In recent years, brutally difficult, unforgiving, small-scale strategy games have carved out a nice little niche for themselves on the PC. They may look drastically different from one another on the surface, but games like Papers Please, Beholder, and Robot Gentleman’s newest offering 60 Parsecs! have quite a bit in common. They all force you into a hopeless situation, usually as an average Joe or Jane challenged with an unreasonably difficult series of tasks. You earn currency through successful actions, which you can then use to keep people close to you alive. Unfortunately for you, though, it is impossible to succeed 100% of the time, and many decisions are a simple choice between the lesser of two evils. You aren’t given much information on what consequences there will be for your decisions, which means that you can get yourself into deep trouble quickly without being “bad” at the game. This setup is usually accompanied by a streak of dark, nihilistic humor.
When it comes to the basic formula, 60 Parsecs! appears to have the parts that it needs to succeed. However, when compared to its brethren in the “average guy unfairly thrust into an impossible situation” genre, 60 Parsecs! comes up short in some critical ways. The most significant is that its moment-to-moment, bread-and-butter gameplay is too dull and unfulfilling to provide for a quality lasting experience. Too many decisions lead to random outcomes, and content also begins repeating itself soon after you have completed your first short playthrough (which is typically a 30-45 minute affair). It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but the aforementioned Papers Please and Beholder are but two examples of games that do a better job of providing this type of experience.
In 60 Parsecs!, you play as an unlikely ship captain who falls into his or her role when your space station is blown up at the beginning of the game. You are given 60 seconds to gather every resource that you can from the station, throw them into your escape shuttle, and then escape from the station before it and the Earth get nuked. In addition to grabbing crafting materials and useful items, you also need to pick from one to three of your future crew mates. In the true spirit of the genre, you can never gather everything that you need and you will have to make trade-offs and tough decisions just seconds into the game. Should you bag some crafting materials or some extra soup? Should you grab two crewmates or three? No matter what you choose, you don’t feel good about it and you will immediately be short on resources. This first sixty seconds is the only part of the game in which you have any direct control over your character. It’s also the most fun part of the game, because the rest of it is simpler and unsatisfyingly uninteractive.
Once you blast off in your shuttle, the remainder of the game consists solely of a daily routine where you make one decision each day and perhaps craft one item. The crafting system is very basic, with soup (i.e. the game’s food) being, by far, the game’s most important item. There are three resources; chemicals, minerals, and energy. Different items require different resources to craft, and some of them are inaccessible without an upgraded crafting station. Occasionally, you also send out one of your crew mates to go on a collection and exploration expedition once you have crash-landed on a planet. Your mate is completely unavailable for a few days after that, and you have almost no control over what happens on the expedition other than what items you give him or her to carry. The following day, you find out the results of your decision and you get a new decision to make.
The goal of the game, of course, is to keep as many crew members alive until you reach the ending. This task is made extremely difficult by the stingy crafting system. Without sending out expeditions on a planet, you run out of crafting resources and food only twenty-five or so days into a game. Almost immediately thereafter, you and your crew mates begin starving. It’s the most common cause of death, but your crew can also get killed on expeditions, or if they suffer too many wounds without getting first aid. Suffice it to say, death happens very often, even when you know what you are doing and you have played through the game ten or more times. All that it takes for everything to go south is one bad interaction that kills off a vital crew member or destroys a vital resource. 60 Parsecs! is one of the more unforgiving games in the genre that is loaded with unforgiving titles.
There is disappointingly little to do in the game, other than the three or four mouse clicks that comprise the daily routine. The crafting system lacks depth and is too simple to be interesting. Most of the time, you are just crafting soup or recycling items so that you can craft more soup. Likewise, systems for providing you with resources is not very interesting. You either occasionally get resources by making good daily decisions, or you collect them during your planetary expeditions. Every craftable item requires exactly ten units, and there are no game mechanics (i.e. special abilities or upgrades) that allow you to reduce those requirements. Since chemicals are the only resource that you need to craft food, then they are, by far, more important than the other two resources. Your expeditions hardly ever find a resource amount that is a multiple of ten either, which means that you will usually have a completely worthless leftover amount of four or six units of a resource that you can never tap into. A great crafting system is one that gives you multiple routes to victory and that has legitimate trade-offs, but that is not what 60 Parsecs! has to offer.
60 Parsecs! doesn’t provide a lengthy campaign or story, but rather a short playthrough that can, theoretically, be enjoyed through an unlimited number of iterations. The game does some things right in this regard, but it also does a lot of things wrong. There are five different starting characters, each with one special ability, three different planets on which you can land, and then perhaps a hundred or two daily events that appear in a randomized sequence. The very beginning of the game is also randomized, ensuring that you will never have the same starting equipment for any two plays through it. Unfortunately, you have so little control over what happens after that first minute that, at times, it hardly feels like you are playing a game. As mentioned above, the only part of the game in which you can control your character is those first sixty seconds. That is also the only part when you aren’t looking at the interior of your shuttle, your crew, and whatever objects you have managed to collect. The first time that I played 60 Parsecs!, I had no idea what to expect from it, and I found the opening to be very promising. But, rather than embark on a long journey that was a clever mixture of action and strategy (such as what is found in Don’t Starve), I ended with a simple turn-based strategy game — one in which the movement keys had no use after the first minute. That first time I eagerly awaited the time when I could get out of the shuttle and move around a new planet, fight off enemies, or collect resources. Alas, that time never came.
Each day offers you to the chance to give one instruction to your crafting machine and to make one decision. These decisions should, theoretically, provide the strategy portion of the game, but they are too devoid of logic and too randomized to be effective. Decision points are all multiple choice questions with two or three answers. A few exceptions aside, it’s impossible to logically deduce what you should choose in each situation. This part feels as if it was designed more to facilitate the game’s dark humor than its gameplay. The former works sufficiently but at the expense of the latter. The situations that you encounter are too alien for you to be able to determine a common sense approach to dealing with them. The only way to know what course of action you should take is to memorize the results of daily interactions and make a different decision if you picked a bad one on a previous playthrough. It’s frustrating to spend a valuable resource like your cigarette lighter or your duct tape, thinking that it will solve a problem, only to have it backfire on you and make you worse off in the process. To make matters worse, the outcome of some events is randomized for each playthrough, which means that something that worked one time might not work the next time. This randomization does heavy damage to the strategy aspect of the game. How am I supposed to judge what to do if the outcome is determined not by my common sense, but by the game’s random number generator?
60 Parsecs! leaves you guessing too often. At other times, the best answer for a problem is too obvious. Each character has a few basic traits, like strength, agility, and intelligence. The optimal approach for every challenge, when you are given a choice, is to choose the option that plays to the strength of your character. If you are playing as the agile Deedee, then you choose the agility option whenever it’s available. If you are playing as the intelligent Emmitt, then you choose the intelligence option every time that it’s available. Since the game is extremely punishing, you are never going to want to pick an option that is less than optimal. The character traits don’t appear to have any value outside of these daily interactions, which means that there isn’t much value to them from a gameplay standpoint.
The approach that 60 Parsecs! takes with regards to its endings is fairly unique and interesting, at least. It can take as little as 50 game days to reach an ending (less, of course, if you die, which will happen most of the time). Getting to the end requires advancing through some story-related decisions on a planet once you crash-land. Between three planets there are at least a half dozen different endings that you can experience (and probably more). It also usually involves going on a few expeditions to find some important items or information. Once you reach a victory condition, the game ends and you get to watch an “and they lived happily ever after” style epilogue for each of your surviving characters. 60 Parsecs! does at least offer a good measure of replayability, even though some of it is undermined by repetition of the daily events and weak strategy elements.
When it comes to production values, 60 Parsecs! offers graphics, music, and sound effects that are about par for a small indie title. If you had a choose one of those aspects as the best, then it would probably be the graphics. The game won’t be confused with the Uncharted series any time soon, but it still manages to cram a lot of color and personality into its relatively simple 2D graphics. You and your crew mates, in particular, add a lot of flavor that isn’t deep or entertaining enough to subsist on its gameplay alone. Despite being in still frame for most of the game, they still emote in some entertaining ways while showing the wear and tear of prolonged space travel. As the weeks roll by, they look increasingly haggard and the men eventually grow beards and unkempt hair. One of your mates occasionally goes bonkers in an amusing way and the view of the shuttle cabin changes as the game progresses. The sound effects and music are adequate, but like the daily interactions, they lack variety and repeat themselves too early and often.
60 Parsecs! does have a few things going for it. It’s sufficiently humorous and challenging, and it jumbles up its formula enough each time that every playthrough is unique. The genre of the difficult strategy simulations is a crowded one, though, and the game commits too many sins to rocket to the top of your list. The biggest of those is that the core gameplay isn’t fun enough to keep you hooked. Papers Please showed that even something so mundane as checking people’s travel papers can be fun and addictive when combined with some sort of basic incentive. 60 Parsecs!, unfortunately, fails to provide that basic working mechanic that makes it entertaining from moment to moment. It suffers from relegating you to the role of decision maker only, when most games also let you play through your decisions or give you something meaningful to do in between them. 60 Parsecs! is perhaps worth a look when it shows up in a Steam sale, but it doesn’t deserve a place on your “must play” list.