Cast your mind back to the days of Sony’s original PlayStation, and indeed their sophomore machine, and some of you may remember D3 Publisher’s hit and miss Simple 1500/2000 series – a succession of budget-priced titles, sourced from a variety of developers. While many of these were generic fare like mahjong, pachinko and various sports ware, there were some interesting inclusions, some of which attained a cult following. Brilliant Taito arcade games like Volfied and Raystorm got given a new lease of life, and original, barmy titles like Sandlot’s The Chikyuu Boueigun 2 (better known as Earth Defence Force 2), The OneChanbara and Splatter Master saw import gaming fans lapping up the many Simple volumes.
Simple has continued in one shape or form right up to the present generation, but has also informed other companies’ efforts and undoubtedly influenced some of the downloadable indie games that are part and parcel of our gaming habits these days. Success Corporation copied D3 with their SuperLite Series, which gave Gameboy Advance, PS2 and DS owners a multitude of bite-sized games. More recently, Level-5 have entered the fray with their extremely interesting Guild 01/02 series. Having already had the pleasure of looking at the excellent Liberation Maiden and Crimson Shroud, our attention now turns to their latest eShop curio – a spell onboard the mysterious Starship Damrey.
It is made abundantly clear from the outset that you are to receive no tutorial. Like your character within the game, you begin The Starship Damrey utterly clueless as to the true nature of your surroundings, and what you need to do in order to progress. All you **do know is that you are onboard an extremely eerie abandoned spaceship straight out of the Alien / Event Horizon mould, and that you are trapped inside a sleep pod. You are able to explore the ship vicariously using a robot, controlled using the d-pad to move and the circle pad to look around. Progress is fairly slow and methodical, as you explore each room across the three floors of the spacecraft, seeking out items, solving puzzles and uncovering the truth about how you ended up in this predicament in the first place.
Puzzle-wise, don’t expect anything to match the complexity and ingenuity of Virtue’s Last Reward or indeed Level-5’s own Layton series, however it is the former that Damrey has most in common with. It straddles the interactive story and old-school point and click genres, whilst not entirely succeeding in either. The robot is not always easy to control – but the impression is that this is entirely intentional and designed as such to ramp up the tension and frustration of being trapped inside the colossal husk of the Damrey and relying on a glorified Henry hoover to find your way out.
Most of the brain teasers you are faced with are incredibly simple to solve, due to the fact that your progress generally takes place one room at a time, and your little robot dude only holds one item at a time, making solutions obvious. You will need to find key cards to open doors, find ways to move obstacles that block your progress, and seek a flashlight in order to lend illumination to the often pitch-black corridors of the ship. Nothing is particularly testing, yet more often than not it remains logical and you will very seldom find yourself tearing your hair out in frustration.
Despite its relatively short length and offbeat stylings, The Starship Damrey delivers big in certain areas. The plot is well devised and will appeal to sci-fi fans, balancing out a nice portion of space mystery with some spooky thrills and even a bit of well-judged comedy thrown in for good measure. Developers Kazuya Asano and Takemaru Abiko have fine form in creating stories that gamers want to buy into, having both worked on the seminal visual novel Kamaitachi no Yoru – the weasel-related SNES classic often credited with popularising the genre in Japan. It really is exceedingly difficult to give any idea of just how things develop in this expertly penned tale without spoiling it for you.
In places the visuals are decidedly ropey – the cutscenes are particularly horrific – but this was never meant to be about graphical flair. Using a fine combination of dark, murky, foreboding surroundings, expertly timed sound effects and an overwhelming sense of dread, the atmosphere remains excellent for the couple of hours you will spend finding out just what the hell happened to the crew of the Damrey. Elsewhere there is a distracting side quest involving space leeches (eew!) and a bit of extra content for those who happen to have a Liberation Maiden save on their 3DS.
VERDICT: A mysterious female silhouette scaring the bejesus out of you as you send a robot off exploring a darkened Marie Celeste in space? That always sounds like a winning combination, and in many ways this is. The simple point and click stylings and very short length will not appeal to all, but for a complete break from the norm and a splendidly immersive experience (especially with headphones on) you could do a lot worse than spend some time aboard the Starship Damrey.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.