Strategy, resource management, and RPG combat in one charmingly nostalgic package
There’s no lack of strategy games that take players to the depths of space to command an intrepid crew of officers, cadets, or civilizations and maintain your place among the stars. It’s a popular genre to explore. So what sets Massive Damage’s interstellar indie Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander apart from the rest of the pack? For one thing, it brings a pixelated feel of yesteryear’s games to feel in a rather awesome fashion that feels enjoyably nostalgic while remaining excellently expressive, and for two, it dodges one of the cardinal sins that many other games of its kind fall into all too easily: It stays away from stagnancy and keeps things genuinely interesting most of the time.
Massive Damage brings it heavy from the get-go with the story in this game. Humanity has discovered interstellar travel that allows it to move across the stars discovering ancient artifacts in space from a previous civilization. One such artifact is the massive Halcyon, which humanity has converted into a livable human colony, although much of it remains shrouded in mystery. As humanity seeks the resources to crack the Halcyon’s secrets, a strange race makes contact. This turns out to be a trap as a ruthlessly aggressive race of giant biomechanical ships known as the Chruul quickly wipe out the chief leadership of your civilization in one fell swoop. This leaves an officer you choose at the beginning of the game as commanding officer, in charge of scouring resources to both defend your civilization aboard the Halcyon, as well as continuing to research and discover its secrets.
As you unlock segments and technology for the Halcyon, new opportunities will open for you.
Halcyon 6 can’t be pinned down as a simple strategy game because it contains elements of a ton of different games. Specifically, it’s a strategy game with RPG elements and combat, set alongside a resource management and base simulator. The crazy part is that where most games would fall apart trying to put so much together in a cohesive experience, Halcyon 6 manages to play out in a surprisingly competent manner for the most part. The core goal is unlocking segments of the Halcyon station, but getting there relies upon resources. That requires defending colonies and taking missions from or fighting other species, which leads to combat, requiring you to constantly upgrade your combative and explorative capabilities with specialized rooms you’ll build in reclaimed rooms of the Halcyon. It’s an amazing circle of progression and there are few games we’ve ever seen accomplish that feat so smoothly.
You begin the game by picking one of three officers to be your avatar of command and they fall into three categories: Science, Engineering, and Tactical. Each officer plays a specific role in both station management and combat. Aboard the Halcyon, several segments of the station will be unlocked offering rudimentary functions such as a ship construction bay, science bay, officer training quarters, and power plant. Most of the progression aboard the Halcyon requires a project that takes up time, resources, and an assigned officer to either unlock barred segments or upgrade the station.
The universe is a busy place, but it's also pretty manageable.
The officer you assign will determine the speed at which a project is completed. Engineering officers excel at projects that require construction or mechanical upgrades. Tactical officers excel at combat situations and training of personnel. Finally, Science officers excel at projects that prioritize research without construction or training. It must be noted that each project will take the officer out of availability for other things like space exploration, so training up multiple officers in each category and determining which one will take what task is a crucial decision at many points of the game. As you continue to progress, you’ll be able to unlock a technology tree as well, which will open the way to new research, construction and opportunities.
Outside the station, there are human colonies scattered around space that each house one of several resources: fuel, dark matter, materials, and crew. Eventually, Chruul portals open up and begin threatening these colonies. Sending a ship to neutralize Chruul threats will allow your crews to set up supply lines and collect resources from the colonies for the Halcyon. If you don’t feel like managing all of them, you can also evacuate them, taking a surplus of crew and whatever resource they have back to your base at the cost of losing a constant supply source. This leads up to you needing to maintain several fleets of ships: at least one to do battle with foes and one to taxi around to each colony collecting resources and bringing them back to the Halcyon.
You'll be thrilled to know that corporate greed is a language that translates well between galactic species.
In addition to Chruul, numerous species exist throughout the galaxy and every one of them features their own narrative interaction with humanity and the Halcyon. Interaction with each race is reliant upon them making contact with you, but once it begins, you’ll go through dialogue driven choices that will allow you to ally with or antagonize them, leading them to give you missions or sometimes trying to destroy the Halcyon in return. The races are mostly parodies of any given space sim, such as the robotic AI Collective and the warlike Xlar-Yanthu, but they play their parts and are mostly amusing to interact with. The only unfortunate side to all this is that you can only play as humans. We would have loved to work out conflicts in the galaxy from the perspective of any one of these other races as well.
Combat works out in a turn-based fashion similar to old RPGs. You can have up to three ships, determined by the officers you assign to a fleet. Science vessels are fast and wield various healing and buffing abilities for the whole fleet. Engineer vessels host the best armor and offer a ton of enemy debuffing abilities. Finally, Tactical vessels have the strongest weapons and hit the hardest. There’s ground combat as well and much of the same rules apply. At most it’s always three on three skirmishes.
Status exploits and afflictions are key to victory on ground and in space.
More important are the uses of status effects in this game. There are numerous afflictions your abilities can lay upon enemies, but some abilities also do critical damage at the cost of removing these afflictions. For instance, Crippling Shot will afflict a ship with Engines Down and slow its turns. Hitting it with Flak Barrage afterward will exploit Engines Down, remove the affect, and do bonus damage. Arming your squads with a large variety of affliction-causing attacks and those that will exploit them is paramount to orchestrating strategic victories in short order, although random chance still comes into play and you’re just as vulnerable to exploits as the enemy, making combat nice and challenging.
Halcyon 6 does a ton of things right, but it’s not without its drawbacks. It’s got a lot of random chance and rogue-like elements from the occurrence of certain events to the way the inside of the Halcyon is generated in each new game. Just like in any game of this nature, you can really get screwed over by random chance whether it’s harmlessly early in the game or heartbreakingly far down the line. If you lose an important officer or ship, you may as well load a save or start over because both are absolutely paramount to survival and only get harder to replace the later you go. Even worse, if it’s not random chance that does you in, it can be bugs. Sometimes enemies will siege the Halcyon directly and if they destroy it, it’s game over. We bring this up because one bug saw us losing the Halcyon immediately at the start of a siege and unable to change the outcome no matter how we approached it. With bugs like that, you’ll be relying on liberal save files to get you through some ugly moments.
HALCYON 6: STARBASE COMMANDER VERDICT
Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander brings a lot of different concepts into one amalgam of a game and it’s shockingly good at doing a lot of things well. Construction and research relies on resource management, which inevitably leads to combat aided by construction and research. It builds upon itself thoughtfully, does well in avoiding making any of these aspects annoying or boring, and keeps the tension going the whole way through. The pixelated look is clean and every ship, race, and officer brings nostalgic charm to the game’s overall visuals. There’s a few speed bumps in random chance wrecking your journey or an untimely bug making things difficult, but these problems are pretty easily overcome by everything else the game has to offer. We just wish we didn’t have to play as boring old humans every time.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Upgrading to the next tier of combat space ships was an easy highlight. It’s where you cross the boundary from struggling and nervous to overpowered and feeling like you can bring the entire galaxy down in blazing glory if you wanted to for a little while.
Exciting pacing that connects all experiences in meaningful ways