Indie Wonderland: Depth of Extinction

My love of the under-sea is well-documented on this website (and some other ones). I can’t help it, I’m at Atlantean at heart. I’d live under water if I could. I have lived under water for most of my life, for an extremely generous and disappointing interpretation of the idea. Every game that opens up by telling me most of the action will take place sub-H2O has an automatic head start; I’m a simple man to please.

And if a game tells me it intends to fill that setting with tactical turn-based combat, persistent customizable soldiers, and randomly-generated worlds full of uncertainty and mystery and danger? If other sites bill it as ‘XCOM meets FTL, but under water’? It would be hard to laser-target a design document more directly to my interests.

HOF Studios is trying just this with Depth of Extinction. Let’s see if they manage.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium.)

(Game source: Publisher review key.)

Opening

Depth of Extinction‘s opening is… interesting. Somewhat promising. I dig the low-fi pixel art, and I have soft spot for games that just get to business quickly: None of this fancy hand-crafted title screen malarkey, here’s some actual gameplay directly onto your background.

Could also have been an interesting way to immediately showcase the effects of Depth of Extinction’s advanced graphics and gameplay settings — if it *had* any.

Title music’s pretty nice too, I can tell some effort went into this. I can tell because Depth of Extinction is very insistent on citing sources: Every song change is announced in the top left corner, showing both recording artist and track name. And if that still doesn’t help you find what you’re looking for, the star button hides what I can only describe as a music bibliography.

The scientist in me appreciates this level of referential thoroughness.

Everything else on Depth of Extinction‘s title screen is either boilerplate, confusing, or flat-out not interesting to me. No, I don’t actually think I want to join your Discord server. Or follow you on Twitter. Or report a bug. Or quit back to my desktop. What I want right now is to get to the actual game.

Luckily, there’s a big and quite hard-to-miss button that advertises just that! Man, don’t you just love convenience?

Initial impressions

We start off with a gloomy scene.

Somewhat more above-water than I would like, but let’s give it time.

A short text story unfolds as I watch a shadowy blob traverse the water. The Creators are gone. They tried to resist the waters, but eventually fell. ‘We’ built the Republic from their ashes. The only source of water and food is Station Zero, which seems like a bit of a bad bottleneck, but I’m sure it’s fine. It’s probably fine. In fact, we’re heading there now. Disregard any ideas about ‘our time growing short’.

The blob pulls close to a large building, then under it. The view switches to the inside of the facility: The sub surfaces through a hole in the ground, and three armed figures emerge.

This place seems nice! I wonder why we even brought those guns.

The three figures walk around the station for a bit, talking about food crates and squid rats and the ‘magic water purifying machine’. Then, suddenly, a robot walks in.

How do I know it’s a robot? Well…

The robot tells me that ‘my forces must reassemble a shattered key, and storm the Android Citadel to destroy the AI’. It doesn’t tell me why, but gives me the location of the Code Scrambler, which I’ll need to track the three pieces of the key. I have absolutely zero idea what is going on.

The camera pans up to show three enormous murder-bots, close to a door that should barely fit one of them. The closest one takes one step forward, raises its minigun arm, and blasts the small android to scrap and oil.

Try telling me these should be called anything else than ‘murder-bots’, I dare you.

The woman in green yells to the other two to ‘get back to the station’, and that she’ll ‘hold them off’. How exactly she plans to ‘hold them off’ by futilely firing her laughably human-sized gun while standing perfectly still in the middle of the room is a question that is not answered; instead, the other two characters hoof it, and in the space of a single blink I’m staring at an entirely different screen.

You might at this point feel as though you have no single idea what’s happening. Rest assured that this feeling is *correct*.

Mercifully, a tutorial popup appears. Unmercifully, it doesn’t start with anything like a general overview, or a suggestion of what I should be wanting to do, or anything like that. It instead tells me this and only this: “Click the Loadout button to move to the next screen.” So, I do that.

Clarification, sadly, is not forthcoming.

Alright, I’m going to use my genius on this. What do we have? On the left, a description of a mission of some kind. I have to obtain the Code Scrambler referenced in the intro just now; the faction involved is ‘Raiders’, the difficulty is Easy, and my reward for completing it will be to advance the story.

On the right, three… to call them ‘subs’ seems a stretch of the imagination, but that’s what the game does, so fine, fair enough. Three ‘subs’, mostly identical recolours of each other save for the extra air tanks on the ‘tanker sub’. They each have a price, a fuel gauge, and an occupancy limit of four.

The screen in the center suggests I currently have 100 funds. I could rent the Armored Sub for all my money, or the Standard Sub for half of it. Not knowing what to expect, I elect to keep back some cash.

Next decision.

The right screen changes; I’m now told to add team members to my submarine. I have two people in my team as-is, nicknamed ‘Patroon’ (a Dutch word meaning either ‘patron’ or ‘pattern’, because Dutch doesn’t care what you think) and ‘Onslaught’ (about which I have no jokes). I click both of them and Add them to the sub. In the top left, I can select from a small group of other soldiers, but these are mercenaries: Hiring any of them would cost me my last fifty bucks. Still, better safe than sorry. I elect to bring ‘Ariel’ Pierce, a skilled soldier with a Lightning Rifle. Feels like that could come in handy.

Then we set off.

In a sense.

Okay, I’m actually not going to talk smack about this part; it probably helps that I read the FTL comparison on beforehand, but I do understand this one. I’m in the top left. I want to go to the big question mark zone. So the best way to go there is… the area cheerfully named ‘Citron Tomb’.

My little sub speeds down the line, and the map is replaced with a different map. Turns out ‘getting through Citron Tomb’ is going to be more of a hassle than I’d hoped.

What do you mean, I have to *actually travel through it*?

I select the top right icon closest to my current location, ‘Small Residential Platform’. My sub speeds there, and for my actions I am given a story and a choice. Pirates are raiding this platform! I’m going to get involved, apparently, but do I want to get involved loudly or quietly?

Why would I be a sub if I *wasn’t* going to sneak up on everyone?

Outcome: We manage to sneak past Pirate patrols — that doesn’t sound like something pirates would do, but fine — and enter the facility undetected. ‘There might be something of value here’. Better bring our loud guns, just in case.

Nothing like firing bullet rifles and lightning guns in an underwater construction.

And just like that, we’re in. My sub docks, my three characters get out, and all of a sudden a strange character I’ve never seen or met before starts barking instructions at me. This is the moment Depth of Extinction decides to kick off a proper tutorial.

I mean, better late than never, I *guess*.

Depth of Extinction‘s action gameplay feels very XCOM-like, in a second instance of ‘oh, I see why that comparison got made so often’. Characters move in turns, in a rotating order shown in the top left. Characters get two action points that they can use to move, defend, attack, or get into overwatch, with the latter two ending turns immediately; opening or closing doors costs nothing.

Let’s demonstrate the process by way of this hapless pirate!

Guarding what looks to be some sort of refrigerator.

The sedate music whips up into an action beat. Onslaught aims her rusty carbine at the pirate. 100% hit chance! She fires, and the whole world shakes along.

SCREEN SHAAAAKE

The pirate takes three damage! Patroon moves up to take cover behind a barrel and fires as well! Three more damage! The pirate falls! Ariel stands around near the sub, wondering if all her paychecks are going to be as easy as this one!

With the enemy dead, the music slips back into something more calming, and we resume our exploration. When no active combat is ongoing, units can move twice as far, which definitely makes this non-combat section feel a heck of a lot less like a slog.

First order of business: Loot!

Nice! Let’s put that in our bag and not actually use it until the mission is over!

Second order of business: Two more pirates!

This pirate is about to demonstrate why ‘cover’ and ‘grenades’ don’t mix.

Third order of business: More loot!

…We’re *under water*.

Fourth order of business: We… leave?

I guess? We *could* stay, and evacuate manually later — now that both containers have been looted, that’s become an option.

Yup, I’m back at the map now. That’s all she wrote for this residential platform, I guess!

A brief overview screen shows me the results of the mission: I looted a rusty shotgun, a fireproof suit, ten cash, and one unit of fuel. My soldiers have gained experience from hitting and killing enemies; Patroon has actually gained enough experience to level up. Since Patroon is level 1, she doesn’t have a class yet; unlike XCOM, and in the first genuinely cool thing Depth of Extinction has done so far, I manually get to pick which class I want her to have. There are six available classes, with four more teased behind big grey locks.

Each class has different abilities and weapon proficiencies. Tempting though this class might be, I don’t actually have any heavy weaponry, and I have no idea how common or rare that sort of weapon is.

Then I actually get to assign stat points, in six categories, each with different special abilities tied to them.

Alright, I’m actually somewhat on-board now. And obviously that was the designated tutorial level. Let’s see what a real battle looks like!

I move to a floating weapons cache, and ‘decide’ to take a closer look — taking me into another combat zone.

Oh hey, good reminder!

At the start of this next mission, Depth of Extinction has one more trick up its sleeve. I can now activate ‘Follow Mode’, which basically means this: During out-of-combat segments, I only control one character directly. Other characters will follow me around, taking up position offensively or defensively (I can pick which one) or guarding the rear (I can select a specific character for this). They’ll also automatically pick up loot on the ground. I like this idea.

Anything that reduces tedious micromanaging is a good thing in my book.

Beyond that, the mission plays out more or less as expected. I carefully move from room to room, giving all my characters time to get into covered overwatch before opening any door. Two of the rooms have groups of enemies in them; we flow seamlessly into combat mode when they’re spotted, and out of combat mode again when they’re dead — to the point of ‘if the character that would be next in the action order is not the character I directly control in Follow Mode, the AI takes over immediately and starts reloading and looting’. It’s all fairly effortless, in a comfortably-familiar kind of way.

The lightning guns are new, but *beyond that*…

I clear the small map of hostiles, loot some money and items, and move on. Onslaught gets promoted to Assault Soldier, putting our new shotgun to good use. And then it’s time to move to the next map node.

The previous two map nodes have involved door-to-door combat in an underwater facility. This next map node involves door-to-door combat in an underwater facility.

What was that saying about winning formulas?

Show of hands: How many of you want me to give you a blow-by-blow of another one of these pitched battles? Wow, zero hands, huh. That’s what I thought. How about instead: I try to clear this area, and this entire mission, and check back on the next page to tell you whether or not this story has started making any kind of improved sense?

Yeah, I like that plan better too. Glad I thought of it.

Onto page 2. >>

One comment

  1. Two of my favourite games ever are Bioshock and XCOM. I was so ready for this to be awesome. But alas.

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