When Level-5 started releasing the games from the Guild 01 project here in North America, it was an incredible thing, a sort of celebration of Japanese gaming by going to some of the bigger, or at least more interesting, Japanese developers and making games specifically for the 3DS. As the minds behind games like Seaman, Tactics Ogre and Killer 7 put out original games with neat ideas in them, I remember thinking “Man, it would be cool if they could do this again and get more people…”
Then they did just that. Guild 02 is here, but where before there were names and things I’d heard of from each developer from the previous collection, I’ve actually never heard of the developers of Guild 02's first game, The Starship Damrey. Looking them up, I see they worked together on a visual novel called (wait for it) The Night of the Sickle Weasel.
Starship Damrey seems to follow in that same sort of visual novel, adventure-style game. Starting the game up, it gives you two screens: first warns that sound is integral to the game, so please keep the headphones turned up, and the second says it’s designed to be played with no outside help. There are no tutorials, no extra bits outside of what’s presented in the game as ambient information. And both of those aren’t entirely true: you can easily beat the game without sound and have a similar experience (unless you want to get all of the collectibles, which do make a noise), and there’s an info sheet that explains everything about how to work the little robot you’re controlling that you have to go through as well.
Beyond that, it functions more or less as a first-person adventure game in the dark of a ship where it quickly becomes apparent that you’re the only one left alive. Controlling a little service robot, the main goal is to fix the ship enough that you can leave your cold sleep chamber (although I don’t know why you’d want to, since it’s still 3 years from Earth). There are other questions: what was your mission? What killed everything? Where did these space leeches come from? What’s with the little ghost girl you see around?
Unfortunately, while the game certainly has the ability to slowly eke this information out through logs and ambient information, it doesn’t. It feels like it’s building to a reveal, but then there’s a small twist at the end and roll credits. You get a giant info dump at the end which discusses literally everything you had a question about, but it feels lazy. It could have been handled much more gracefully, but it instead takes you out of the game with a flat cutscene.
This is a huge shame, because the game actually creates a good atmosphere if you have a good place to play it, quiet and not overly bright, so you can get immersed in the dark hallways and the silence of space. Even without headphones on, the sound was surprisingly oppressive, and walking into the loud generator rooms could be a huge shock with how comparatively silent it was otherwise. The surprise of seeing the ghost girl or coming across dead bodies looming from the darkness also stayed pretty constant, especially because the game is only a couple of hours long.
Aside from the main game, there are also two epilogue scenes that play out just in text, including one talking about the ghost girl and one explaining where the space leeches came from. It’s a little lazy to have them just be menu items that you can select after finishing an optional extra mission, but they’re alright. Same goes for crew dossiers and information on keywords: they’re cool that they’re there, but they’re presented too far outside of the game to really draw attention to them. It could have been a good chance to passively grow the information, slowly discovering things about each crew member as you went along, discovered their bodies, searched their rooms for information to help you, but instead, it’s just a menu option.
It's also a little slow and clunky, as the robot can only move in set intervals, and it also operates on tank controls, so it can only go forward and backwards or rotate. You can also only hold one item at a time, making a segment where you had to run to a room, around a body, grab items and mix them in an entirely different area take far too long. The ship isn't large, and it eventually gives you a ventilation duct to move through, but it takes too long to get anywhere, especially if you don't know the exact solutions to a puzzle an are trying to use the one item on everything that makes sense until it works.
This all makes The Starship Damrey the kind of game that just seems a little too old fashioned. Game storytelling, even in adventure games, has come a long way, but this is too straight forward, not focusing on immersion as much as it seems to think it does. While I did like the act of slowly going from each area and unlocking the ship, the story payoff isn’t good enough to justify it. They can put in as many twists as they want, but withholding this information felt more like cheating than actually surprising me, making the multiple epilogues feel unearned. I certainly appreciate the game existing on the eShop, but unfortunately, The Starship Damrey needed to have better storytelling and a better payoff to make the download worth it.