Review: Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander02 Nov 2017 14
Review: Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander
Released 19 Sep 2017
Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander has travelled far and at long last reached its own final frontier: the mobile platform. Its single-player take on deep-space strategy blends base-building and jRPG elements alongside solid sci-fi storytelling. The game tasks you with command of the titular space station, Halcyon 6, itself a bastion of order against questing pirates and space oddities alike.
In less florid terms, this amounts to managing the logistics behind ships, personnel, resources and the station itself while wading through occasional battles. The space backdrop of the game is clearly cribbing from the classics, just as its systems and choices hearken back to a mishmash of other games, yet the emergent whole is uniquely compelling and fun.
The battles themselves are where the jRPG influence shines through. Party composition along with officer and ship class selection are paramount, with a special eye towards synergies. The game splits both its officers and spaceships into three classes: Science, Engineering and Tactical. Much of the game's turn-based battle system revolve around debuffs, which in turn combine with certain attacks for an exploitation bonus. Aside from the variety of enemies, the encounters themselves might be ground- or space- based, arising in response to exploring new territory or passively defending against raids. Even the nature of the conflict shifts, with diplomatic solutions pre-empting some dire situations entirely. In this respect the game could be called a 4x-lite, with its balance between productivity, research, factions, and combat with a dash of diplomacy thrown in for good measure.
For all its diversity, though, the game is at heart still about combat. Take into account the superabundance of combinations and abilities, along with the varying natural armors and resistances of enemies and you have an evergreen challenge. In short, the balance between capitalizing on inter-party strengths or enemy weaknesses keeps battles fresh. Occasionally the preparation and planning stages of fleet- and officer- management run the risk of overshadowing the battles themselves, but this remains a minor criticism. In other words, the strategic, macroscopic view of the game's combat challenges will shape things more than any individual turnabouts and routs, although the latter will live on as cheering or shameful memories.
Perhaps the game's biggest draw is its sense of discovery sprinkled throughout different elements. On the practical side of things, there are always shiny new toys to consider, a new rung on the ladder to climb. Not merely bigger numbers but new branches of strategies open up with increased playtime, and the game has expertly apportioned these powers over the span of its campaign. From the start, though, eager tacticians will be happy to see a surfeit of information presented upfront, to the point of minutely planning out each officer, ship, tech and excavation well in advance. Paired alongside this relatively open and informed approach towards theorycrafting, the game surprises with its events and regional exploration. Interactions and alliances with alien races require some improvisation and intuition, if not outright research. The tech tree hints suggestively at promising avenues of research while allowing for some flexibility and naivete in build paths. Officer traits and other factors trigger events which can blow up in your face or end in unexpected boons. Halcyon 6 is a genuine strategy gem with genuine surprises, too, as oxymoronic as that may seem.
Yet another subtle mark in the game's favor is its polish and attention to detail. The game's retro stylings belie some flashier animations and effects which add a good amount of pizzazz. The soundtrack is equally up to snuff. Some other quality of life improvements predate the mobile version, for the game's whole progression was re-balanced and streamlined in the Lightspeed Edition that was released on PC (although the improvements are integrated into the mobile version as well, just not the name), without sacrificing content, or (arguably) difficulty. Controls on the tablet work largely without fuss or hassle, although the overland view of Halcyon 6's corner of space is a little difficult to manipulate. Lastly, the game itself is well-suited to the medium, seeing as its grand story of the plucky space station is easily parcelled out into medium-sized play sessions over the course of a day. A huge caveat to all this praise: the game will run haltingly if at all on devices with slower processors, so it is by no means a blind purchase for any and all hardware.
The tone of the writing in Halcyon 6 is playful and loose without ever crossing the line into farce or simplistic homage. A few the crises feel like they are winking at the edges. Every factoid about characters and species presents itself with charm and a little flourish. Despite the light delivery, all these details build off each other to create a story and environment which is at once familiar and idiosyncratic, if not revolutionary. The humorous bits are never too wry or self-referential to undermine the game's world-building as a whole. The factions are distinct and memorable, the short bios for officers cheeky and colorful, and the names of ships and abilities evocative. Much as with the gameplay elements, it all coheres.
All these small things which Halcyon 6 gets just right combine to make it an undeniably good mid-weight strategy game and all-around great game, period. It tempts players without ever trapping them completely, all the while surprising and rewarding those who explore its quirks. The dilemmas presented stay interesting, even after hours and hours of playtime. Here's an example: That long-term goals of building a Witch-class ship must be weighed against the concerns and limitations of the present, of protecting outlying resource stations whose output makes such ships possible. It is in this intersection between the ideal and actual that the game comes together. It balances constraints and possibilities to produce a nexus of meaningful, distinct strategic choices while wrapping the whole in a well-considered narrative and audiovisual package.