Should have called this game 'Explosive Decompression Adventures'.

Indie Wonderland: Heat Signature

A few hours in

Forty seconds on the clock. The ship I’m infiltrated is on high alert: In less than a minute, it’ll dock at the closest friendly station, and the target I’m supposed to assassinate — let’s not pretend I remember their name, here — will go into hiding behind overlapping force fields and point-defense cannons. I’ve got no time to lose. I’ve just been thrown out of an airlock.

Dramatic reenactment.

Okay, this is not a problem; Happens more often than you think. I quickly remote-control my pod to pick up my floating body, as both my oxygen and the timer tick down mercilessly. Thirty-five, thirty-four, thirty-three. Then I dock at the ship’s secondary airlock, the one I unlocked by nabbing that guard’s keycard. Puts me a little closer to where I need to be, but not close enough. Twenty-seven, twenty-six, twenty-five. There’s still two sets of guards between me and there, and I don’t have the firepower or the time to take them all out. So I get creative. Activate the Stealth Shield and run past the one, twenty-two. Throw a wrench at the other so he doesn’t call the alarm, eighteen. Use my Swapper to trade places with one guard, then shank the other before she gets her bearings, twelve. Pick up the key and run to the locked door, ten, nine, eight. I fire a grenade inside…

With a thump, the ship captain falls unconscious. Without them, the alarm stops, the ship no longer in the process of docking at a station but instead aimlessly drifting. That should get me the time I need to deal with my actual target… Assuming I can also find a way to deal with their shield.

Again, dramatic reenactment: The story really happened, but I tend to not stop for screenshots when life or death is on the line.

Heat Signature is a remarkable piece of work. Heat Signature is procedural story generation engine, a grab bag of missions and tools and obstacles and complications that always come together the way they do because of what you chose to do with them. Heat Signature is a loose spiritual sequel to Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, except replace ‘Adventures’ with ‘High-Stakes Heist Capers And Explosive Decompression Murders’. Heat Signature has incredible niche appeal: I suspect most people will play it as their main game for a week or so before relegating it to the spot of ‘lunch break game’, a quick diversion that can generally be relied on to provide a lot of fun in a short time span. Unless you’re enough of a completionist to want to free the universe, in which case, it was nice knowing you and your free time, I guess.

If I had to summarize Heat Signature in a single paragraph, in a way that’s meaningful to read instead of just being buzzwords, I’d try this: Heat Signature is essentially a top-down heist action game, in the vein of Monaco and Hotline Miami. Except Heat Signature is set in space, and instead of presenting carefully-crafted narratives, it uses procedural generation to create a vast universe of space stations, ships, tools, people, and missions. As the player, you take on these missions: Steal this thing, kill this person, hijack this ship. Whether you do it to gain intel for personal ends, or to further the liberation of the sector, or to find cool loot, or just because it’s fun, the base loop is the same: Select a target, get to the target, execute your objectives, and get out.

Preferably *before* things get this heated.

While Heat Signature is very free-form, there are basically three ‘ways’ to play. The first way, the ‘main’ way, is to follow the breadcrumb trail of random missions, personal missions, and liberations. Whichever character you play, you’re always some kind of space freelancer with their own small spaceship and selection of space heist gear. You gain funds and loot by selecting missions at your faction’s space stations. Conceptually, the missions are fairly limited in scope: The base threads are ‘steal this thing’, ‘kill this person’, ‘capture this person’, ‘rescue this person’, or ‘hijack this ship’. But in practice, that’s a gross oversimplification. Missions are highly variable: The difficulty level you pick, the faction you’re attacking, the size of the ship, the circumstances, the guards’ outfit…

Say your mission is to steal an item. You’ll get that one a lot, and they all have the same win condition: Get off the ship with the stuff in your inventory. But stealing an item off a small ship with three guards is completely different from stealing an item off a guard-packed battlecruiser. Tagging an Offworld Security ship, with its small hallways and non-lethal guards, is totally different from making your way through the winding multi-colour corridors of the Glitchers, or Sovereign’s wide open spaces. A ship with a long alarm time is different to approach from a ship with a short alarm, from a ship with an alarm already in place, from a ship flying through an active warzone. Even within missions that seem entirely the same, small differences can have a significant effect: Whether or not the item is behind a locked door or not can be the difference between ‘let’s sneak through this’ and ‘let’s blow up all the guards and grab the keycard from their remains’.

It’s… difficult to capture the practice of running these missions in text, mostly because it depends so much on who you are and how you play. Me, I tend to plan a little bit ahead. You can see at the outset of every mission what modifiers the ship has and what gear the guards are carrying, and obviously I adjust to that: There’s no benefit in assaulting a ship full of armored thugs with nothing that can crack that shell. But once inside, I tend to take challenges moment-to-moment instead of seeking out a larger plan. Which leads to situations like…

Well, a lot of abject failure, for one.

There are eight seconds left on the frozen clock, as I run my hands through my hair in some resigned frustration. I’ve powered my way through this ship of shields and turrets to steal something-or-other, but despite my best efforts an alarm has gone off somewhere. I check the map: The captain is all the way across the ship, way too far to even conceivably reach before I’m caught. The item I need to steal is right there, two rooms over, guarded by two mooks with permanent shielding that I can’t crack. And even I could get past them, my pod is easily half a minute away as well. There’s no way I’m getting out of here in one piece. There’s no way, there’s no way, there’s no way. There’s a window to space in the room directly across the cargo hold.

I sigh. Activate an irreplaceable charge from my Slipstream Generator, slowing down time for everyone but me for a few seconds. I run into the cargo room and slam a teleporter beacon onto the crate, then run back out before guards have fully registered that I was there. Six, five, four… They slowly turn around, alarm shouts on their lips and knockout guns in their hands, but I’ve reached the window. I take a deep breath, teleport a wrench into my hand from some dark corner of the ship, and chuck it at the window. Blam, and I’m out. The last thing I see before I go dark and wait for my pod to rescue me is the only thing that matters in the world: 1 ITEM TELEPORTED TO STASH.

You’d be surprised how often I get into more or less this exact situation.

The missions themselves pay out in cash (if you make it), loot (if you’re lucky), and fun (if you’re good), but what ties the thread of missions together is an admittedly details-light story about liberating the sector. There are four factions, endless warfare, ‘only we can stop it’, you know the drill. Your fifth ‘faction’ starts with one space station, but every time you complete a mission, you inspire some degree of rebellious thought into citizens around the nebula. Fill the bar up, and you gain one Liberation: Select a station from the map, and it’s yours now. With four high-profile exceptions, it’s as easy as that.

Turns out they’re *all* on the brink of rebellion, all the time.

Liberating stations has a few more effects. First and foremost, most of them ‘unlock’ particular items in the shops on stations you own. Every item in the game can be found and stolen from the word go, all the way up to the legendary Everything Gun, but obviously better items are rarer and more difficult to find and nab. Liberating the right stations makes particular items spawn in the shop with regularity, taking away a lot of annoying uncertainty. In my game I can generally buy a Rechargeable Standard-Issue Crashbeam wherever I go, which makes missions involving shields and turrets much more bearable. It’s a quality-of-life thing, but also factors into the difficulty curve — more on that in a bit. Other stations may unlock new pods, or give you a cash infusion and increase the starting cash of all new characters. There are even stations that do nothing — why you’d want to liberate those is anyone’s guess, but then I’m just a cynic.

Then there’s another effect: The raising of the stakes. As much fun as Heat Signature‘s missions are, you might figure it’d get boring to do the same five missions against the same four factions on the same three difficulty levels. You’re probably right. That’s why the first dozen stations you liberate each add new mutators to the mission pool. One station might give you access to Audacious missions, a difficulty level higher than hard. Another station introduces Bloodless missions, where you’re paid extra to not kill anyone. Then come Enigma missions, where you can’t leave any living witnesses — and yes, that can go either of two ways. And then there are Silent missions, and Mistake missions, and Pacifist missions, and Ghost missions…

Then they start combining.

I dig this implementation a lot. Since the difficulty modifiers only unlock over several dozens of missions, you have plenty of time to get used to Heat Signature‘s normal mode of operation. And once they arrive, they force you into new ways of thinking, new ways of appreciating the game’s tools. It’s easy to play early, low-level Heat Signature as Hotline Miami in space, rampaging through ships until everything’s dead or knocked out and then running with what you need. But what if your mission means you need to be unseen? Or you can’t harm anyone, not even nonlethally? Or what do you do when the higher difficulty tiers relentlessly punish you for that approach? Conversely, there are so many tools and approaches in this game that you might overlook initially, only to later learn how cool they are. I didn’t care for the Visitor and Swapper teleporters at the start; Sure, they looked neat, but the Sidewinder did everything I wanted with much less hassle. That is, until I had to start getting through giant labyrinthine ships with tons of locked doors… where teleporting behind a key-carrier for two seconds, or swapping out one guard then assassinating the other, can mean the difference between quick success and a 40-second detour. And that’s before you really get creative. Like that time I locked myself out of my quest objective…

It seemed so easy at the time.

I stare at the locked door that separates me from my rescue target. I thought I was pretty clever two minutes before. I didn’t have the weapons or tools to kill that one armored guard, but I did have a teleporting Glitch trap. I shot one guy between the eyes, put down the trap and hid around the corner, then watched as the remaining three guards piled into the room and were teleported into the vacuum of space, on by one. Let’s see your armor protect you from that. Yeah, I felt pretty good about it, until I saw the locked door. And couldn’t find the key. And briefly remembered the HUD overlay of that one armored guard, with the vague outline of a numbered key…

So, now what? There’s no other key with this number on the ship. I could Visitor into the room, but I already know you can’t carry other people back out when the effect reverses. Can’t Glitch-trap myself inside, and I’d get stuck anyway. Maybe I can Glitch Trap a guard inside, though? And then use my Swapper? But then I still don’t have a way to take the target outside as well. Maybe I’m gonna have to call this mission a loss. Too bad the Swapper doesn’t work on knocked-out targets…

I refocus. Wait. Does the Swapper not work on knocked-out targets? I’ve never actually tried…

One zap later, I’m inside, and the target is outside. Well, great, that’s one step. I’m still gonna have to get a guard involved for the way back, though… Unless the Swapper also works on that one dead guard I didn’t zap into space.

Long story short:

Last rambling story, I swear.

Crucially, Heat Signature never forces you to play harder. There are definitely benefits involved, in cash and liberation points and ludic engagement, but if what you want out of a play session is to tear through Easy and Medium play spaces and feel like a space badass, that’s totally fine! There will always be Easy missions, and you will still get some money and liberation points, in a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race-approach. You can make your own life as easy or as difficult as you want. Similarly, taking on a too-hard mission is never the end of the world. You can bail on missions without any consequence, save wasted time and possibly gear. And if you pick a mission with a mutator you can’t uphold — kill someone in a Bloodless mission, for instance — you’ll still get paid if you reach the actual mission goal. Just less, and maybe your professional honour takes a bruise. But that’s nothing a limited paycheck’s worth of space vices can’t ameliorate.

All the same, Heat Signature does realize that if you stuck with one character forever, you’d probably get too powerful for most missions in short order — just by kitting out your small inventory with high-quality equipment. So it encourages you to trade characters, to retire your old heroes and pick up new space schlubs, in a simple way: By reducing characters’ impact on galactic liberation over time. It makes some narrative sense too: Initially, your character is a nobody, a relative unknown suddenly fighting back against the hegemony of the four powers. That’s inspiring! But as your character transitions into what’s essentially superhero status, that inspiration wears off: “Oh, Otillia Kuiper conquered another Sovereign Battlecruiser, I guess”. In game terms, this means your character only gains X% of the normal liberation points for later missions. Again, you can totally keep them around if you want! Keep playing all you like, have fun. But at any time, you can swap them out for the new hangers-on. You can ever retire them, like Fiasco, if you’re that dedicated: Permanently removing them from the pool to make room for new ones. As a bonus, this also means you get to name one of your characters’ items and add it to a seed pool that you and your Steam friends draw from, meaning you can find those items on later playthroughs.

Here, I found one of Ranneko’s old characters’ concussive grenade launcher. I’ve also once found another friend’s character — not an item, but their actual character, imprisoned in an enemy ship. I saved them and in doing so, unlocked that character for my own play. That’s the sort of thing Heat Signature gets up to.

I love the subtle push-pull of the liberation and retirement systems because Heat Signature is at its best when you lean into its nature as a storytelling engine. It’s okay fun to do hard missions, and pretty neat once you get so good that nothing can touch you again. But finding my old key cloner, from my first-ever character who was the second I ever retired — the first one being the second character, who saved the first one? That’s special. That’s something that will only ever happen in my game, for me, and have that kind of meaning. These are the sorts of stories Heat Signature can deliver almost uniquely. The actual ‘liberation of the galaxy’ bit is almost ancillary — I care about these nerds, not some political landscape.

And yet, this is only one of the three main ways to play. If you’re more of a privateer, or you just want to take your character for a spin, you can fly around in Heat Signature‘s endless space and encounter random ships, then dock with those and tackle them. This is a good way to nab some extra money, actually, and get cool gear without the pressure of having to succeed at a mission. And as far as I know, this doesn’t count for your liberation percentage tracker… I tend to not seek these things out, but it’s always a major temptation to spot a ship flying around on the way back from a mission. Maybe just take a little peek…

Look with your eyes, not with a wrench.

And if you’re looking for a more structured experience but without the weight of a character career — if you just want to jump into something cool quickly — Heat Signature offers ‘defector missions’ in each station you liberate. If galaxy liberation is Heat Signature‘s ‘story mode’, and holding up random ships is ‘free play’, defector missions are basically challenge scenarios: You are now this character, with this gear, on this ship with this goal. They function more or less like regular missions, except that at any time you can hit Escape and Retry Mission rather than giving up if things go south.

Example:

I’ll be honest, I’m not a super fan of these defector missions: While the setup is neat, they feel a little more hindered by Heat Signature‘s inherent randomness than normal play. Normal missions, you either win or lose, and either way you go on with your life afterwards. But since these missions are as structured as they are, it can sometimes be a matter of restarting over and over until you get in a good spot. Try one, there’s a room with four armored guards right outside your pod. That’s never gonna work. Restart, try two: The guards are now one room over. Restart again, try three: The guards are two rooms over, and there’s a crate room you can sneak into. Maybe it has an armor-piercing weapon? Or a stealth shield? Or… Well, you get the point, I hope: Repeating structured missions drive home more strongly than normal play that sometimes you’re ‘just’ at the whims of the random generator, and to me that sucks a bit of the fun out of it. I’d rather just roll with the punches. But, crucially: That’s why I don’t play the optional missions. If this does sound like your jam, it’s yet another play style Heat Signature allows for.

Turns out there’s a lot of ways to play in space.

Final thoughts

Well, look at that. Five and a half thousand words in and I still haven’t covered everything I like about Heat Signature. Tom Francis’ wit and writing shine through in the little bits of character dialogue, like when you can try and convince a staunch non-lethal guards that sometimes lethal force should be justified (you won’t manage, though). There are so many toys to unlock and play with, in so many configurations, that it took seven hours for me to even start feeling like maybe I’d seen everything. The procedural generation absolutely carries its weight, crafting an endless universe of experiences that often feel they could be hand-made. The ships and people obey actual space physics, meaning you can fire your engine once or shoot a gun in space and coast on the momentum forever, and the whooshing of the background star field makes for a great visual effect to help you understand how fast you’re going in reality. The four factions are interestingly different, in visual design and general aesthetic. The music is great. You can unlock other players’ characters. And, and, and…

If I had to pick one, though, I’d say my absolute favourite part of Heat Signature is that so much is possible in the fast and loose confines of its rules. I alluded earlier to how you’ll go from space murder-thug to elegant space heist operative just by virtue of the difficulty scaling and the items you’ll find, but there’s more to it than that: There are so many things you can do that are just… cool. I’ve all but stopped returning to my pod to exit missions, just because jumping out of windows and catching myself is fast, fun, and easy, for instance. I documented how I learned by accident that Swapper teleporters work on corpses too, which opens up just a ton of options. And over on his YouTube channel, Ranneko is posting tips that far outclass mine. Did you know that Subverters work on doors as well as shields and turrets? Or that you can voluntarily jump out of your pod, float to the target ship in space, and then work your cool teleporter magic from the outside? Or that you can throw melee weapons you’ve attacked with even though they’re on cooldown? There’s just… an infinite universe of possibility.

Now, I’ll be honest: I don’t think I’ll ever save Heat Signature‘s entire universe. In part because this is a plan thought up by characters called Breaker and Fiasco, but in much larger part by the fact that it does get grindy. Especially if you play the game with the intent to win, you’ll start noticing the procedural seams. Rather, I think I’ll keep Heat Signature around as… Well, like I said, as a lunch break game. Something that’s fun to jump into for an hour, maybe do some Defector Missions or run one character’s lifespan. I could see myself enjoying Heat Signature like that for quite a while, though not necessarily in a lot of consecutive play hours or days.

If you feel that’s something you could get into too, Heat Signature is currently fifteen American Steam dollars or equivalent, or Humble dollars if that’s more your jam. It is absolutely worth that price, if only to show to Tom Francis that he should keep making video games for a long time to come.

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Jarenth hates jumping into space, honestly, but what can you do? It’s the superior tactic! Discuss space plans with him or share items of his you’ve found on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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