I can’t speak for everyone but the thrill of finding some hidden treasure amongst someone else’s trash really speaks to me. From Antiques Roadshow to Storage Wars, the excitement from pulling something from nothing is an underexplored idea. However, in a game ostensibly about digging through floating space trash, I was a bit disappointed at the lack of meaningful dumpster diving in the actual gameplay.
Deep Sky Derelicts is a procedurally generated combination of roguelike and exploration in the same vein as Darkest Dungeon. You and your class-based group of amigos are tasked with looking through defunct spaceships, collecting loot and dealing with whatever assorted problems you come across. Many of the usual turn-based/rougelike mechanics make familiar appearances. Exploration is done through squares on a map, with little icons shuffling across the board. There’s a hub town to buy and sell things, recuperate, and gear up for the next excursion. A thinly veiled narrative thread keeps you snaking through a series of increasingly difficult stages. All the familiar elements are here, many of them unsurprising.
These lovingly borrowed ideas are among the worst things the game has to offer. Your squad is limited to three people, so instead of having a diverse stable of scrappy explorers, you’re stuck with the same scrubs you started with. You can replace the deceased with some random dude but who wants to do that when any dead party member can be revived for a nominal fee (even on the hard difficulty).
What’s new are the annoying little frustrations other titles wisely decided to stay away with. Ironically, picking up sellable trash, which is the title of the game, involves you physically hopping out of the map and clicking on a random location on the screen. It’s about as tedious as it sounds when you have to do it twenty times or more on a mission. Loot is gained for classes you can’t use so all that junk needs to be waded through. It’s sad that the game really doesn’t make much use of the setting and theme beyond a few half-hearted side quests. That’s a bit of glaring weak spot, made a bit more baffling considering it’s the concept you framed your whole game on.
There are plenty of non-trash related annoyances littered about. Drones that have no abilities still get a turn. Misclicking the governors call instead of the medical bay was far too easy and meant skipping through more dialogue. These all sound like minor things, but combined with the battle time spend sitting and waiting, there’s a sizable portion of the game that involves being bored. It feels like there wasn’t any creative juice put into these elements, which is a shame since just a little more elbow grease could have really streamlined the game play.
Despite the tepid air hanging in the room, there are some very interesting mechanical additions which distinguish DSD from it’s contemporaries. The most stark contrast is the use of cards in resolving combat. Each character has a deck of actions to take, which are bestowed by the items that each person is using. On a given turn, each combatant draws a card and decides how to proceed using weapon or class based abilities, more in line with something like Magic: The Gathering. This is a real stroke of genius as it introduces a new fold into combat which normally is a very formulaic experience.
Although it doesn’t really make much logical sense why someone can only use their abilities some of the time, from a mechanical standpoint it becomes clear. Battles feel more chaotic and varied since there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to use the moves you want to. Carefully balancing the strategies of your team and the counterplay to the opponents with a semi-random set of moves leads to some exciting scrapes. For instance, you could go through a drought of offensive cards and have your DPS class take more damage than anticipated so I hope your support class has some radiation damage to deal with the quickly regenerating alien shields.
These instances are set up by yet another level of overarching strategy in how your individuals synergize. There’s a real solid variety of items and class-based abilities to mix and match but not all combinations are created equal. Finding the right ideas combined with the gear to support it is pivotal in ensuring success and is extremely rewarding. Items all grant not only ability types but things like effects (fire, cryo, etc.) and card number. I thought my shield buffing support class was doing well but after what I thought was a gear upgrade, I realized that I didn’t have nearly enough taut drones to buff and promptly got flattened.
This state of constant flux really supplies the coal that powers this train forward. There are just so many combinations of stats, abilities, class and gear to experiment with and since you always get new upgrades and enemies, each challenge feels fresh from the last. Your ideas can really manifest themselves effectively and it’s extremely satisfying to completely annihilate an enemy when your strategies pan out. Let me reiterate how achieving this is no small feat and the robust combat system at the heart is enough for me to generally recommend Deep Sky Derelicts.
In conjunction with the aforementioned problems, there’s a serious reservation about longevity. The game has nowhere near the crushing difficulty of Darkest Dungeon, and after the early bits of struggling are over, I found my squad too effective. This would be alright alone, but there’s a real lack of any urgency or penalty that really undermines any notion of difficulty. There’s no incentive at all to be anything less than careful as possible. Even so much as a scratch to my travelers was enough to warrant a trip home since money became plentiful early on. Where the narrative could have stepped in to fill this urgency gap, I found the writing to be dry and uninspired. Despite it being so thin on dialogue, both the “main” questline and various side missions failed to leave a lasting impression.
However, the biggest knife to lasting success is the lack of mod support. This game, especially with it’s numerous bare spots, can hide or even excise the blemishes with the hard work of dedicated fans. There’s an amazing scaffolding here for improvement but without day one support, I doubt many will have the desire to go back and make content should it be put in later.
To me, Deep Sky Derelicts is a rare foil to the games of today. A title that hones in on creating exciting and rewarding gameplay systems is both difficult and rare. It’s the missing half to the atmospheric, but gameplay thin, Darkest Dungeon. That’s a real shame, too, because given the unique setting, there was so much space for creative expression. If you’re looking for another loot-based dungeon to crawl around in, there’s a solid game in here, but there’s just too many underwhelming things for me to get excited.