Steam is a treasure trove of games that includes both the latest releases and classic titles that are decades old. With so many games available, it’s easy for some titles to be forgotten. That’s why I enjoy discovering hidden gems or revisiting older classics, like Deep Sky Derelicts. Developed by Snowhound Games and published by Fulqrum, this retro-futuristic spaceship-scavenging RPG is set in a grimy, rundown world.
Deep Sky Derelicts, sets itself apart with its art direction immediately when played. Combat is presented as comic panels overlaying the main game scene and details power fists, shotgun blasts, and grenades, ripping apart enemies on impact. These panels expertly utilize dynamic poses when drawing the characters in action, and the way the panels cut into the frame when an attack card is played helps emphasize damage to maximize the game feel. The color pallet can be described as a dull grey mixed with a muddy rust. Combined with these muted colors are characters which are covered in dark shading like a comic or manga.
This all helps emphasize the gritty skirmishes that take place aboard the dangerous derelicts that decorate the night sky of a faraway station. Not every frame is perfect, though. While some enemies break apart grotesquely like rotten bloated corpses, many human death poses are just their normal damage art but whith bits of cloth and metal flying off, which is pretty tame for what the rest of the art could be when designing death panels, which I know the game should be capable of pulling off.
The art direction is paired perfectly with the game’s overall tone. Its thick outlines, muted shading, and grimy disposition sell a world that is in decay and deeply filled with rot. Deep Sky Derelicts is set in a futuristic autocracy that grants the luxuries of wealth, excess, and safety of the state only to its citizenry. All the while, masses of poor souls toil endlessly for scraps and are treated like indentured servants trying to eke out a pitiful existence. They are often crushed beneath an uncaring bureaucracy, as seen in the game side missions.
So much so that the main premise that spurs the protagonist to risk life and limb scavenging the derelicts that drift aimlessly amongst the stars is for a chance at being granted citizenship for you and your whole party. If and only if you can find the mothership.
The derelicts themselves are large ships set adrift in space, left by some long-forgotten power or alien force. But these long abandoned wrecks are not empty. They are filled with ever-present dangers. Purger bots still roam the halls, “cleaning” any organic life they find. Alien life crawls and writhes down the halls, looking for their next meal. Bandits and rival scavenging teams have taken up refuge, along with others who have come to the derelicts as a way of escape from either the law or other responsibilities.
Maintaining your crew
Being in control of a scavenger crew is a hard life. The Triumvirate has thankfully granted free travel back and forth to the derelicts while you try to locate the mothership. However, every other cost is on you. At the main station, you’ll be free to sell goods looted from the derelicts and also buy new weapons and augments from the store. You can also buy health kits and spare batteries to help fuel your life support while onboard the derelicts; you can also buy permanent upgrades, such as a longer scan array and greater energy reserves for life support for your whole crew.
Depending on how well you play, some of your most expensive visits will be to the medical facilities, where you can heal and revive fallen party members. One of the most important buildings is the mercenary hub. Here, you’ll be able to take on bounties and make most of the money you’ll see. Each new derelict opens missions that can range from bounties to finding lost targets. The mercenary hub also acts as a way to retire heroes and hire new ones. But I have a tough time seeing this as a useful feature since you can only have three mercenaries at a time.
Sure, there are moments where I’m exploring and I’m thinking, “Man I wish I had a tank class right now”, but I’m not going to dismiss one of the current party members just to get a new class, pick all of their perks, get them all set up with their equipment, then pick all the upgrades so their cards match the rest of my parties synergy. When I could also just continue to try and brute force my current party with new cards or perks. And the fact that only 5% of Steam users have the achievements of hiring and firing a party member helps back my case.
Surviving the derelicts
The beginning of each derelict run heralds the player with choosing which derelict they’d like to explore and starting in a landing zone. From here, players will be tasked with utilizing a map and scanner to explore the derelict. The map is set up in a grid formation over the entire structure. You can only see points where you’ve already explored, and you must either walk into spaces or scan your surroundings. But walking about the derelicts is a danger in itself.
There are traps that can cause explosions and hull breaches, damaging your crew. And, of course, combat encounters can be spotted and avoided, along with rival crews. But be careful spending too long on the derelicts. If you run out of energy in your reserves, your crew will lose health every step on the derelicts as their life support is unpowered, and if you can’t escape fast enough, you’ll find your time with Deep Sky Derelicts cut short.
Deep Sky Derelicts aims to create a tense situation where you’re deciding between finishing exploration or retreating back to the landing zone. Sometimes, you are low on health and are considering if it would be safer to push forward to find another landing zone or if you should backtrack and hope you can get back without being spotted or stepping into another trap.
Personally, I’m wary of whether the game truly succeeds in creating those moments of true fear aboard the derelict. Sure, there were times when there was a pirate corsair I was avoiding at all costs because I was under-leveled or worried that if I got caught in one more encounter, I wouldn’t have the energy to make it back to the station alive. But those moments were far from the real moments of collecting a little scrap. Running back to refill my energy. Run back to the derelict to get some scrap. Repeat. There’s just not a good incentive to stay on the ship taking those big risks unless you just don’t want to backtrack through the ship multiple times.
Card plays drive combat. Each character has stats that boost any card’s output that matches that type, depending on their class. So playing a medical card with my medic boosts the total healing the card outputs their higher medical stat. Weapons and tools determine what cards can be played, and each one has two slots for augments, which can add more cards or modifiers, such as +6, to evade or boost a character’s stats like mental or medical.
Characters can also level up and gain new cards. There are two paths, left and right, with the right side being determined by a character’s chosen subclass. So when my leader leveled up enough to unlock the subclass path, I picked a psycker. Some perks that I can choose include the ability to recycle mental cards when played or even gain cards like Mind Scrambler, which confuses enemies and prevents them from using their own abilities.
All leaders can pick the left side, which includes perks like being able to taunt enemies into attacking them if a party member’s health falls too low or increase buy/sell rewards from shops as well as increased contract payouts.
Combat revolves around dealing with an enemy’s shields and health. Most attacks tear down shields before lowering their health, and the enemy is defeated when their health is depleted. Combat is ordered by individuals and is determined by who has the highest initiative.
Each character is given four cards at the start of combat. Characters can either play one card unless otherwise specified per turn, pass, or boost. Passing means playing no cards so that the next turn, that character can play two in one turn. Players can also choose to use a boost on a character once per combat encounter. Boosting grants that character 20% of their max shields, draws two cards to pick from, and consumes energy. Every round, characters are given new cards, and energy is lowered.
Leveling up a full crew can be a real hassle, a fully explored derelict won’t even increase one level later in the game, so character progression comes in the form of looking for supplies to sell, contracts and missions to complete for credits. And then using those credits to buy upgrades for your party and individual squad mates. Or just looting upgraded augments and weapons from fights and scrap piles in derelicts. It’s a tight and efficient tertiary loop. On top of the normal combat loop.
The only problem is things don’t always play out when it comes to pacing. There’s not a lot of ways to burn your deck of bad cards, unless you have cards to do so. Meaning some fights can stall after you get only shields when you’re looking for a damage card. Or you may come across an enemy that you don’t have a good strategy to deal with. One example is I fought against a giant worm with triple the amount of health of the other enemies I had been fighting and could only win that fight by later finding an augment that gives me a card that dealt 75% of a biological unit’s max health after 3 turns.
Often this means there are moments where you’ll be cruising in one derelict, but get demolished going into the next one that’s only one level higher. This structure is also repeated all the way into the very last derelict, with little in variety, so you better be prepared to enjoy this formula. Plus while early game can be worrisome about managing to keep money tight with early game costs and medical supplies, It gets easier, even if the fights don’t, negating the sense of difficulty in maintaining the costs of a scavenger crew. Overall, there’s many little pacing issues that build up and really make the overall experience fall flat.
The mission structure for Deep Sky Derelicts is pretty simple. Find the objective, kill or return secondary objective to main objective. The main quests involve finding the main terminal aboard a derelict and pulling its data. Side missions follow the same structure but vary in tone and theme. One mission was to fight a pest that kept eating someone’s crop that they were growing on a derelict. Another was someone who didn’t want to do their paperwork anymore so the government sent killer robots to force them into signing it.
Completing the missions is usually a straightforward affair as well. The scanner reveals where the quest location is. If you’re close enough, it gets marked on the map and even marks areas worth looting so you can find quest items more easily. This means there is no messy backtracking to try and find a McGuffin or the last NPC to finish a quest that may be hidden. And quests usually have multiple ways to complete them.
Take the crop quest example. I easily could’ve just fought the creature eating his produce, but the creature was also non aggressive and hungry, So instead I explored more of the derelict to find an ever growing moss, that would satisfy the huge ass worm that I was supposed to kill. The farmer rewarded me with a bonus for both ridding the worm and finding a moss he could grow for extra profit.
The writing is the real issue here. It’s not necessarily bad, but it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. For instance, there’s a quest involving a girl who refuses to do her paperwork. The objective is to bring her back to complete it, and the player can choose to either kill her after she refuses to comply or help her fight off the bounty hunter bots that are after her. The theme of an overwhelming amount of paperwork is a great starting point for exploring a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that dehumanizes people.
A theme that’s been explored in the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” which speaks to the utter meaningless of modern labor.. Or how “Sunless Sea” sees the dead letter office as almost Lovecraftian horror, acting as a metaphor for the endless work that postal workers can face. Instead, the quest giver just mentions how it’s too much paperwork and that it feels endless. I never really find the dialogue or writing reaching out to what makes its greater themes truly haunting, and I feel like it lacks the details or writing prose that lets me latch on to writings of similar themes.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not bad writing by any means, and some quests and missions either got a chuckle out of me or left me disturbed at their implications. Such as one quest where I helped someone meld their mind to the subservience of an AI instead of letting him die in a derelict because it was clear he was too mentally unwell to continue in society. I was just hoping it would further go with those themes in its missions and dialogue. Some players may also find the ending abrupt, and fairly basic for what it is.
Deep Sky Derelicts Is a fantastic time and was worth every hour of play for this review, despite some of its wider flaws. If you’re looking for something that gives off an air of grime, looking for a deep, customizable RPG, or just want to be like a rat in a ship scavenging to survive, Deep Sky Derelicts is a strong recommendation.