Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander review impressions

What do you get the game that has everything? I know this is supposed to be a rhetorical question, but the answer, it turns out, is pacing.

Let’s talk about Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander, a game that has everything. I’m going to describe it to you, and it’s going to sound really good! The premise is this: you’re the commander of the titular starbase when your Star Trek-like Federation is attacked and destroyed by mysterious Lovecraftian aliens. (Okay, that part doesn’t sound so great — can we get a moratorium on tentacled monstrosities unless you’re willing to fully commit, Darkest Dungeon-style?)

So, in order to survive and fight back, you recruit officers to command ships, explore and develop your starbase, do research, and manage the surviving colonies. Describing it as “Space XCOM” would not be out of line, especially when taking a look at the starbase, which is developed in almost identical fashion to the base of Firaxis’ hit.

The entire aesthetic of Halcyon 6 also fits the game very well. It’s got a nice pixel art style, and the music especially manages to evoke both 1990s science fiction and chiptune style. There is a sort of brutal goofiness to the writing and the animation that really fits what the game is going for, with a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Star Trek combined with high “fate of humanity” stakes.

The tactical combat in Halcyon 6 is very much its own, however. It calls itself “JRPG-inspired” which is not inaccurate, but its simplicity is very welcome after the excess pointless complication of that genre. You recruit individual officers of three different classes — Engineer, Scientist, and Tactician — and assign them to relevant ships. Science officers and ships, for example, tend to have more defensive, healing, and confusing options.

What makes the system so neat is that other classes can then exploit the status effects their partners have instilled. Engineers, for example, have attacks that can do extra damage to enemy ships which have been panicked by Science vessels. Combat in general is perhaps most reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s fast, turn-based, transparent mode.

Thanks to the status effect system, fighting becomes an intricate but comprehensible set of maneuvers — you try to set up enemies to take maximum damage while preventing the same from happening to you. In the cleverest twist, when you exploit an enemy’s status with an attack, the status is removed. You might have, say, a Tactical ship launching attacks that damage an enemy’s engines, slowing it down. If you exploit the engine attack with your Engineer ship, you’ll do extra damage, but the enemy will speed up again.

So there’s a compelling concept to Halcyon 6: you gather resources and get into combat, level up, do more research, progress the plot, and do it again. It’s a recognizable (and effective!) gameplay loop for anyone familiar with XCOM or other tactics/strategy hybrids. Everything, taken at an individual level, seems to work brilliantly. Then why doesn’t Halcyon 6 seem to work as a whole?

The core problem is, as mentioned above, is pacing.

The combat system that has such good ideas also tends to require a bunch of player focus. Enemy ships tend to — with only very exceptions — be strong enough that you’ll constantly be trying to find the right combos to exploit.

In most tactical role-playing games, some battles are significantly easier than others, some harder. This is essential — it keeps the player on their toes when difficult, but also allows for a feeling of effective progress when easy. Most importantly, it allows for relaxation within the game. Without this relaxation, it becomes easy to put Halcyon 6 away. You do half a dozen fights, maybe go up a level or two, but nothing immediately grabs you, says “you have to keep playing in order to accomplish this!”

Part of the problem is that there isn’t a strong sense of development in Halcyon 6. Progress comes from leveling up officers and, more rarely, upgrading ships, and it tends to be incremental. You’ll pretty much never encounter a situation where a new level acts as a breakthrough that seems to allow you to accomplish much more. (Compare this with XCOM granting a skill that allows for multiple attacks in a single turn, or even just going from Magic Missile to Fireball in Dungeons & Dragons.)

At the most straightforward level, success and failure aren’t clear enough in Halcyon 6. You can, for example, lose officers and ships in combat, but it feels like a total disaster that should call for a reload — in large part because it’s incredibly difficult to have happen in the first ten-plus hours of gameplay. You can be short of resources for what you want to built, but this never seems to be life-threatening. On the other hand, it’s also possible to be faced with a seemingly overwhelming number of distress calls that indicates that things are going badly — but it rarely appears to be an existential threat.

This has the net result of making it feel like Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander is nearly-great, but just missing the one thing to put it over the top, in the way that Darkest Dungeon’s stress system tied everything together with that similar game. This doesn’t make it bad in the slightest, but it does mean that Halcyon 6 isn’t quite as exciting as its first impression makes it appear.