A FEATHER OF SUCCESS IN THE HALCYON CAP
I am trying to think of the last time I played a game with such abandon that I felt the urge to start playing from the moment I woke up in the morning, and to stop only when I found myself drifting off to sleep. Enter Halcyon 6: Lightspeed Edition, the sci-fi RPG game by Massive Damage that has, surely, been around in some iteration long enough for you to have heard about it -- even though you most likely haven’t. It’s OK if you haven’t, but this game has been in development in one way or another since launching a successful Kickstarter in 2015. This title is a passion project, and the added benefit is that the developers seem to be active in their launching and continual improvement of the game [EN: Also, always something to consider when thinking about a CMS].
You begin in the outer reaches of space, overseeing a piece of forgotten alien tech in the form of a starbase that can create ships from dark matter. You operate in this ship as your sole existence in the universe after the alien invasion destroyed your fleet, and presumably your planet; that the majority of the rooms are in ruins and that you don’t actually have any concept yet as to the ship’s capabilities be damned. This ‘auspicious’ start is hampered with the significant threat of pirates needing eradication, nosy neighbors popping in to say hello and jab at how weak you are, and (of course) the alien invasion that seems to be closing in on you daily.
CHRUUL / PIRATES / [INSERT RACE NAME HERE]
Halcyon makes you feel like you have the keys to the universe, and while at first that feels like a McLaren on an open road, eventually it becomes clear that you are probably driving a Prius. You know, cool for the sake of what they accomplish, but ultimately not a car you are dreaming about driving someday. Similar to the universe of 4X space games, the game progression is based upon exploration that provides you with the ability to unlock stronger tech, level up your characters, and ultimately be able to defend yourself. The issue is that, in most of those other space sims, there are countless universes to explore and planets to harvest for resources; in Halcyon you can see the entire scope of the game within the single galaxy. The majority of large-scale strategy titles are hampered by repetitiveness, but the argument could be made that at least it takes a while to figure out that you are doing the same things over and over for survival: Halcyon 6: Lightspeed Edition begins to get tedious after the first four-to-five hours. Essentially, you are performing three functions in the game on a consistent basis: gathering resources, using those resources to upgrade your starbase or fleet, and attacking and defending against Chruul / Pirates / [insert race name here].
Where there should be excitement about having the ability to captain the strongest starship in the galaxy, there is instead apathy: as a base, that starship is actually …boring. Building your base looks, and is executed in, much the same way as the approach that many other titles take towards base-building these days: one room at a time. The system is identical to the way that it was presented in XCOM, but it doesn’t feel as polished, and although I wouldn’t put it on the same level as a lesser game, but for some reason, it kept reminding me of that free game I downloaded when I was waiting for Fallout 4 to come out.
While the base-building mechanic lags, the battle system is a combat system par excellence. It isn’t flashy, nor overly innovative, but it’s perfectly suited for this game in its execution. The pixel-graphic attacks and death animations are enjoyable and gory, and there is just enough polish on the character models to actually root for them in the midst of a battle. Couple the visual element with the tactical nature of the battles, and you have a winning formula. The way that your different ships can chain together different attacks that exploit different status effects is tremendously satisfying. I wish that you had the ability to build much larger fleets than the three-ship cap, and the same goes for those ship-types to be limited in variation, but that doesn’t stop the battles from being a feather of success in the Halcyon cap.
Bargaining with space pirates — what could go wrong?
Hidden somewhere between the base building and the (great) battle system is the character development element of the game. As your officers and cadets battle or complete tasks on the ship, they level up. These levels unlock special skills for officers that make them more powerful in space or ground battles, and the crew gets elite status that results in attribute points being appended to the ship in which they reside. There are some pretty well thought-out backstories to the officers you can select, which add a nice amount of depth, and each of them has their own set of highlevel powers that can be unlocked. This is a cool system, though in my perusal of Halcyon’s Kickstarter I noticed that there used to be the ability to play as different races of officer. My only hope is that I haven’t made it far enough in the game to have experienced this, as I think that would add the right amount of flavor to this mechanic and push it over the edge into the ‘exceedingly gratifying’ category.
As for story, the idea that the opportunity for greatness via saving the entirety of your race is one that has long been a foundation for storytellers throughout history. The unknown races that slowly make themselves known throughout the game, and the mysterious alien race that kills planets without uttering any intelligible words are fun to explore. At one point I found myself bargaining with a space pirate who had just lost his first of two fleets to a battle with me. His proposition was that I let him live and kill his pirate competition, at which point he would pay me. With the looming threat of potential eradication from the aforementioned alien race, I took him up on the offer, and I have high hopes he will come swooping in to save the day when I am at my greatest need. What is important here is that I hope that happens: it probably won’t, and that’s OK.
There is just enough going right in this game for me to want to come back time and time again to replay it, I am confident in that. At the same time though, I am not sure that anything is being done here that hasn’t been done somewhere else a little bit better. It isn’t that Halcyon 6: Lightspeed Edition isn’t a great game -- it is -- there just isn’t enough that is unique about it to propel it to the top of anyone's list in this genre. My hope is that the developers continue their momentum and keep adding gameplay elements, because if they add more variation in crew selection with races, give you the ability to actually build a ship with components you gather, and expand the world in which the game persists, this game would be a triumph.
Halcyon 6: Lightspeed Edition is very much (if not only) a sum of its parts; luckily, Massive Development made sure that each of those parts was well executed. Well enough for me, at least, to be rubbing my bleary eyes at 2:00 AM as I try to convince myself that this supply run will be the last of the evening.