A few hours in
Okay, maybe some of this outcome was my fault. Maybe in a mad dash to address several problems at once in order to keep this tub afloat, I may have forgotten one or two somewhat important or maybe crucial things. Hey, unrelated, here’s a handy piece of space upkeep advice for you: If you ever close up the coolant valve in order to replace a leaking pipe, then wrap the pipe in duct tape instead because ‘you’ll get to fixing that later’, don’t actually forget to turn the coolant flow back on. Unless having the reactor overheat was part of your secret plan all along, I guess.
So my first expedition with Jane and URSA ended with an exploding reactor. Expedition two fared a little better, but came to something of a stop when the guaranteed alien-proof outer windows weren’t. Expedition three involved a horse at one point, but let’s not get into that just yet.
I have to say, Deep Sixed hasn’t at all turned out how I thought it would. I expected stories about rampant AI, or alien invasion, or man’s inhumanity to man, but what I got instead was a cautionary tale about starbase upkeep. For real: Deep Sixed‘s most enduring lesson isn’t so much ‘all sentient beings have a right to freedom’ or ‘by working together and trusting each other we can overcome all odds’, but ‘make sure you put all your tools back in the right place after you’re done with them’.
Here’s how Deep Sixed generally works: At the start of each… let’s call it a run, you pick a mission from a list of two or three. Maybe it’s ‘kill some creatures’, maybe it’s ‘find and harvest some minerals’, maybe it’s just ‘explore a bunch of sectors’. Oftentimes it’s a combination of everything, with some mandatory objectives and some bonus ones. You enter the space station, pick whichever explored or visible sector you want to head off into first, and you begin.
As soon as you’re in space, the balancing game starts. On the one hand, you want to get your mission done, preferably fast. That means locating your objective(s), if you weren’t lucky enough to jump right into them, and doing to those objectives what needs to be done. You’ll be juggling power between the scanner, to find things, the targeting and lasers, to shoot things, and the hyperdrive, so you’ll be able to leave exactly when you want to instead of ‘five minutes from now’. And depending on the mission, there’ll be other systems involved, and maybe some manual cross-referencing. Killing creatures is ‘easy’ enough: Just point the lasers at them and shoot. And make sure the laser power stays up. And maybe switch between steady and modulating lasers. And maybe use the Deflecting Field if they get close. And activate the shield when necessary… If you’re mining mineral asteroids, make sure to look up what level of laser power and frequency breaks the asteroid into mineable chunks instead of into space-gas. Manufacturing compounds means finding mercurial stars with the right combination of chemicals, then harvesting those, then using the console interface in the right way. And so on, and so forth…
Generally, there’s some trade-off involved between doing things fast and doing things right, especially where optional objectives are involved. Unless you get specific upgrades, you can only change sectors once per run before forcibly warping home — and if at that point you’ve completed all your mandatory objectives, the mission is done and your optional objectives get flushed out the airlock. If you’re not fully done yet, you do get to go back; Astra’s stock price goes down instead of up if you return home with unfinished business, but I have no idea what that entails nor do I care to find out.
No, the real reason you want to get your missions done fast is because the longer you’re in space, the more chance there is for everything to go wrong.
Your space station is a floating hunk of junk. Held together by duct tape and gum, probably actually so in more places than one. At any given time something could break catastrophically, and at many given times that actually happens. And it’s up to you to fix things.
More than anything else, Deep Sixed is a game about hearing that something’s gone wrong, opening your manual to look up how to fix it, and then fixing it. The experience is very reminiscent of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, in that both games feature time-sensitive crisis puzzles that are solved by looking up the vague and unhelpful answers… Deep Sixed even suggests printing out the PDF manual and having a friend play alongside you, which I would definitely recommend if you’re looking for a passive-aggressive way to stop one friend from hanging out with you as much. Not that it’s a bad game, necessarily, but I can think of no more an apt layer of hell than having to look up ‘scanner error 107’ for the twentieth time.
No, in my experience, Deep Sixed actually works at its best when you treat it as a single-player adventure in the art of space station maintenance. It’s got a fitting learning curve: Early on, during your first play, you’ll have to look up every little problem and cross-reference every step to get out of missions alive. As you get further in, either by surviving longer or by starting again, you’ll slowly start memorizing certain warning signs and solution steps. Okay, the power went out in the viewing room, are the control port lights blinking? No? Then the circuit breaker in the reactor room just flipped itself again. Yes? Then I need to get the cable kit, then check the power monitor for the right cable colours… If the radiation scrubber is acting up again, all I need to do is check if the control board is fried. If yes, replace it; if no, percussive maintenance should get it running again.
There’s honestly a surprisingly human feeling to Deep Sixed‘s Zen And The Art Of Not Dying In Space. Your ship has all the tools you’ll ever need on board, as well as some replacement parts (and some garbage you can’t get rid of). But your personal inventory isn’t large enough to always carry everything, as you can only cart around six things. So what I started doing early on is giving everything a proper place. The fuel rods go in the fuel rod box, fine enough. All the tools go in the toolbox in the hyperdrive chamber. The control boards go in the overhead locker in the scanner room. It cuts down on overhead when something critical goes wrong, and since critical things go wrong often, it’s a strange calming sensation to know that ‘okay, there’s a crack in the viewing room window, but at least I know where the duct tape is’.
Play and survive for long enough, and you might even start seeing the value of regular maintenance. It’s one thing to panickedly check air vents and ventilation sensors when the oxygen flow suddenly stops, but it’s another thing altogether to notice you have some mission downtime and decide to go over the status of the ventilation drivers — Ah, see, FAN.1.011_SYS.dvv is throwing errors again, let’s fix that real quick before it gets critical. Drivers fail gradually, lasers need realigning between shots to make sure they don’t malfunction, and if you’ve got a minute and a rag, cleaning all the power converter nodes resets their efficiency to 100%, making it much less likely that your laser power flow jams in the middle of a big battle. And if that does happen and you have to run to the reactor room to feed new batteries into the core, why not take a second to flip all the circuit breakers off and on? That does wonders for the targeting system’s accuracy.
I appreciate that what I’m describing here might sound interminably dull to some. I’ve come to believe that that’s sort of the point. Yeah, regular maintenance is dull. That’s why nobody likes doing it! It’s also the difference between a space station that runs at peak efficiency when shit hits the fan, or as close to ‘peak efficiency’ as this tub is ever likely to get, and a space station that falls apart at the seams the moment a single glob of Tarbat spit hits the outer plating. It’s not necessarily glamorous, or fun, but then nothing about your character’s assignment is — if you want to get through this thing, you better put your nose to the grindstone.
So the missions themselves are a fine balance between ‘the longer I stay out here, the more optional objectives I can earn and the more minerals I can collect’ and ‘the longer I stay out here, the more my temperature regulators have a chance of exploding under the strain’. In-between those missions, Deep Sixed ties the mechanical experience together with a persistent repair/upgrade system. Short story: You gain Astra Reward Points for doing your missions, which can be used either to upgrade your space station along several upgrade trees…
…or purchase the supplies you need to keep your station in working order.
It’s more interesting in theory than in practice. While the upgrades are neat, and you’ll definitely be getting a bunch of them, there’s not really an incredible amount of play room. You should always get the first two scanner upgrades first, because those allow you to respectively ‘see what cool non-living things are in distant sectors’ and ‘see what angry living things are in distant sectors’, turning most mineral-hunting and monster-killing missions from blind stabs in the dark to targeted assassination hyperjumps. And you need the probe upgrade, pronto, because without it you literally can’t get the minerals you need for the later other upgrades. Beyond that, there’s some room for personal preference, though some upgrades are still plain better: The ‘probe goes faster’ upgrade saves you some time, but is far outclassed by ‘dual-type lasers that never require realigning’ and ‘hull plating that self-repairs over time’.
And no matter how many repair points you get, you’ll always have to spend some on supplies. You never have enough of anything, and running out of anything in the middle of space is generally a death sentence, so it’s usually wiser to overstock. There’s no such thing as too many fuel rods. In my last game I lowballed the amount of temperature sensors I thought I’d need, and then burned through all three sensors on board in the span of four minutes — leading to fun situations down the line where four of my five viewing rooms were frozen solid. It could happen to you, kids.
Okay, but for real: I get what Deep Sixed is going for with this system, it’s just not very interesting. And not in the ‘actually maintenance gameplay has some Zen aspects to it’ sense, but more in the ‘I didn’t predict the future correctly and now I can’t make my radiation scrubber work’ sense. What particularly falls flat is the idea that you ‘order’ parts, meaning you don’t get them immediately, but receive them… the game tells you it’s ‘after completing your next mission’, but what it actually means is after you warp out and back home. Meaning there might be situations where your best move is to warp out, pump the hyperdrive to max, and warp back home without doing anything of note before your lack of coolant pipes becomes an issue.
Finally, tying the whole thing together narratively is a story that… Well, it’s a story, that much I can tell you. It has some space-related twists and turns. Doesn’t really touch on the whole ‘you’re technically a slave to the corporation’ thing quite as directly as I’d like, but it does touch on it in a variety of subtle and less-subtle ways. And everything else is… I’m tempted to call it ‘serviceable filler’. It’s not uninteresting, but nothing about it is genre-defying either; you’ll probably be able to spot the general outline of it two major missions in.
Crucially, Deep Sixed‘s story is relatively short, with only three or four ‘main missions’ tied into a few hours of gameplay. It shouldn’t have been longer: The maintenance gameplay is entertaining in its novelty, but not actually that fun to keep doing, and Deep Sixed‘s main way of raising the stakes in later missions isn’t to introduce new and interesting problems, but just to up the frequency of things happening. And every problem has only one or two associated voice lines, that never update over time. Every time the yaw thrusters misfire, both Jane and URSA treat it as a brand-new problem… But luckily, Deep Sixed is aware that quality trumps quantity, and if you manage to play through it in a limited number of sittings, it won’t wear itself out before you reach an end of sorts.
And if you don’t, well… Let’s just say the proto-form of this review was going to be significantly more negative before I actually finished my third and final playthrough. It’s a decent game if you manage to see it through to the end, but I can’t blame you for not making that and I can’t blame you for disliking it if that happens.
I want to close out on the note that, repetitive voice barks and the occasional meme aside, the writing in Deep Sixed isn’t actually bad. Whenever actual story happens, or even whenever you’re in particularly interesting missions, the character of Pilot (i.e. ‘Jane’) does good voice work, managing to subtly get the character’s worldview and personality across without hitting us over the head with it. Even the voice of URSA does good work, which given the character’s robotic nature can’t have been easy. I enjoyed listening to these two characters actually interact.
All in all, Deep Sixed is primarily an interesting experiment into the value of ‘mundane’ experiences as gameplay, as well as a way to test your own ability to memorize abject nonsense and recall it under time stress. It might actually be a good research tool for stuff like that… If you’re interested, I’d say its thirteen dollar price tag maybe feels a little steep, but is probably both fair given the amount of work put in, and a good step towards re-normalizing the public perception of indie game pricing. Either way, it’s not unlikely you’ll have a decent time trying to keep your space station afloat… and failing because you couldn’t figure out how to flush the radiation count. Happens to the best of us. Just make sure you remember where you stash your stellar wrench.
Jarenth never dies in the vacuum of space, no matter what a certain Dragonball villain likes to yell over and over. Suggest other stellar tools at him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?