Deadnaut

I will cut to the chase. Deadnaut is my Game of the Year. A fresh, dark and compelling squad strategy affair that draws on roguelikes as much as it does ALIENS, Screwfly Studios’ science-fiction survival follow-up to Zafehouse Diaries is far and away the most exciting thing I’ve played in 2014.

In a universe not too dissimilar to Dan O’Bannon’s Star Beast career dime-turn, Deadnaut is a hydraulically-driven retrofuturist orbiter of dials, C-scope radar displays and unreliable electronic equipment. A thankfully distant cry from the optimistic phasing and lycra-suited romping seen elsewhere; Deadnaut is a three-screen interface, rendered in the cold and worn utilitarian aesthetic of Cold War materiel. Dark and detached, it is the player’s job to guide a five-strong squad of expendables through drifting derelicts to either ascertain what happened to the craft and crew, or to put a stop to the terror within.

SPACECOM is the only other title this year to match Deadnaut’s dedication to minimalist strategy design, but unlike a riff on Galcon, Screwfly’s tactical effort is quite granular. On the surface, it seems a simplified affair beneath a complex artifice, but there is so much to consider when you acclimatise to the nuances of Deadnaut.

Looking like a module from Dangerous Waters, Deadnaut cleverly folds discrete menus into an interface that just sings to the deft accomplish this tiny dev team have stitched together. The ambience is palpable; across a variety of glowing, cycling readouts and panels, it feels exactly as retrofuturism paints the far-flung years ahead. Analog switches that clack into their binary positions, the hum of CRT readouts and the trill of sine-wave alarms. Two large, superfluous but fitting handle brackets sit either side of the scanner array and it just looks right.

Each mission has the Deadnaut vessel jump to and approach a distant derelict to breach and retrieve or explore. Players assume the role of a commander and, while the delegation is not far removed from a typical real-time tactical game like Door Kickers, shunting the squad around is coldly abstracted and wonderfully engrossing. Information is not always reliable, with the harsh reality of faulty communication and technology amplifying the tense nature of each mission. Deadnauts have particular tech-based class skills that infer roles; tech suits offering a variety of hacking and electronic module gadgetry, sensor suits offering heightened scanning abilities and so on. Some of this gear will break, some will interfere with ship systems. Such is the job, where the rewards are great and survival is slim.

Commanders direct their squads deep into the enigmatic guts of these ghost ships, securing as much information as possible while completing the mission objectives. Information forms Deadnaut’s currency, and as such, wanting to kit out a clutch of soldiers – particularly ones that have run a few missions together and seem to have formed firm bonds – is often predicated on how willing you are to risk them in any extra exploration. Nothing deflates confidence more than a sojourn-turned-tragedy made on the return trek. Fortune does often favour the bold, however, with intermission equipment purchases markedly increasing the efficacy of troops. As such, tech lust drove this Gorman pretender to rack and ruin.

It is the little things that make Deadnaut stand out. The squad banter scrolls in much the same way one would read the action log of an old RPG, minus the archaic scrivening of combat. Squad members talk about all manner of things; from the banal to direct responses to actions undergone. This correlates and corresponds to their disposition and health, displayed on an array of personal readouts. Cardiographs, ailments, specific attributes; Deadnaut really does make you feel like you’ve got a bunch of geared-up but independent operators at your command. It goes a long way to humanise what is ostensibly a blip on an array. A fragile blip, one prone to proclivities and at the mercy of their traits and flaws under pressure.

I shan’t spoil the outstanding writing of the game, and fear pulling back the curtain on cleverly recycled narrative compositing might dilute enjoyment, but there’s so much meat on the bone here for sci-fi strategy fans. Reading backstory is something I often skip in gaming on account of it usually being awful, but Deadnaut offers a fantastic read. Always with the right payload of subtlety and mechanical crunch. Given that the game does revolve around procedural generation, the developers have managed to make each mission feel far more unique than your usual proc-gen delivery. The accompanying writing, however incidental, fits marvelously. Coupled with the solemn audio package, I have not played a game this rich and full in a while.

The caveat is simply that, if the idea of roaming about a hulk in real-time – especially one as visually abstracted or conservative as this – isn’t immediately appealing, then there’s little here for you. It is a narrow game; focused wholesale on equipping, delegating, cloning and surviving. In much the same way people love Dark Souls or roguelikes or dungeon crawlers, Deadnaut is lean and brutal. There is no real variation beyond mission objectives, so those looking for a swathe of discrete and disparate parameters will be caught short.

But if any of the above sounds like your bag of space juice, then it does not get any better than this in 2014. Deadnaut does for science-fiction strategy what Silent Hunter does for submarine simulators. It is tight, tense and fresh. Highly, highly recommended.