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RPG Codex Review: Das Geisterschiff
Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 16 December 2018, 02:17:41Tags: Das Geisterschiff; Graverobber Foundation
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Das Geisterschiff, the November debut by Graverobber Foundation, describes itself as “a cyberpunk dungeon crawler where you play as a mecha pilot working for one of the megacorps.” It doesn’t sound all that promising, and the first association it might give you is anime nonsense, but that expectation is dispelled the moment you check any footage from the game and see the monochrome, wireframe graphics.
Your reaction afterwards will probably vary, but I think it’s at least fair to say that the style gives more credence to the “dungeon crawler” part of the description. Nevertheless, a game doesn’t run on looks alone, so I approached Das Geisterschiff with a great deal of caution.
To dismiss the most obvious bit first, despite calling itself a dungeon crawler, and certainly being one, Das Geisterschiff is not an RPG. There’s no character creation or inventory, statistics are limited to the bare minimum like accuracy, evasion and health, you have four different guns, and that’s basically it.
Then what’s left? A weird mash-up of features that ends up fairly compelling in practice. You are the pilot of a combat suit sent on covert ops that involve prowling through maze-like levels with step-based movement and blasting various undesirables in turn-based combat.
The combat works on an I-go-you-go basis, and though the narrow list of basic building blocks highlighted above could make it seem very simple, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Das Geisterschiff compensates the simplicity with many minor mechanics and quirks that give the gameplay more involvement than just shooting and ending turn.
For starters, all your guns are very distinct and fit for different purposes. The submachine gun is effective at short range and boosts your evasion, the assault rifle is better for longer engagements but makes you move like a slug, the laser rifle is more of a tool for busting through locked doors or mines since it’s too easily dodged by enemies, while the bazooka is a weapon of last resort with great damage but low ammo and splash damage that can also harm you if not handled with care. Choosing the right gun for the job is important, as enemies are varied in movement speed (some can move two steps in combat), behaviour and stats.
Another important thing to consider are your surroundings. Often it’s better to run away from an enemy than waste ammo and health, but for that you need a winding path where you could safely lose the heat. You can also gain advantage from high ground by standing on top of ramps or try to lead baddies into the vicinity of mines and blast them for splash damage, although truth be told you’re more likely to step into them yourself.
Since movement is paired with shooting, and you don’t have to choose one or the other, this gives you some more options as well. You can backpedal and shoot incoming melee enemies or hide behind a corner, then charge and fire off a burst from your smg as they get close. Or you can go for a straight-up crash course and ram the gits, though this makes both you and the target take damage – calculated by comparing the weights of both combatants – which will also let you shoot after the ramming is done. But you have to be careful, because dodging a ramming attack gives the combatant a free action – whether it’s moving back, counter-ramming or shooting, it’s never pretty for those on the receiving end.
You could still argue that all of this sounds basic, and I agree, but the thing is – it works. Thanks to all this, Das Geisterschiff rarely falls into a routine of predictable/throwaway encounters, because something can always go wrong, not to mention that they work well at burning through your resources. These would be health, which can be replenished if you find extra armour plating in a level, and ammunition, which can’t be refilled at all, and which makes running from unnecessary encounters all the more important.
However, there’s one big bummer that strips the combat of many of its merits, and that’s the enemy AI. I can understand simple bots being dumb, but the game also involves fights with enemy commandos who are just as likely to fall for the cheapest of tricks and who sometimes act in odd ways. For example, if you go into a minefield and combat starts, you’d expect your foe to wait for you to come through the hazard, but no, they’re in fact very happy to clear the way for you, often leaving themselves vulnerable once they need to reload after shooting the mines. Further, and this is a much bigger problem, running away from enemies is often as easy as moving around a column in circles until they lose interest and leave.
Finally, I think a major oversight that doesn’t let the combat really shine, and which lends itself to some of the AI exploits, is that you always face single enemies. If they came at least in pairs sometimes, you’d have to think much harder about tackling them efficiently, be careful about getting cornered, etc. Bonus points if you could also turn them against each other with friendly fire or just pre-scripted animosity.
Combat aside, we should proceed to the dungeon crawling, which is arguably the layer that Das Geisterschiff puts the most emphasis on.
Each level drops you into a gauntlet run of claustrophobic corridors, obstacles, enemies and objectives to fulfil. There are four of them in total, two short, two long (plus a tutorial that you’d be wise to go through because most of the mechanics aren’t immediately obvious), and all present their own personality and challenges.
Whether you’re going through an abandoned corporate office, the streets and tunnels of a cyberpunk slum or the titular “ghost ship”, the game does a fine job of making each level feel unique and adequately oppressive. The levels are big and their layouts can be (positively) confusing, and since the in-game automap shows only an area with a radius of two squares around you, some of the orientation-impaired players may find it helpful to keep notes or jot down the maps somewhere manually. It certainly isn’t required, since I didn’t need to take notes, but it may help if you find yourself getting lost too often.
Still, the mazes are not your only worry, because many things will be trying to hamper your progress, and these can vary a lot. The most basic ones are enemy encounters and doors, and since we’ve already touched on the former, let’s say something about the latter. Doors are often locked and need specific access levels to open, and finding the key cards in a level can sometimes take quite a bit of time. More so, they can also be jammed outright or open only in one way. Fortunately, and this is a great thing, if you’re impatient you can go ahead and ram or blow a door open and continue on your way, spending some ammo or health in the process. Note however that this won’t work on forcefields, as these can only be disabled at a console, and those often need the right access level to use as well.
Other obstacles can get a bit more elaborate and include teleporters, spinners, lethal rays of solar radiation or jammers. Jammers come in two types – minor which only mess with your UI and targeting, or major that completely switch off your vision. Navigating a level to find that one damned jammer that’s kept you blind since you entered can be very fun and satisfying.
And then we have mines.
I hate, hate, hate mines and the way they’re implemented. These shits are littered all around a level, don’t come into view until you’re two steps away, and explode for a lot of damage. The only ways of removing them are defusing (a skill check, can go awry), shooting from afar or luring enemies into them. As to why I hate them – their only purpose is to be a cheap annoyance that punishes you for keeping “W” pressed for too long. That’s all. There’s no fun or depth associated with this, and if you step into them it’s almost always by accident, not due to an actual mistake or because the game outsmarted you. And it’s even more aggravating because with the big levels, which also need a fair deal of backtracking, you’ll want to move as fast as possible, but you can’t do that with mines, which lie about and taunt you like 50 km/h speed limits on a highway.
Not everything in Das Geisterschiff is there to stomp your balls, though, and the levels also have plenty of other things that encourage exploration. These are primarily upgrades for your evasion, mine removal and accuracy scores, but also bits of armour plating that act like medkits – however, to apply them you need to find a workshop first. The upgrades can be received by going off the beaten path, finding secrets or finishing side objectives, even if there aren’t a whole lot of these.
Also, to move away from the mechanical side, I find it impressive how atmospheric Das Geisterschiff can be despite its limited presentation. The levels are consistently complemented with details that do a good job of giving “character” to the wireframe layouts. There are also descriptions of rooms and individual items that you can get when entering new places or by analysing them. All this, put together with the cramped networks of corridors and hostile environments where everything wants to murder you, provides a lot of that old-school kind of immersion that gets your imagination jogging.
Another thing that works well to keep you on your toes and which adds to the oppression (and annoyance about mines) is how the game handles saving. At the start of the game, you get a pool of 100 “save points” that remain with you until the end and never replenish. Saving your game costs 3 points, reloading costs 1 and there’s a free autosave between levels. I’d want to say “use them wisely”, but the truth is that the save point supply is very generous, and I think I spent only a third of it throughout the entire game.
One problem about the atmosphere, however, is that the longer you play, the more used you get to the mechanics and the better you become at the game, a lot of the feeling of isolation or danger disappears. Because let’s face it, when you parade around with 500 health and know all the AI exploits, it’s hard to be unnerved by anything. This is even more of a shame because it hits you the most during the level that is supposed to be the most atmospheric of the bunch.
We can start the obligatory tech chapter by mentioning that Das Geisterschiff runs on Unity. However, unlike many other games on that abomination of an engine, it happens not to run like ass – though I suppose that would have been an achievement in and of itself given its looks. It’s also fairly bug-free, and the few minor ones I ran into have since been fixed because the dev is very proactive about bug fixing.
I don’t think there’s more to say about the graphics that I haven’t addressed in the previous chapter or which you couldn’t glean from the screens, so let’s talk UI and ergonomics. The game is controlled fully with the keyboard, and there’s no mouselook of any sort since there’s no need for it. General functionality can be cumbersome at the start before you get used to the controls, but even then you’ll sometimes ram a door instead of opening it. The game can also be rather slow before you find out by yourself that caps lock toggles running, or in combat when it keeps popping up “ENEMY TURN” / “YOUR TURN” messages all the time when all you want to do is just run away.
The music is a collection of spooky dark ambient/industrial beep boops that work very well to support the gameplay and atmosphere, but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly memorable. Other sounds are very basic and limited, but with Das Geisterschiff’s minimalistic approach to everything, that’s not much of a big deal.
I guess you might also wonder whether this game has a story, so I can only say that it does indeed have a story, but its only purpose is to apply some kind of glue between individual levels. Lots of the writing bits are obviously derivative as well, but, again, it’s not like it matters much, and it’s not like you should even be expecting anything of too high quality regarding that in the first place.
As a first attempt at game development, made in a garage by mostly one guy, Das Geisterschiff is a promising start. It shows understanding of what makes good level design and a willingness to experiment with your own ideas, instead of retreating to established conventions just to stay on the safe side. It can’t be denied that at times it’s rough around the edges, has some infuriating bits and leaves a lot of room for expansion and improvement in most aspects, but what doesn’t?
The potential is definitely there, and I’m willing to cut the developer some slack on the shortcomings, especially since when viewed from the perspective of the whole package, they don’t stand much in the way of the fun coming from the gameplay. However, what I think is Das Geisterschiff’s biggest bane is its length and lack of replay value. With its four levels, I finished the game in roughly five hours, while you could probably do it even faster, and that’s even without mentioning that the final level is basically just one puzzle room with teleporters that ends up being a huge and mind-boggling waste of time. Plus, once you’ve finished the game once, there is very little reason to revisit it.
Twenty years ago, Das Geisterschiff would have been a shareware version of a bigger game. Today you can buy it for ten bucks on itch.io or Steam and keep your fingers crossed that the bigger game will come at some point in the future. But it might be that it’s all just a dream. Wake up.