Indie Wonderland: Depth of Extinction

A few hours in

Well, I did… complete the objective, eventually. Took me some time and a bunch of objective battles, but I’ll hear no claims that I didn’t eventually get that Code Scrambler.

As well as a nice mask, and an all-access pass to the world’s worst theme park.

Completing that mission brought me back to the main screen, where I could now pick a new mission from a small list. One of them was the story follow-up mission, but I felt I shouldn’t dive into that just yet. So I picked a different mission, where… I think it was something about fighting raiders for money?

It was probably one of these three.

And after that I did… something else? Maybe something about unlocking a new sub design? I know I didn’t immediately do the next storyline mission, simply because I haven’t done the new storyline mission at all yet; I kept intending to get on that mission sometime and then never did.

Real talk: I actually wrote half of my Depth of Extinction review a week, a week and a half ago, everything you saw on the last page. Then I put the review down to give myself some time to think, stepped away, and… sort of forgot about the game completely. About the game, not about the review, which I was always intending on finishing today. But I went on vacation for a week, and looking back, I didn’t think about this game for even a second. Which is a bigger deal than it sounds! I love thinking about games! I’ll do game design and analysis in my mind while waiting for the shower to heat up! Hell, the whole reason I co-founded this website in the first place is to formalize my process of overthinking anything I play.

Me not thinking about a game at all, so close after playing it, is indicative of something. And when I re-read my old writing and checked my screenshots, I found about what I expected: Depth of Extinction is a forgettable game. It’s safe, not incompetent, engaging and unengaging in equal intervals. It lifts mechanics and ideas from two other games to the degree that it is essentially defined as a combined derivative of the two (I keep doing this too) without really understanding the ins and outs of what makes those games work as well as they do. It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but it’s not really a good game either.

Though you *can* make a lot of things explode, which is always a plus.

To recap: Depth of Extinction plays as a blend of FTL and any XCOM. Mechanically, it arcs in ‘missions’, long stretches of gameplay in which you strive to achieve a single objective — some of these are story-based, like the Code Scrambler, while others reward you with money, equipment, or soldiers. You pick your mission from a small list, then select a sub, a crew, and whatever equipment and starting money you want to bring, and you set out. You travel between zones and between nodes in zones, FTL-style: Travel is constricted by fuel, and (almost) every node holds some sort of event or player choice; player choices can result in gains, losses, or battles, which are fought XCOM-style on a tactical isometric-3D grid. You continue traveling until you find your objective, get wiped out in battle, run out of fuel, or abort. In all cases, you’ll end up back at the mission select screen — whether or not your crew and treasures are there as well depends on how you did.

Obviously, this is the preferred outcome.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this combination of ideas on paper: It blends the persistent, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure journey of FTL with the interesting tactical combat and soldier persistence/growth/death of XCOM. And at first, it works pretty fine. You’re thrown into a large uncertain world, fuel acts as a constant stressor that forces you to keep exploring and to get into situations you’d rather avoid, and you have no idea what you’ll find every time you activate an encounter: Maybe money, maybe equipment, maybe troops, maybe more enemies.

Similarly, the tactical combat system is mostly fine. If you’ve played any XCOM derivative, you’ll feel right at home here soon enough. I’ll highlight some Depth of Extinction-specific things I particularly liked, such as: The double movement speed you get while out of combat, which keeps moving between battles fairly snappy. Follow Mode, which is pretty good at keeping non-controlled characters nearby and reloaded, while also using them to look items as appropriate. The fact that there are different combat barks for the different classes, and unique combat barks for mercenaries, which helps a lot to give your crew a particular flavor. The fact that you can manually select classes at all. Cascading cover explosions. A good degree of flexibility in character building, real flexibility, meaning you can build your characters to be fast or accurate or hard to hit or super tough and they’ll all have a place in battle. The fact that equipped accessories show up on your character paper doll models, making it easier to distinguish them quickly. Lightning guns.

*Mabel from Gravity Falls voice*

It’s just not enough. A single run through Depth of Extinction is fun enough, but it cracks fairly quickly under repeated play.

Here’s the thing: FTL and XCOM are both built on repeated persistent play, both using procedural content generation to stretch simple ideas into long games, and since Depth of Extinction looks up to these two games it seeks to imitate this. But this kind of repeated play always runs into the same problem of boredom through repetition: You do the same thing over and over again, by design, and at some point that stops being interesting. Show of hands again: How many of you have ever picked the ‘just ignore this’ options for FTL event nodes, or avoided XCOM battles not because you were short-staffed or you afford to ignore them, but just because you didn’t want to do them? You can’t see it, but I’m raising both of my hands in this scenario. Actually makes it a little difficult to type.

XCOM and FTL deal with this known problem by having a lot of stuff. They use a wide range of levels and level assets, enemy types, mission types, characters and character types, equipment, special powers, and all sorts of tricks to slow the inevitable onset of ‘hey, I’ve done all of this before already’. It’s not a foolproof solution, but it works: As long as every area feels new and every battle feels fresh and interesting, the player will be happy.

Depth of Extinction does not have this range of assets. In any capacity. The first time I had a sense of déjà vu in Depth of Extinction was set in the same type of brown-blue box warehouse as the first and second missions. In fact, it took me until the second full mission arc to learn there is more than one type of level — they had all been box warehouses. I’ve found three types of level so far: The aforementioned warehouse boxes, which still seem to take up 80% of all levels, an ‘open-air’ level variant that’s functionally made of boxes, except without walls so you see farther, and a very small ‘sub-to-sub’ level type that consists of you killing a small handful of enemies and calling it a day.

It’s the one dollar fast food equivalent of an actual level.

It’s not just that all places look more or less the same, it’s that they all look exactly the same. As far as I can tell, there’s one asset for every important object: One wall asset, one door asset, one sandbags asset, one Important Loot Container asset, one active terminal asset, and so on. Even the different subs are nothing more than recolours. While the individual art bits in the levels can be cool — I’m particularly a fan of watching fish swim outside the windows, one of the small nods to the idea that these facilities are supposed to be underwater — they are re-used so quickly and so often and so blatantly that your brain stops registering them before too long.

The way battles are structured does Depth of Extinction no favors either. All warehouse battles (again, 80% of my experience) go like this: You sidle up to a closed door and open it once everyone’s had a chance to reload and go into overwatch. If there is a pack of enemies inside, all of them will activate if you spot one of them, which brings the game into Combat Time. You fight until either you or they are all dead, then loot whatever you find; reload, heal if needed and possible, then move to the next door. The open-air levels incur some risk of activating multiple packs at once, but the warehouse rooms are basically bite-sized battle chunks.

You don’t always have to kill all enemies on the map: Most missions are either ‘do actually kill all enemies’ or ‘loot this one specific loot container’ before the exit appears, with rarer missions involving terminals and rescuing prisoners from the one prison section there are art assets for. But because of the way automatic evacuation works, you’ll want to: The game automatically ends a mission if you’re killed all enemies and gathered all loot, instead of making you walk to the exit (another thing I honestly like). And even if you’re cool with walking, there will be many many many rooms between you and your goal — especially in later missions. It quickly settles into a ‘comfortable’ rhythm: Open a door, see if enemies are around, kill if there are, loot anything you see. It’s like I’m playing Munchkin again.

And all these guys figured out I was at level 9 at exactly the same time.

I think I’ve seen three or four enemy factions so far, but in practice I’ve seen two: ‘Humans’, and ‘humans with copper-coloured skin’, i.e. androids. None of them have immediately distinctive visual characteristics — I don’t think the graphical style allows a lot of leeway, but then the game does allow you to visually customize your own characters, and that could have been used. The biggest element to any enemy is their amount of health, which acts as a general indicator for ‘this character is supposed to be this badass’. Standard enemies have five health, and you can take those out with a single shot from any tier-2 weapon. Enemies with eleven health are more dangerous, and become more common in harder missions. And so on, and so forth. Apart from that… it was always a surprise to me what tricks any enemy might or might not be able to pull.

I could keep going on about the disappointing differences between guns, or the low detailing on player character models, but the harsh point is this: Repeated games like these benefit greatly from some amount of graphical extravaganza, both to keep the player engaged and to distract from the fact they’re doing the same thing over again. You could totally boil down most of XCOM‘s levels to similar unengaging flat maps, and god knows I still half-remember the layout of several FTL ships to this day. But those games are pretty and cool and easy to parse, so I’ll allow it. Depth of Extinction just… isn’t. It’s not particularly ugly, but it’s not pretty enough to draw my attention away from the fact that I just raided my third seemingly-identical pirate base in a row and beyond.

Motion blur doesn’t count.

Depth of Extinction does make a good-faith effort at adding more… depth, sorry, this isn’t a pun, it’s literally the best term for the job. Anyway, it tries to add more depth to an otherwise shallow experience by incorporating persistent unlockable elements. While most side missions are just about money, loot, and experience, some missions will allow you to add crew to your roster, find new types of sub to hire, or even unlock one of the fancy hidden classes you can’t access yet at the start. Again, this is essentially a good idea that draws on the game’s strong point: There’s undeniable appeal in taking on a difficult mission so you can unlock a better ride, or train to become a swashbuckler.

And again, Depth of Extinction can’t quite carry this idea, because the way it’s set up is often anathema to the things it seems to want to achieve. In this case, the problem is that mission arcs are so long. Each mission takes you through at least two zones, and each zone has at least half a dozen nodes you’ll need to click through. And that would be fine if I was engaged in play, or if the zones were graphically interesting, or the nodes interesting to explore, or if what I was doing was literally the end of the game (as every FTL run is). But I’m not, and they’re not, and they’re not, and it’s not.

Most of your time on the map screen will be spent looking at this.

Truth of the thing is, from the second run onward, most elements in Depth of Extinction just become boring. Every zone is an identical-seeming collection of uninteresting, meaningless nodes. Each node is either a merchant, a slave merchant, some free resources, or an opportunity to fight — sometimes one that can be avoided, sometimes mandatory. Each battle is by and large the same, and the rewards stop being exciting after you find the gear you want for your soldiers — the rest so much sales fodder to drag around to the next merchant ship. Except you don’t really care about money, which often only really serves to buy a nice sub at the start and maybe hire that same mercenary that’s been running with your crew since forever.

If the prospect of looting a LASER RIFLE is making me yawn, you’ve messed up somewhere.

So you start cutting corners. Every zone, you plot out the fastest path from start to finish. Every encounter, you see if there’s a quick way out, and you make the calculus: Do I have enough fuel to afford to avoid this, or should I dip in to get more? More often than not, the answer’s the former, as Depth of Extinction is weirdly generous with fuel at almost all times. And if you do get sucked into a mission, and you can’t game it to be a sub-to-sub battle, you just… grin and bear it. Work out the optimal path that gets you through the mission with as little combat as possible.

And when I describe my last few hours of play like that, at some point you have to wake up and wonder: Why am I still playing this game to begin with?

Final thoughts

I really would have liked Depth of Extinction to be stronger than it is. The setting it vaguely hints at seems interesting, the concept of taking a persistent team out on a life-or-death mission — where failure is not a game-end state, but it sets back your overall situation — could be strong with some refining, and I do really like the breadth of character customization.

(Fun fact about that last one, actually: In the version of the game I’m playing, it’s possible to make a literally unstoppable killer. The Assault class can get an upgrade that reads ‘firing your gun at an enemy within 2 spaces no longer costs an action’. Normally, the power of that would be limited by the fact that reloading takes an action and the Assault’s preferred shotgun only takes 2 shells… but every class can access an upgrade that reads ‘reloading your weapon no longer takes an action’. And since there are no limits on the amount of times either ability can trigger in a given turn…)

Pictured: A very powerful Android boss. Under normal circumstances, this enemy could do some serious damage to me, forcing effective use of cover and limited resources and maybe knocking out or even killing a character of mine.

Pictured: Zero effective game time has passed. Onslaught has emptied her shotgun clip into the android at least twice. She just reloaded, for free, and will continue shooting, for free. The android has zero opportunity to do anything about this.

Sadly, Depth of Extinction just isn’t that game. Not right now, at least, and within its own framework, I don’t see if it could ever be that. The writing is shallow, the graphics are vague and make it difficult to make out character differentiation, the asset pool is small, and the core systems of ‘travel through a large world’ and ‘have extended tactical battles’ combine into a slow, sluggish experience that doesn’t have the pizzazz to keep you interested. Maybe significant updates over time could bring Depth of Extinction to a place where I’d feel comfortable recommending you check it out… but as of right now, especially at a twenty dollar price tag, it’s niche appeal at best.

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Jarenth is going to pretend he repeated the same argument three times or so as a way of visualizing Depth of Extinction‘s problem with repetition. To futilely argue your case that he’s just lazy, follow 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?

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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