Getting into Highfleet takes some doing. It starts with a tutorial for moving its hulking airships across the desert world, sort of, but there’s a reason the game labels that segment a “prologue,” since you’ll likely come out the other end with only a slightly less fuzzy grasp of the game mechanics. For details, you’ll want to consult the elaborate digital manual, which I pulled up on a separate window for reference (the thing practically begs to be printed, but the library over here charges per page).
The main screen, for example, is a blue radar map in a mechanical sea of surrounding buttons, gauges and switches. This can be zoomed in and out, and it can only be notated using some decidedly low-tech writing implements: with a pencil, a ruler, a compass, and an eraser, I can scramble estimated paths and flight ranges based on intercepted radio transmissions as my own group moves from one node on the map to the next. (Intercepting broadcasts requires additional tools, a new set of gauges and dials to tune accordingly that I pull up when I click the phone that hangs down into my field of view).
Think of it another way: there are games that do so much work to obscure any trace of an interface, only surfacing details like the health bar and the ammo counter as needed. A lot of them let you go into the settings and turn even more of that stuff off, all in the name of erasing that distance between you and the character and the world they inhabit.
And then there’s Highfleet.
In a sense, Highfleet is not too far removed from the games that obscure the UI elements. The player character, the logic goes, does not see that stuff, so neither should you. Here, our character definitely sees all the technical details laid out in front of them; we are meant to understand that they see the buttons on the right side of the screen that determine which individual ship is displayed on the smaller monitor, displaying information like the speed stat, the crew morale, and a structural readout of damaged parts. To create a separate grouping of ships to go on ahead of my bruising but sluggish cruiser, I press multiple buttons and adjust a knob to allocate fuel that affects their flight range.
These detachments are important, because if they can make it to a city and are collectively fast enough, they can hit the guard ships before anyone can sound the alarm, giving me somewhere to safely park for repair and resupply. Otherwise, the alarm broadcasts my location to the mighty enemy strike groups whose routes I’m drawing all over my map in hopes of estimating and avoiding.
But you don’t spend all your time in front of the map plotting automated battles (though the game could have easily gone in that direction). Each engagement morphs the screen into a zoomed-out view of real-time combat, where strategies will vary depending on your ship’s handling and its arsenal as you aim each shot and do your best to coax these groaning metal behemoths into evasive action. It’s a whole separate skillset on top of the other things to learn, to say nothing of the repair screen and the custom ship builder that frightens me too much to fool around with.
Interfacing With the Fleet
Though it took a while, I did get something of a handle on how to play the game. If none of the obsessive granularity mentioned up to now has prompted you to close your browser tab and head for the hills, you may either be pleased or displeased to learn that Highfleet is not quite so obtuse and mercilessly sink-or-swim as it sounds. Even outside the prologue, a detailed portrait of your trusted advisor and his persuasively pointing finger will appear, either to ask if you need an explanation, or to generally cut in with advice to send one of those advance strike groups (easy to forget, at first), or to inquire if you’re really, really sure that you want to launch the nukes and open the door to atomic warfare (missile selection doesn’t highlight the nuclear symbol as much as it probably should). It’s a little like on-the-job training in that way, where someone is over your shoulder explaining the things you need to know in that moment but not really having the time or the space to give you the entire picture until you’ve been at it for a while and everything starts to finally click into place by itself.
You will, for example, want to manually dock any ships that need extensive repairs. The landing platforms in the settlements each give a different bonus to repair speed, so it is in your best interest to try to land on a good one (or a combination of several, depending on ship size). In order to land a ship, you watch it begin its descent behind a digital overlay of the craft and the bonuses down below (maybe obscured by the weather, if you’re unlucky), eyeballing whether a ship might fit in a small gap, and then you fire the thrusters to adjust direction and also slow down amid warnings that you’re coming in too fast. (Something I learned first-hand: these ships do in fact take up physical space at the landing zone, so you’ll need to take care to not uselessly stack them on top of each other.)
Though the elaborate interface seems to suggest otherwise, the intent here is not really about the fussy verisimilitude of, say, a character going through a whole series of animations to bandage wounds because anything quicker would not be believable. The fleet commander probably does not land each individual ship or direct them all in battle, but that’s what we do here. And the result does not break the “reality” of the game; instead, it makes each ship feel like a tactile thing, an idea only furthered by an in-depth damage system that tracks individual parts based on impact. You come to know the weight and maneuverability of a ship through your repeated use of it, firing its guns in volleys to accommodate the imprecision that may not be smooth or straightforward but feels tangible and true.
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Forget Me Naut
On the other hand, the regular people seem to disappear in Highfleet. They’re numbers that don’t carry a repair bill like the ships do; the people matter most once they band together for collective action due to low morale, rebelling against your reckless and dangerous command by refusing to go into battle at all. And this, too, feels consistent not only with the generally detached perspective of the strategy genre but with your character, an aristocrat turned commander whose goal is to capture the enemy capital at any cost in this desperate final run.
In this sense, it feels totally appropriate that you enter Highfleet feeling out of your depth. The nature of video games and the general trajectory of popular interest has meant that games work hard to streamline, to remove the barriers around an escapist fantasy of immediate and formidable capability. Our protagonists tend to be chosen ones who learn exceptionally quickly, or they’re grizzled veterans who just happen to need a refresher before they’re back in the saddle to be the best.
These shortcuts are understandable, and in most cases they’re even preferable (the in-universe process of landing a Highfleet ship is doubtlessly more complex than pressing the arrow keys). After all, the majority of games ask us to jump right in to stories already in progress, often handing off control in the middle of an action sequence that lets us feel our immediate power. Even the ones with extensive, hours-long tutorials are crash courses in the unique grammar of a particular experience, which may hugely deviate from games within their own genre, let alone the ones outside of it. The medium demands an uncommon amount of re-orientating, sweeping shifts in format and style that are easy to overlook until a game like Highfleet really throws you in the deep end.
Firing this game up for the first time, the first thing I thought of was actually a much smaller title from 2019, Nauticrawl. There, your sense of bewilderment is the very premise since you play a character who hijacks a strange vehicle and is immediately confronted with a dashboard of unlabeled mechanical doodads that you’re left to figure out. You experiment, and you gradually learn; the game’s very narrative is tied into your initial lack of knowledge, progressing as you the player figure things out and stop needing to start over again.
We poke fun at old video game chestnuts like protagonists with convenient amnesia, but that sense of being adrift in total ignorance is one of the most direct, honest connections to the player experience. Another is to immerse us in the complexity, imprinting the sense of scale, detail, and texture because they are tied to feelings of frustration and confusion that are not traditionally gratifying but are no less deeply felt. This is what Highfleet accomplishes through its intimidating exterior, its elaborate interface as much a selling point for the elusive idea of immersion as it is a persuasive argument for another way of thinking about design.