Halcyon 6 is a strange beast. It is a game that routinely prompts me to ask “Why in God’s great earth am I still playing this?” Yet time and again I find my mouse cursor drifting back over the play button as I watch myself, in horror, making that fatal left-click to launch. Surely this has to be worth something… Tell me it’s all worth something…
You may have heard that Halcyon 6, developed by Massive Damage, is a sort of mashup between FTL, XCOM, 4X Games, Roguelikes, JRPGs, Star Trek, and maybe even Darkest Dungeon. Phew! While the game borrows bits and pieces of mechanics, or themes, or overall vibes from these games, it’s also like none of them – which is both good and bad. So what the heck is Halcyon 6 anyway?
I’ll try to keep this simple, starting with the backstory. Humanity (a.k.a. the Federation) stumbles across this massive, ancient space base (i.e. Halcyon 6), which they start exploring (curiosity killed the cat you know). Soon enough, some extradimensional space monsters invade human territory (surprise, surprise!) by opening these gruesome-looking portals. The baddies (i.e. the Chruul) look like a cross between the flying spaghetti monster and Krang – except much larger and with a lot more teeth and pulsating bits. Resistance was, naturally, futile – and so most of humanity’s core worlds were consumed. Lo and behold, you find yourself sitting there as commander of Halcyon 6 – now one of the last bastions of humanity.
As for the major mechanics, there are a few things going on. First you have the exploration and development of the starbase itself, which is where the XCOM similarities begin (and end). You have rooms that you need to clear out with an exploration team in order to free up space to build all manner of special facilities. Facilities include things like resource generators (materials, dark matter, and crew), power stations, and ship upgrade departments (propulsion labs, repair bays, etc.). One room houses your R&D division and there is a modest tech tree that you can work through in order to insta-unlock new buildings or ship blueprints.
With the curious exception of research, which happens instantly, everything you do in your starbase requires an officer to lead the effort. Officers come in three flavors: engineering, science, and tactical. Certain types of officers will perform their duties more quickly. Training crew? Use tactical officers. Harnessing dark matter? Get Neil DeGrasse Tyson on it. Tougher job? Get a higher ranked officer involved. Many of these activities have a chance to trigger special, often amusing events.
So, layered onto the base management part of the game is this whole officer management system – and I suppose that’s where it feels a bit like Darkest Dungeon. You’ll gradually recruit more and more officers in order to perform more and different tasks. Officers level up as they gain experience, allowing you to unlock new skills to utilize in either ground or fleet combat (we’re getting there, hang on!). As they perform tasks, officers will also take on all manner of traits, phobias, and quirks. Mostly these can be ignored and aren’t hugely important to your play (unlike Darkest Dungeon), but they add a little character and whimsy to the experience if you start reading the descriptions and using your imagination a bit.
Of course, this isn’t all there is. You also have space ships. I suppose this is where the FTL references come into play. You see, FTL and Halcyon 6 both involve moving space ships around and frequently shooting at things with laser beams – something those games share with about a bajillion others. They both also have adorable pixel art if you’re into that sort of thing (I am, and I ain’t got no shame). But that is the end of the comparisons to FTL. In Halcyon 6, you’ll be building multiple ships (all with fixed characteristics), assigning officers, and sending out fleets (of up to three ships) to do your bidding across various missions.
This is where Halcyon 6 starts to feel a little bit more like a sandbox-style 4X game. Like XCOM, the strategic layer works in plausible real-time. So when you send off a fleet, you’ll see it flying across space as the hours and days march by. Meanwhile, back at the starbase, time is also progressing and your officers will be hard at work constructing more trinkets of mass destruction. You do have a lot of leeway to decide how, by whom, and when a certain mission will be performed. So outside of accomplishing the fixed quest objectives, there is fair amount of free-form gameplay.
What, then, are these missions? Initially you’ll be sending off your fleet to re-establish contact with humanity’s fragmented colonies who will start to provide a steady stream of resources that your fleets can pick up and ferry back the starbase. Pirates will also give you trouble and so you’ll need to attack them to keep their filthy paws off your stuff. Of course, the Chruul are still around so occasionally a portal will open up and spew a few of the Krang-monsters out to harass your colonies. This early phase of the game is punctuated by a frantic, yet somewhat tedious, dance of zipping your fleets between stars – gathering resources here, fighting pirates there – as you slowly build up the starbase and advance your capabilities (i.e. more officers, bigger ships, more research).
The tedious part has to do, mainly, with combat. You’ll be doing a LOT of fighting with your spaceships in the game. Like, constantly. The combat system itself isn’t bad, as it uses as a simplified JRPG (Japanese RPG, think Final Fantasy) structure. Basically, combat is turn-based with the speed attribute of your ships/crew determining the order and frequency of when they can perform an action relative to the enemies. Combat maxes out as 3 vs. 3 showdowns – which keeps the gameplay pretty tight. The abilities you have at your disposal for each ship is a function of the ship itself (science vs. engineering vs. tactical ship types) as well as the commanding officer – who may have additional and more diverse skills on offer.
The cool thing, conceptually, is how the combat mechanics work. Most attacks or abilities have some sort of “inflict” or “exploit” effect. So for example, my science ship might be able to scramble enemy sensors, inflicting the “sensors down” effect on the enemy. Then my tactical ship might have some stronger attack that lets it exploit the same “sensor down” effect on its target – resulting in massive critical hits and bonus damage. Much of the strategic planning in-game revolves around assembling the right crew and ships for each of your fleets such that they have some strong synergies between them. So far, so good.
The problem is that once you get a fleet arrangement worked out, there is basically nothing that forces you to change it up or re-evaluate your options over the course of the game. You’ll be fighting your way through a LOT of battles, and all of them will fall into the same pattern of ability chaining, over and over again. This is really unfortunate, because the battles themselves can be, despite this, pretty tense and exciting at times. And not just because of all the sweet pixel art effects, sound, and music (which are quite well done, BTW), but because victory can slip from your grasp quite easily.
This highlights a bigger challenge facing the game. While you are handcuffed to a certain strategy to follow during combat, you are also totally at the mercy of the random number generator gods. Most of the time this isn’t an issue – but it can be highly swingy at times if the enemies land a few (unlucky for you) hits in a row. Sometimes you might lose a fight or escape badly damaged – whereas in another instance of the same basic encounter you might escape with nothing but a scratch to the paint job. This has nothing to do with player decisions and everything to do with random variance in the battle mechanics.
Fortunately – and despite its appearances and influences – this game is definitely NOT a roguelike. You can, and will want to, save and reload your game liberally for a few reasons. The wild swings in combat outcomes is one. If you lose a high-level officer and their ship, it can end the game right there. Technically you can recover from losing a single officer, but in reality this means having to grind back through hours of missions to get the next-in-line sufficiently trained up to command your top-of-the-line ship. If you lose the whole fleet – forget about it. This is unfortunate, because if the game were a little more forgiving AND was actually more roguelike, that’s exactly what you might want to shake up the gameplay (since new officers would come online with a different mix of skills). But alas, it’s not so.
The other reason that I’m thankful for the ability to save and reload liberally has to do with some of the bigger quest missions that advance the story. Without giving too much away, the basic problem is this: You do something the game tells you to do, which advances the story. But then the game tells you “Oh no! because you did X, you better get ready to defend yourself from Y by building Z!!!” Except that you don’t have nearly enough time or forewarning to build “Z”… And so you are just screwed. On a few occasions I’ve had to go back to a save from a few hours earlier just to get better prepared to do “Z” when the time comes. This is just frustrating and not very well-paced gameplay design.
That said, Halcyon 6 has a lot of charms to help make up for its faults. Another 4X-y sort of thing is that space is also inhabited by half a dozen other alien species. Early in the game they’ll send out an envoy to greet you and wish you all the best/worst in the coming years as you try to rebuild humanity. From time to time, the alien factions will ask for help or alert to you a looming threat – and how you respond affects your relationship standing with that faction.
Generally, you want to stay on good terms with the aliens, because they can give you resources or, later on, help provide warm bodies in the fight against the Chruul. As a bonus, the writing for the aliens is quite comical and amusing. Some of the aliens I wanted to keep around just because I got a kick out of seeing their faces pop-up on the starbase humung-o-tron.
Halcyon 6 has an interesting assemblage of mechanics that gel together reasonably well. But there is definitely a tedious and grindy side of the game. Early on you’ll just be looping around the galaxy collecting resources and fighting wave after wave of the same stuff. Later in the game some of the tedious pickup and delivery can be automated (thankfully) – but there are still lots and lots of battles to wade through, which mostly play out the same way each time.
So, going all the way back to the top of this article, why am I still playing it? Quite honestly I want to see what the end of the game has to offer. I have about 15 hours in my current playthrough and I’m only about halfway through the second act of this three-act show. The narrative, as simple as it is, has a spark of delight to it that keeps me wanting to see what’s around the next turn – even if that means having to backtrack a little. And despite the tedium of combat, I find it oddly therapeutic and relaxing to watch my little pixel-art spaceships and crew members blast away at giant space-born abominations. I don’t use this word often in reviews, but there is something just “fun” about how it all comes together: the mechanics, the theme, the art-style. And in a way, even the not-so-good pacing.
TL;DR: Halcyon 6 is a curious blend of base-building with crew management, JRPG-style combat, 4X-ish galaxy-spanning shenanigans, and adorable pixel art. All of the individual parts, on their own, are relatively simple and pedestrian – but they come together in a compelling mix. Unfortunately, the game lends itself to a more-than-desirable level of tedium and grindy-ness. But if you can look past that, it manages to be its own quirky delight with a clever combination of mechanics and an amusing story. It’s not a deep brain-burner, but it has an addictive charm that nevertheless tickles my strategic nerves and keeps me hooked.
You might like this game if:
- You are into space, space ships, laser beams, gross alien invasions, OMG crazy effects!, Star Trek references, and pixel art
- You enjoy JRPG-style turn-based combat with plenty of abilities and synergies
- You don’t mind linear storylines with the occasional need to rewind to early saves to “get it right”
You might NOT like this game if:
- You are beefing with the RNG gods and you can’t stand the thought of save scumming
- You are looking for a particularly deep strategic experience – there is lots going on in Halcyon 6, but it is all on the lighter fare menu
- You are an agent of the Chruul
Oliver has played over 25 hours of Halcyon 6 on a Microsoft Surface Pro 2. This game works pretty well with a touchscreen!