Deadnaut might be the most interesting, fully-formed, and slick game I’ve seen come out in recent memory that absolutely no one has talked about. Usually when I stumble upon one of these unknown indie games it’s because someone at Kotaku or Rock Paper Shotgun posted a blurb about it, or I caught the developer’s post on some obscure forum. Deadnaut just showed up in the midst of Steam’s new release calendar without a peep from really any publications, save for a developer blog on Kotaku Australia. It looks like far too good a game with too much work put into it to get buried and forgotten… if I can just wrap my head around its gameplay.
I’ll try my best to describe what you do here: You command teams of mercenaries real time strategy-style to explore the randomly generated derelict space ships left behind by long-dead alien civilizations. I think developer Screwfly Studios called it “Jagged Alliance in space,” but I haven’t played that game so that doesn’t give me any frame of reference. A space dungeon-crawling FTL maybe? Honestly I feel like my experience makes me the wrong person to blog about this game, but like I said, no one else is talking about this which I find absurd given how complete the game feels. It’s a far cry from the rough alphas that seem to populate the PC space these days. Checking out the demo on the official website, the reason I’m so mystified by Deadnaut is because it is a really PC, PC game. It’s the kind of PC game people are glad indies are making today, the kind that would have been right at home in a big retail box 15 years ago, and the kind that pushes console gamers away from PC gaming because of how obtuse yet passive it looks at first glance.
You don’t directly control the mercenaries, but just click where you want them to go like in a real time strategy game. You don’t even really see anything rendered in detail — just a bunch of icons representing characters on x-ray isometric maps which look attractive entirely due to clean art direction. All that however is in a tiny window that’s surrounded by an insane number of dials, meters, and buttons to click on. Through three screens you check your team’s health, mental state, their personalities, chat logs, equipment, analyses of enemies, information on the ship you’re exploring, and a lot more. The game wants you to read the psych evaluation of each mercenary and factor that in to how you manage them. Oh and you also have to manage energy distribution between audio, video, and data feeds.
Usually I stay far away from such games but Deadnaut put all its madness into interface that looks as sleek as it is intimidating. The three screens have a really nice, sort of rusty industrial space ship look to them. Maybe the controls to a submarine might be a good comparison. That’s probably what adds to the intimidation factor. The game makes me feel like it’s actually trying to get me to learn to operate something as complex as a U-boat or a real-world modern space shuttle. That complex simulation feel is to me what makes it very much the kind of PC game that’s become too rare these days.
The addition of procedural generation to build the space ships and mercenaries is almost certainly to make for the kind of emergent gameplay coming out of games like FTL or This War of Mine. Not only do the mercenaries have different skills and personalities, they talk to each other too, and the game’s descriptions imply they affect each other in tangible ways. This is most definitely the kind of game I expect to see Rock Paper Shotgun or Idle Thumbs talk about in the near future.
Unfortunately, I don’t play Deadnaut nearly well enough to actually see much of that potential. I tried the demo a few times and only lasted a few minutes in each attempt before my team was wiped out. I just don’t have a very good grasp on what you’re supposed to do in combat situations. Even the manual feels pretty tough to understand. If I ever had the time I absolutely think Deadnaut would be worth its full $10 asking price, and it’s the kind of game I would want to sink serious hours into learning just for the promise of its emergent gameplay.
One of the most oddly attractive aspects of Deadnaut is the lore it exposes you to upon reaching each new ship and how that lore approaches alien contact. The story is, when humans start exploring the galaxy they find the ruins of alien civilizations that died out an insanely long time ago, and your mercenaries are scavengers looking for all their secrets. Every new ship you breach is sort of a story of its own. I start by reading the dossier of an expansionist society from a million years ago, or an aggressive militaristic one from 600,000 years ago.
The only other game I’ve seen take this archaeologist view of space exploration is Mass Effect. A lot of the most interesting planets in the ME games are the ones where the descriptions tell you about scarcely known spacefaring alien races that went extent millions of years ago. I always found the prospect of alien ruins at least as interesting as typical space opera tropes, and Deadnaut is a game centrally about taking part in the excavation.
- Oh, and the graphics options in Deadnaut let you set a framerate cap anywhere between 15fps and 120fps I believe, in like nine different increments. More PC developers should start doing that.
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