Heat Signature is a simple sci-fi stealth/action RPG with permadeath that neatly fits into that one special category of games that frustrates all of us from time to time. You know the one: it contains all the games you are really close to buying because they seem cool but you don’t want to buy because it’s possible you’ll end up tossing it on the heap of games you own on Steam and never play. A lot of us pull the lever and spend a few bucks on the category sometimes. Some of us do it more than others, and we’ve all been left wanting more than we’d like at times. It’s like a slot machine. You keep pulling the lever hoping for the “jackpot” the same way many of us fed quarters into arcade machines back in the day. Actually, neuroscientists are increasingly telling us this is an accurate analogy for how the Internet and some games affect the brain. Loot crate microtransaction controversy, anyone?
We keep pulling that lever because our dopamine reward system compels us to do so (and also because it’s really fun). 4X gamers tend to be a little more resistant to the compulsion because we’re an analytical bunch, but we sure aren’t immune. None of us are immune because there’s that one other category games often fit into. Yeah, you know that one too. The one where we actually hit the jackpot and get huge enjoyment and value for our money. Which category is Heat Signature in? Should you go for it? Time to find out!
Heat Signature starts up with no loading screens. You are unceremoniously dumped into the game the same way you are dumped into missions. You know a little, but not enough to make sense of what you’re seeing. There is a tutorial that doubles as an introduction which lasts lasts about five minutes. In the introduction, you have a character with amazing weapons and there are instructions telling you exactly what to do and where to stand. The tutorial does a decent job of teaching you some basic game mechanics, but the game stops holding your hand very quickly and reduces you to some random guy at a bar with a wrench and no idea what’s going on. The not-knowing-what’s-going-on doesn’t have anything to do with being drunk at said bar, either.
The tutorial introduces the simple story of a highly trained woman with a “Kinetic Facebreaker” weapon (as good as the name implies) sparking a rebellion by taking over a siege ship and using it to crash the defenses of a space station. The catch is, she doesn’t feel like finishing said rebellion, and she’s been shot a bunch of times so you (the player) get to finish what she started. Kind of a crappy thing to do, but hey – we wanted a loose game plot, not a lesson in morality from someone who just killed a bunch of people. Point is, after a brief conversation with the only other NPC in the game you can talk to, you learn your task is to defeat four oppressive warring factions by liberating all their headquarters space stations. Simple, right? Clearly you should just become a mercenary and take care of everything.
NPCs let you know that by succeeding at various missions, you show the locals that it’s time to throw off the chains of their oppressors and claim independence. In a cool twist, “you” are not one specific “you” in this game. You play as a set of up to four people hanging out at a space station bar. Each one has a starting weapons kit (weak, of course) and the ability to accept missions. By completing easy missions and looting everything you can find, you gain wealth and items and grow more powerful. You also grow your reputation, liberate stations, and progress through the overall liberation metagame. If you die, you lose all that character’s money and items, but the overall progress remains. It’s an interesting flavor of the permadeath RPG genre. In the midst of Oliver’s 4X naming rubric article, I’ll resist calling it a Rogue-like or Rogue-lite until we’ve made another rubric.
There are several flavors of missions: hijack, steal, assassinate, capture, rescue, and liberate. All of these are fairly self-explanatory, but later we’ll see that it gets remixed into a more complex, layered experience. When you view available missions, they’re sorted by difficulty. There’s easy, medium, hard, audacious, and it tops out at the appropriately named “mistake.” Each mission has a detailed overview of what you’d be up against if you accept. Once you choose, you head into your “pod,” which is essentially an escape pod sized spacecraft designed to latch onto other spacecraft docking airlocks in order to break in. You take the controls and Asteroids-with-a-mouse fly your pod towards your indicated objective. When you reach your objective ship, you have to manually dock your pod with your objective ship to attempt the mission.
Missions are, of course, the meat of the game. They’re also where the game gets interesting. Every ship has a procedurally-generated layout of rooms and a set of guards with weapons and abilities that depend on the difficulty level of the mission. Your own toolkit of weapons starts out with lowly single shot projectile weapons and melee weapons like a pipe wrench. You’ll quickly find other options during missions or earn the cash to buy what the game promises: sci-fi super action hero goodness.
The more interesting loot comes in a few basic varieties: projectile weapons, melee weapons, grenade launchers, teleporters, and what I’ll call gadgets. Gadgets come in several flavors including key cloners, shields, traps, “crashbeams”, and these little directional cloaking devices that only prevent people from seeing you when you point it at them. These tools allow the player to become a personification of space assault spy gadget orgy of covert madness. Ian Fleming wishes he had thought of this stuff.
Each enemy faction in the game has its own ship tileset and general ship layout. More to the heart of the game, each faction has its own signature weapon type and/or gadget. Some of the weapons are non-lethal, which helps you complete missions that require capturing enemies or escaping without being detected.
Arguably the most interesting example is the Glitchers which are masters of gadgets that teleport you or your enemies. Depending on which gadget you obtain, you can lay traps that can teleport enemies to other rooms onboard a ship or even into space. One gadget lets you swap places with someone, and another Glitcher design teleports your character temporarily – you automatically glitch back to your initial point. You get about a second to carry out an assassination, grab an item, or if you’re equipped and creative, use yet another item! I won’t spoil the details, but in a fairly genius sci-fi storytelling twist, an NPC casually tells you at some point that glitching is (surprise!) lethal. It’s just your clone that carries on after you teleport. Hmm…
If all of this sounds like a frenzied button smasher of a game, you’d be mostly wrong. Heat Signature has a pause feature which allows you to switch weapons and issue commands while the action is stopped. The game can be paused a near-infinite number of times and as often as you like. You simply push the pause button again after issuing any command. This design allows the player time to plan moves and think about how to use every item and ship feature available. Stuck in a room with several enemies? Shoot out a window, teleport to safety in another room, and watch while your enemies get sucked into space, all while pausing in between each move so that you can aim well. In addition, aiming puts the game into slow motion, so only a little bit of reflexes are required.
If your reflexes fail and your character is eviscerated or asphyxiates in the blackness of space, you are returned to the bar at the last station you launched a mission from. From there, you can choose another character as if the game just began. As I said earlier, overall progress in the game’s universe is saved, and you can still fight for the cause of liberation with a new character that has terrible randomized starter items. If you get stuck, you’ll occasionally be given a “liberator” character that starts with high quality items and a mission to liberate a station. Completing the mission lets you keep the character, so you’ll never be perpetually stuck even after a string of deaths.
You might find yourself thinking something along these lines while playing: “Hmm. If a glitch trap can teleport enemies off the ship AND I can swap places with people at will, that means I can swap places with anyone while standing on my own trap and they’re instantly spaced. Oh, I hope that guy didn’t have the level 4 door key. Oh crap. He did. I guess I’ll go home now.”
And so it goes. In spite of the pause feature, there’s plenty of tension because the combinations of weapons and gadgets allow you to achieve both spectacular successes and hilarious failures. The real creativity in the game comes when players devise interesting combinations of items to use one after the other. Most of the more difficult missions have strict time requirements or large numbers of well-equipped guards that create situations needing creative solutions. Unfortunately, after reading about other players’ experiences, it seems that players have found a few somewhat foolproof combinations of items that make the game rather trivial. I haven’t played the most recent patches, so it’s possible some of this has been adjusted.
Conversely, the game seems to lack something if you’re not generating a bit of your own motivation. When your characters start to feel overpowered, you can take advantage of the game’s retirement feature to keep things challenging. As part of this feature, new characters have a chance to start with the weapons your old character had when you retired. Some players will no doubt want a game that crafts an intense and challenging experience without having to resort to voluntary “handicaps,” so consider that if you don’t like crafting your own challenge.
The game has plenty of content to offer despite being from an indie developer and having a low price. Bonus challenge missions where you start with a specific combination of weapons are pretty fun, and the main campaign will last you many hours. The campaign has that procedurally generated repetitive flavor to it, but as you liberate more space, you also unlock weapons which in turn unlock new strategies as well.
I’ll start my conclusion by making a simple statement. Heat Signature is a masterpiece of simplicity that leads to some fairly deep and creative gameplay. The game has simplistic menus, no loading screens or intro, intuitive and responsive controls, and a reasonably small set of enemy and mission types that expands as you play and learn more. The weapons are numerous but tooltips make them easy to understand. The weapon design also allows for a high level of creative space acrobatics that I’ve never experienced anywhere else that I can recall.
As with all memorable and wonderful things, Heat Signature amounts to more than the sum of its parts. The gamer version of the classic “this one time at band camp” style narratives that can come out of all that simplicity are memorable and fun, and there are many hours of enjoyment in this small package. I’d say this game is worth a look if it looks like it’s your thing, and on sale it would be a steal.
TL;DR: Heat Signature is a simple, yet surprisingly deep game that manages to fit a lot of sci-fi goodness into a package that isn’t overly complex. Mixtures of interesting items produce quality gameplay that is enhanced if players roleplay a bit and avoid min/maxing everything. A pausable real time combat system allows players to think and plan out actions rather than mash buttons. A metagame of faction-based space station conquering is supported by a mix of mission types and escalating complexity, which overall is simply a blast.
You might like this game if:
- You want to be space James Bond on stims (but without the scantily clad ladies)
- You enjoy learning by failing spectacularly in ways that creates fun “this one time” stories
- You’d like some excellent sci-fi flavor sprinkled in with your killin’
You might NOT like this game if:
- You want an intricately designed challenge that few players can master
- You don’t like having to handicap yourself in order to face a challenge
- You don’t enjoy games with permadeath
Disclosure: Matt received a free Steam key for the purposes of this eXcursion. He has played 15+ hours of Heat Signature on a custom-built PC which has an Intel i7-6700K, 16GB DDR3 RAM, and an MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB.