Impressions: Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander Lightspeed Edition

Lost in space: Halcyon 6 is a highly absorbing strategy sim that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Game: Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander (Lightspeed Edition)

Developer: Massive Damage, Inc.

Publisher:  Massive Damage, Inc.

Reviewed: PC

I genuinely believe that when Massive Damage, Inc. decided to call Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander (Lightspeed Edition) a “retro space strategy RPG”, it was a deliberate move to entice anybody who is fond of pixel art, myself included. A simple glance at its perfectly crafted ships reveals this undeniable truth. Naturally, good art doesn’t necessarily equal compelling gameplay, but beyond the dense, interactive tutorial, Halcyon 6 unleashes its magic in a slow, goofy burn.

Much Like Endless Space 2, there’s a strong resource collection backbone and generously sized skill trees, with the biggest difference lying in approach to story and combat. Halcyon 6 catapults you to the besieged quadrant of Terran space, where Men in Black style aliens deliver lighthearted one-liners and threaten to decimate the same star base you’re meant to rebuild in the same beat. The wackiness works. During combat, your cadets fire back silly retorts while they’re incinerating space pirates. Randomly generated diplomatic scenarios keep the sense of fun alive by letting you pick from multiple answers which don’t always result in linear outcomes. This is one of the key ingredients that prevents Halcyon 6 from becoming stale, but as you’ll discover, there are multiple.  

From the get go, Halcyon 6 tasks you with a series of objectives that like most strategy games, occasionally border on overwhelming. If you’re not familiar with the task juggling and queue waiting synonymous with 4X games, then zipping around between base construction, resource retrieval and combat encounters does take getting used to. It’s exactly the sort of gameplay you appreciate more over time as the complexities and nuances rise to the surface; what’s most enjoyable about Halcyon 6 and games of its persuasion is that different aspects of gameplay—combat, levelling, narrative and simulation—are given equal weighting.

As alluded to earlier, it’s more than just a portrait of pretty pixel art. Turn-based combat is an engaging venture that wields you with sensor disabling viruses, laser beams, and hull-breaching cannons that explode in a 2D spectacle of colourful flashes and sonar blasts. It’s visually impressive, but applying your best defence methodology and wiping out a trio of aliens within a sliver of death’s grasp is the ultimate on the edge of your seat satisfaction. I love that about Halcyon 6. And best of all, since every meeting with enemies is procedurally generated, the dreaded RPG grind is largely avoided. It does start to get repetitive when you’ve reached higher tiers, and constant distress calls keep stacking up in the corner, so this stage of the game could do with a bit more breathing space to devote to base building.

Typically, you’ll be face to face with slimy creatures known as ‘Chruul’, aliens whose ability to evade, barricade and inflict deadly assaults upon you improves in a relationship that’s directly proportional to your own progression. The parts that frustrated me were when enemies broke the turn-based rules, often attacking two and three times where I’d just attacked once, and my justification is this: when a cadet dies, you have to start from scratch and level them up all over again. It’s sad to lose a crew member. After you become personally attached to them, their unique skills and reputation, they’re no longer just sprites with interesting name combinations; they’re your family. But it’s far worse when invaders are destroying your home and you can’t defend yourself in time, which spelled the end of my first playthrough.

That’s the next ingredient driving Halcyon 6‘s ability to absorb every ounce of your attention—an addictive RPG framework. It’s very good at encouraging you to make your cadets level up into stronger, more battle ready commanders, automate resource retrieval for fuel and dark matter, or unlock passive repair abilities in the event of ambush because the reward has immediate benefits. There are some surprises too. Occasionally, aerial combat is swapped for equally challenging ground-level skirmishes, and though they don’t feel as exciting as fighting in ships, they’re still balanced and achievable.

Halcyon 6 never forgets its story, either. Aside from the slew of basic management tasks preoccupying your time, a cosmic supervillain called Admirax Zeb (and his army) is keen on blowing you up, which obviously isn’t very nice. After a few hundred days or whenever you’re bulked up enough, you can engage in a showdown with his cronies and gain a reward if you win. The accompanying battle music is a fast, original, tempestuous ensemble that creates the perfect climate of suspense; only when things quietened down did I tune into something more familiar.

Now I swear on Link’s hat, but certain tracks in the Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander OST sound just like the dungeons of a Zelda game. It’s difficult to explain. Unless my ears are deceiving me, I think the fuzzy beats most closely resemble the Turtle Rock theme from Link’s Awakening, then weave in a low, symphonic rhythm and ambient violin to create more of a floating, stuck in outer space vibe. It’s harmonious, soothing, and squeezes in just the right amount of tension. And on the whole, Halcyon 6 knows exactly how much of each ingredient to use.

Complex on the outside, super logical on the inside, Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander (Lightspeed Edition) commands a respectable presence in the space strategy genre. It’ll keep you absorbed in exciting battles, humorous storylines, and thorough, addictive base building elements. Latter stages of the game do stray into repetitive territory but the majority of the campaign is filled with zest and an abundance of reward.

Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander (Lightspeed Edition) is definitely worth the price of admission. Pick it up on Steam for $14.99 USD if you’re fond of pixel art, turn-based combat or those aliens from Men in Black. 

Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for purposes of this review.