Out There's away team: A Galactic Keep Dice Battles hands-on preview

By Owen Faraday 29 Jul 2014 0
It bleeds. You can kill it. It bleeds. You can kill it.

Something moves in the darkness at the end of this tunnel. It is too far away to see what, exactly. But you know that it is not Balkyn Gray, because Balkyn Gray's corpse is what you have been sent here to retrieve.

More likely it's the thing that killed him, a tonelit fox. The poison rounds from Balkyn's reouge rifle will have weakened the monster, but it sure won't be any friendlier, and the knife-sharp bone crests protruding from its arms won't be any softer.

Check your inventory. Your bio-stun rod, good for getting the drop on organics. An ancient but still-effective sabre you found in a nest of feral war shadows. Some local plants with observed medicinal properties -- less than useful for you, a robot, but some of your comrades may find them valuable later. Balkyn's Huntmaster Handbook, the constant companion of every pakall hunter. The Coalition-issued temporal relay that you'll affix to Balkyn's body if and when you find it, which will pull him out of this reality and reassemble him... somewhere else.

There's a passage off to the right, one that looks like it was shored up for use by sentients. Maybe there's something in there you could scrounge to help you fight the tonelit. Of course, if there's no other way out of that passage and the tonelit decides to wander over this way, you'll be trapped in there with it. And maybe someone else will have to come down here to slap a relay onto your unmoving shell.

Starting a new game gives you a chance to flip through the episode's sourcebook, which includes maps and story background. Starting a new game gives you a chance to flip through the episode's sourcebook, which includes maps and story background.

Galactic Keep: Dice Battles is so original and so inventive, that any attempt to compare it to other media comes up short. Like Warhammer Quest, it is a turn-based dungeon crawler, but the sci-fi setting is weirder (exuberantly so) and more full of variety. Like Out There, the game pays humble homage to the comics and pen-and-paper RPGs of the 1980s, but it's more ostentatious and violent than Mi-Clos' melancholy exploration game. Gilded Skull designer Rob Lemon's art and writing would slot him seamlessly into a gig at Image Comics working on Prophet.

What Gilded Skull have made is a lovingly detailed tribute to tabletop role-playing, and GKDB goes to great lengths to emulate the experience of playing with pen-and-paper. When you start a new game of Galactic Keep, you're invited to flip through a sourcebook that might have been transported here from a hobby store in 1987. The cards for characters you haven't played with yet are kept behind virtual plastic protectors, waiting for you to write your own stats onto them. Moving and fighting are all turn-based and adjudicated by rolling virtual 10-sided dice. There are half a dozen different characters, but if one dies while exploring the abandoned mining station you've been sent to investigate, you have to retrieve her corpse before you can play as her again.

You will explore just to see what Lemon's come up with for his next monster. You will explore just to see what Lemon's come up with for his next monster.

But this is very much a video game, taking advantage of the digital medium to make something that's more than just a replica. Characters level up and weapons can be modded without having to find a decent pencil eraser. AI monsters wander the map and chase you when you come into view. Ambient sounds sell the feeling of being on an alien world.

The greatest achievement of Galactic Keep is the fiction, the universe. Any nerd with coherent memories of the mid-1980s will instantly feel at home, but this world is completely one-of-a-kind. Lemon's coalition of alien bounty hunters is filled with fascinating original characters and his creature designs borrow little from familiar sources. There's no Alien or Predator knock-offs, no sci-fi Indiana Jones and no light-sabres. The game is so completely fresh that I found myself playing it just see  a new item or the next beast.

galactic keep map Humans are a minority in this corner of the galaxy.

The game is still in alpha (Lemon hopes to release it this year) but it's a remarkable thing already. I worry a bit about the combat, which is almost completely dice-driven and not positional, but it offers a similar amount of depth as Warhammer Quest did, and that's a game I sunk many, many hours into.

I also fret about how much obvious effort has gone into the content in this first module of the game. Lemon and his partners at Gilded Skull have been working on Galactic Keep for years -- and it shows in the game's extraordinary level of hand-crafted detail. But that also suggests that more GK expansions will take a similar amount of time. But if that's a problem, it's a good one, because it only demonstrates how fond I am of what's here.

I will not make any substantial bet that Galactic Keep sees a release in 2014. I've now seen first-hand what an obsessive perfectionist Rob Lemon is (this pre-release alpha is already more polished than 95% of the version 1.0 games I play) and I wouldn't be surprised if he woke up in September with a manic certainty that the game needs another year of work. It doesn't, though.

Whenever Galactic Keep gets here, it will have been worth the wait.
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