Sunday, 06 March 2016 00:00

Battlestation: Harbinger Review

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I have long been a fan of the roguelike genre, though I can’t claim to be a gifted player.

I was intrigued by Battlestation: Harbinger from the moment I saw it, and it didn’t disappoint me. The threadbare story thrust me into the position of a young captain charged with thwarting the enemies of humanity occupying a procedurally generated star system. My commander granted me a miniscule stipend to outfit my ship with whatever I could find. Obviously, I died in abject failure. I experienced the brutal difficulty I have come to expect from roguelikes; even on the easiest difficulty I found ships that could crush me routinely. I discovered that often the best strategy was fleeing to hide behind friendly human space stations that were always willing to provide repairs and covering fire for free. Though I lost points for running back to mother whenever the bullies were mean to me, I don’t regret it; after all, discretion is the better part of valor. This mantra was especially true during my earliest runs with the Nightingale, a fine vessel made primarily of tissue paper and rubber bands, which the enemy happily pursued to the edge of the galaxy.

The Nightingale was perfectly serviceable, but it suffered from the inability to upgrade its hull. Force fields can be improved in several ways, but the ship can’t be reinforced beyond its starting point through any means I could find. The small health pool provided by my hull doomed any battle in which I was outnumbered to failure, as shields are bypassed by missiles quite quickly. Even when successful, I underwent repairs after every battle.

Each ship I unlocked had a slightly different layout with different equipment slots which determined the number of main guns, point defense weapons, and drones. By default, the ship was totally unarmed, which I tried to remedy as quickly as I could. My ship could build human designed weapons out of nothing but the in-universe currency, but the starting cash was insufficient to fully equip myself, even with the most mediocre gear. Additionally, Human weaponry was usually unimpressive compared to the alien tech that I found floating in space or bought off of space stations. Instead of kitting myself out I tended to buy one good gun and trust in the winds of fate to equip me. Praise RNGesus.

As my journey continued I received a large number of missions from various space stations and ships.

I was paid mostly with the universal currency of the galaxy: random space debris. Other rewards included the temporary service of a mercenary ship and pieces of above average loot. The mercenaries were the most valuable prize, as they were usually about as powerful as my flagship and free of their normal exorbitant fee. Even better, they could explode in a terrible blast of fire and death without any negative consequences, except the loss of hundreds of digital human lives. The mercenaries were also better than a freshly built ship as they came fully armed and didn’t fill one of my three ship slots. Conversely, the ships I could build to fill those slots came completely unarmed despite their hefty price tag. I tended to use my scrap to beef up my main ship, only building escorts when I had nothing else to spend space debris on.

The start of the game was nearly identical whatever ship I flew. The ships lacked an identity as my starting options for each were mostly identical. Sadly, even the trusty Nightingale is only memorable for its comparatively flimsy design and its snazzy name. Carrier ships had a different feel from any other as they were able to flood the area with disposable minions. The rest of the classifications melted into an amorphous mass of non-carriers.

I would have appreciated a default load-out for each ship instead of the small pile of money.Customization is a laudable goal, but the different ships did not feel unique; I typically chose based off of a combination of hull integrity and the presence of the word carrier. Rather than the empty space hulk I was provided, I would have liked a few signature starting weapons. For example, if the Nightingale came with an energy weapon and a few drones that could shoot at the enemy once the shields were down, it would have provided a default strategy to build off of. As it stands, I never tried most of the ships because nothing changed based on the craft I started with. I was all but required to spend my starting money on a big gun; trying to gather funds with nothing but point defense lasers was a bad plan, and relying entirely on fighters was quite a gamble.

I can’t say Battlestation Harbinger was my favorite roguelike, partly because I dislike random encounters and missions that have no context or story.

Bug Byte teased me with a universe featuring several antagonistic aliens possessing unique motives and goals. I was disappointed in the lack of follow up to these story crumbs presented at the beginning of each mission. In one major mission, humans were used by an alien group as living batteries. I saved them by blowing up the ships they were plugged into, with no tears shed. As a player, I justified their deaths by calling them mercy kills.

Missions from space stations had even less explanation. They amounted to: “Go there, do something.” I had so many questions. Why was their cargo in a black hole? Why does this colony ship need to be escorted to an empty stretch of hostile space? Why did the space station want me to go look at that nebula so much that they offered me hundreds of space debris for going there? My suspension of disbelief was destroyed repeatedly and often. It would be a large amount of work to have a set of randomized quest dialog, but it would have really helped to make the experience more immersive for me.


The Verdict

Battlestation Harbinger is an enjoyable experience, and became more fun as I kept going and experimented more. Unfortunately, I regularly came across irritating aspects, such as unintuitive controls for attack drones, a stripped down plot, and homogenous ship design. It also has a high skill cap. Despite my best efforts, I never overcame the second star system (also known as level 2). I have improved slowly as I learned the intricacies of the system. I can’t call it my favorite game, but I am glad to have bought it and happily gave it to a friend of mine as a birthday gift. It’s a solid 70: worth the money as a quality time waster but not an engrossing experience.

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