably strengthening aliens that are always coming for you. You know they are, the mission log says so: ‘these aliens are coming in this and this many days, better get ready!’ So you better rev up your secondary grinding arm. Maybe you’re picking up on my subtle indictments here.

And the grinding isn’t even the bad part of Halcyon 6. Grind-heavy gameplay isn’t usually my thing, but I can appreciate it if executed competently. And I know some people go for that kind of stuff. What really brings Halcyon 6 down is the fact that its systems don’t scale.

Early on, Halcyon 6 grabs attention in two ways: it presents a gaggle of mechanically and narratively interesting systems, and it shows how these systems meaningfully interlock on comparable power levels. So, it’s relatively easy at the start to recruit three officers and build three first-tier ships to form a full fleet. You have absolute freedom in theory, though in practice you’ll get one officer of each class and grab the three ships (there are two for each class) that have a natural mechanical symmetry. Officers start out at level 1, but quickly gain experience from going on space trips and performing tasks around the Starbase.

Full fleet in hand, you’ll start flying around erstwhile Federation space to claim facilities and fight pirates and Chruul. And, as an aside: I actually really like the way this turn-based combat system is set up. It uses a Final Fantasy X-style time-based turn system, where some actions are fast and some are slow and the turn order visibly changes as a result. And the system is balanced around an interlocking set of status effect, that can both be inflicted by and ‘exploited’ by certain attacks. So, for instance: the starting Engineering ship has a ‘Deconstruct’ move, which inflicts the ‘Hull Breach’ status effect on its target (and deals damage). Hull Breach deals damage over time… but one of the Science ships has the ‘Portal Gun’ ability, which can consume the Hull Breach effect to deal significantly more damage. Or maybe that Science ship uses Upload Virus, which inflict Sensor Jamming on all enemies, making them less accurate. And then one of the Tactics vessels can use Harass, consuming that debuff for high extra damage. Or maybe that Tactics vessel uses an engine-targeting shot… There are genuinely interesting tradeoffs here, because the debuffs are actually valuable in their own right. Do you immediately exploit the enemy’s jammed sensors for extra damage? Or do you leave it on, lowering their accuracy and their threat? Maybe you can try to exploit it the turn before it falls off? If, of course, you can determine when exactly that is. Or maybe you’ll ignore the exploitation mechanic altogether and just load status effects on enemies until they’re sitting space ducks?

This pirate vessel is jammed to the *gills* with status effects.

What’s also interesting is that in ship combat, each ship’s abilities are a combination of the abilities inherent to the ship, and the abilities that the commanding officer has unlocked. As with everything I like about Halcyon 6, this allows for a lot of self-driven narrative identification. Each ship has its own powers, and each captain has their own specialties; so when Isolde commands a Knight-class ship, it has deconstruction drones and a salvage harpoon, but when Mathilda commands it, it has deconstruction drones and a taunt-effect polarity inducer. It’s neat for tactical reasons, too: there were absolutely scenarios where I thought about switching captains to fulfill particular battlefield roles, and I’d look at my current ships when recruiting new officers and vice versa to see what would work. It’s a little unclear what happens when ship and officer have the same abilities, or why officer abilities increase with level but ship abilities don’t seem to level up — but overall, it works. At first.

So you have these ships, and you have the officers capable of flying them. And you send them out against enemies of comparable power. You fight, you (probably) win, you get EXP and some metal/dark matter as a reward, and you find a new facility or safeguard an existing one (leading to more material rewards). Like I said, it’s a bit of a grind-heavy core loop, particularly since combat encounters can take a while. But they’re pretty neat and engaging, and there’s enough narrative justification and mechanical reward to care.

At first.

Unrelated thing that I can’t quite work in anywhere else: I love that, if you have to do ground combat on the Starbase and you don’t have enough officers, one or two greenshirts are added to the ranks. Really adds to the whole Star Trek Episode vibe I like so much: security officer Maddox and two never-before-seen cadets face off against a crawling monster hidden deep in the facility’s hidden depths…

The problems begin when things starts scaling up. Halcyon 6 uses a pretty simple metric in almost all things: every new ‘tier’ of enemies and ships corresponds to three officer levels. Officers of level 1 can pilot tier-1 ships, use tier-1 facilities, fight tier-1 enemies, and so on. Officers of level 4 have access to tier 2. Officers of level 7 get to do tier 7. And so on, and so forth.

Initially, on paper, this doesn’t look too bad or even particularly note-worthy. Just gotta keep your officers leveled up, right?

See if you can spot where things start going wrong.

Three problems. First, this way of doing things encourages pigeonholing, of a sort. Officers need to be a particular level to even be able to fly higher-tier ships. So it makes intuitive ‘sense’ to develop a core group of three officers that are always the highest possible level. You’ll tend to send these out against significant challenges — particularly since combat is of the Fire Emblem ‘people die if they are killed’ school, you can’t really afford any missteps. Your backup officers? Those can stay on the Starbase. There’s plenty of stuff that needs doing there, like using facilities to create more resources. Or digging up rooms or whatever. All activities gain EXP anyway, so that shouldn’t be a problem!

Except it feels like ship combat and battle reward much more experience much more quickly than another week at the Dark Matter Multiplier. So the officers that you send out all the time get stronger and stronger, while the officers that sit in all the time stagnate, only slowly growing in power.

Second, enemies get stronger over the course of play without much in the way of clear feedback. Your ships have a clear tier system wherein earlier ships are smaller and less detailed than larger ships, so it’s easy enough to keep track of. But enemy ships… are they strong? Are they weak? I literally only have HP totals to go on. You can take a closer look at their abilities and their special vulnerabilities/resistances, but otherwise you get nothing.

The ‘backup officers are weak’ problem could be subverted if you send out your weaker teams on missions too. I’ve done this, here are there: both entire teams of B-officers, and B-officers filling a spot in an otherwise A-team. But with little feedback on what enemies are doing and what to expect, this is an even more lethal proposition than combat normally is. For all the cool status effect and interaction gameplay, there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room in this combat system for enemies of different power levels. A tier 3 ship versus tier 4 enemies is going to get wrecked. And you can’t even subvert this by putting your weak officers in better ships, to compensate, because they have to be high enough level. It’s a catch-22: you have to fight a lot to get to the level you need for better ships, but fighting in weaker ships will very likely kill your ass.

And before you say “why not just hunt for weaker enemies, for training purposes” — those stop existing. The entire universe slowly levels up over time, auto-scaling in the most frustrating Oblivion way. In my current game state there is literally nothing I can have a team of level 4-6 officers do that won’t result in them getting humiliatingly destroyed.

Hell, even my A-team has a hard time keeping up.

And third, resource costs scale up much harder than resource income. Costs for higher-tier facilities, techs, and ships increase at a speed that’s somewhere between linear and quadratic. But your resource income… the facilities you save from the Chruul are always just what they are, low-income facilities. Battle income does increase, but that necessitates going out and fighting and winning a lot of battles. Which leaves as the only option…

Heya.

There are facilities you can build in the Starbase that let you use officers to create metal and dark matter. They also passively increase mission rewards, which I guess is nice (I never really noticed the effects there), but their main purpose is to let you make what you need. Engineers can make metal, scientists can make dark matter, and tacticians can ‘make’ crew. You already see the officer-scaling effect in play here too: the amount of stuff any officer can make in one run depends on their level. But otherwise there’s no downside to doing this. One material replication run takes about a week or so, and you’ll end up with between one and two hundred more thingies than you’d otherwise have — particularly since those officers would otherwise just be dead in the water anyway. You’re not gonna send them out to battle, for reasons mentioned above.

One week in game terms is not a lot of time. Time skips by very quickly in fast-forward. Which means that, after you’ve set your officers to their thing, it usually won’t take more than 15/20 seconds before the little popup tells you they’re done!

And then you get to click on the button to go to that location. And click on the button to start a new task. And click on the button to select an officer. And click on the button to close the window. And click on the button to restart the time skip.

And then two seconds later another officer is done.

You have to do this. Resources are rare, and enemies increase in strength at a continual, relentless pace. If you want to have any chance at surviving, you have to use your offices to create paltry amounts of materials at every change. And you have to keep your A-team up as high as they can, so they can fly the high-power ships the game flat-out tells you you’ll need to survive this next inexplicable invasion. There’s little room for nuance here, or personal skill. The threat curve just… keeps going, on and on, dragging you along kicking and screaming. Whether you want to or not.

I… don’t know if I want to.

Final thoughts

Okay, so I just checked Halcyon 6 one last time to see if anything changed. It’s on version 1.0.0.4. now! And immediately, one of the things I saw that was added was much-needed automation: finally, you can tell your material-replication slave officers to just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

This doesn’t solve the underlying curve problem, but it’s real nice to see that Massive Damage Inc. is busy making their game better and less frustrating — within constraints.

Playing for that one last time, I also discovered one annoyance I forgot to mention: enemies do get stronger, but this is very poorly reflected in the game’s visual systems. All enemies have health bars of equal length, for instance; it’s just that for some enemies, that health bar represents about four times as much staying power. You can figure this out by looking at the damage numbers and whatnot, if you’re so inclined. But most of the time, it’s mystifying and frustrating to see your cool attacks and mainstay combos hit for a fraction of the amount they used to. It can be hard to parse what it all means.

For instance: I can’t beat this boss. I just can’t. Does that mean it’s too strong for me? Does it mean I should have done more side upgrades? Does it mean I’m ‘supposed’ to be on tier 5 at this point? I literally cannot tell.

All I can tell is that my A-fleet is dead, which means either I reload or I’m out of the game — I’ll never be able to get this many high-level ships *and* this many high-rank officers together again. Not before the next death fleet bombards the Starbase into dust.

I’ve had some good times with Halcyon 6. It’s pretty, it’s funny, and particularly at the start it’s an interesting and engaging systemization of Star Trek parody. It just goes on too long. Halcyon 6 has enough cool ideas to fill about three, four hours of gameplay, and if it had stuck to that… But instead, it relentlessly tries to stretch its play time with poorly-balanced scaling, leading to a front-loaded grind-heavy game where the fun and cool gameplay elements quickly get buried under the strain of doing the same thing over and over again. And over. And over.

Is Halcyon 6 worth twenty Steam dollars? Eesh. It does present some really cool ideas. And even from a glance at the Steam page, I can already intuit it’ll have more actually interesting things hidden behind whatever difficulty barrier is holding me back. Plus a lot of involved and pro-active patching. So if the good parts appeal to you, and/or if you think you’re just better at this game than I am (or smart enough to lower the difficulty and turn down the grind), then by all means, go for it. Just be aware that there will be grinding. There’ll be cool art, and funny writing, and interesting systemizations, but expect a thick layer of freshly-ground pepper all the way on top.

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