Developer: ROCKFISH Games
Publisher: ROCKFISH Games
Played on: PC
Release Date: May 25, 2017
Played with: Mouse & Keyboard
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Rogue-lite mechanics have been one of the most popular features in indie games for years now, second only to pixel graphics, it seems. I get the appeal: given the comparatively small budget that many independent games have compared to their AAA counterparts, being able to artificially extend an experience with a near-endless supply of randomly-generated content is an appealing proposition. However, its prevalence has started to wear on me over the years, to the point where “rogue-lite” or “rogue-like” as buzzwords often tarnish my interest in a game. Thankfully, while this did somewhat colour my experience with Everspace, there were enough good ideas under the surface that it was worth a more thorough look.
Everspace is a beautiful title, harnessing Unreal Engine 4 to deliver gorgeous vistas, detailed spaceships, and spectacular explosions. As someone who hasn’t played Star Wars: Battlefront (the new one), it’s safe to say that my ten-year-old, Star Wars-addicted self would’ve been all over this. Blasting into a new sector never really gets old, as the glowing blurs of hyperspace congeal to form asteroid fields, shipwrecks, and more. Likewise, space battles are tense and satisfying, often seeing you outnumbered as you strafe, weave, and boost through enemy assaults. Cutting down shields with your lasers before switching to your Gatling gun to pierce through the hull keeps things dynamic, forcing you to pay close attention to the status of your enemies. Plus, the assortment of powerups and consumables (shield and attack boosters, drones, missiles, and more) give some options if things get extra messy.
All this weaponry can be upgraded and/or constructed via supplies that are scattered throughout the sectors. Hunting around for resource deposits to mine is often just as important as attacking enemy fighters, who usually only reward you with credits and some scrap for your trouble. Granted, those credits are extremely useful, as they allow you to upgrade your ship outside of each run, improving its hull strength, weapon power, energy usage, and more. It does a decent job of giving a sense of progression, though I found that many of the upgrades felt too incremental to make a noticeable difference.
That’s really all you do in Everspace: jump between sectors, search for resources, and fight enemies. Rinse and repeat until you (almost inevitably) get blown up. It’s a solid enough formula, but the size of the sectors can really make the tedium set in. Since nearly everything on your ship is powered by one energy gauge, you’re discouraged from using your boosters to speed up your exploration, especially in areas that jam your sensors. If you’re not careful, you can easily boost into an enemy onslaught and end up defenceless while waiting for your weapons to become usable. Considering that enemies can and will warp in if you spend too long admiring the scenery, time is of the essence while scavenging, yet you’re often punished for trying to go too quickly.
While the energy mechanic does make the space battles themselves a bit more interesting, it generally just leads to frustration. Every fight becomes a test of resource conservation; you can’t boost around your enemies like a maniac, because you’ll quickly run out of energy and be unable to use your weapons. However, you’re frequently targeted with such laser-precision that you may as well be at a standstill when you’re not boosting. To return fire, you’re often forced to turn yourself into a sitting duck and wait for your energy to recharge.
Considering the story feels completely half-baked, there often isn’t much reason to persevere. I’ll throw a spoiler warning here just in case, but the game didn’t seem to care, so why should I? Early on, your character is informed that he’s simply one of many clones of another person. This supposedly shocking revelation is delivered in a conversational tone, and acknowledged with little more than a shoulder shrug. Then there’s the villain, who shows up, gets defeated by the player, and warps away with what amounts to a, “You haven’t seen the last of me!” Just missing the evil cackle.
Now, full disclosure: I didn’t beat the main story. I wanted to, believe me, but by combining the lukewarm story with perma-death and tedious exploration, I was left with a game that couldn’t compel me to progress. I got to a point where I was entering runs with the knowledge that I was just in it to grind for credits. As far as I’m concerned, rogue-lites tend to remain compelling due to the ability to improve your character permanently as you become more skilled at the game. Here, it felt like I could literally master the game and still be forced to grind out upgrades just to advance. Plus, the lack of a re-spec option means that experimenting with new builds is completely off the table; just do more runs in the hopes of earning enough credits to unlock more perks.
Everspace is a real disappointment for me. I want to like it, and I can see the appeal of a tough-as-nails space combat rogue-lite; there’s definitely an audience for it. Hell, I even managed to have a fair amount of fun with it, especially once I threw on some good sci-fi movie scores in favour of the forgettable in-game soundtrack. However, it continually felt like a game that would be better if it simply consisted of a series of missions or the like, potentially with a retooled upgrade system to boot. Once the prospect of starting a new run became synonymous with “Maybe I can get a couple thousand credits to blow on that energy upgrade”, my interest rapidly dwindled. There’s a good game here at the core; there’s just a lot of uninteresting, empty space surrounding it.