I loved reading 2000AD as a kid. The Future Shocks stories in particular were wonderful, and usually featured some hapless space explorer meeting a grisly end in some awful dystopian hellscape. Deep Sky Derelicts immediately made me think of these stories with its bleak setting, in which groups of ‘stateless’ mercenaries compete to scavenge giant, rotting spaceships in the hope of striking it rich, and the art style also really put me in mind of classic-era 2000AD with its thick, inky lines and gruesome detail. In fact, the comic-book-style panels that pop up when you launch an attack make it almost feel like you’re playing through some 1980s Future Shock tale. It’s brill, in other words. Well, it’s mostly brill – but more on that in a minute.
Deep Sky Derelicts has been around for a while now. It launched as an Early Access title back in 2017, debuting on Steam proper around a year later. Now it has made its way to consoles, and this new Definitive Edition includes the two DLC add-ons Station Life and New Prospects.
The core gameplay revolves around turn-based card battles against various creatures and ne’er-do-wells who stalk the ruined superstructures of giant, abandoned starships. As with any card battler, the aim is to craft a deck with a balance between attack and defence, packed with complementary cards. You might equip your tank unit with a Focused Shield, for example, which blocks three incoming attacks, then follow it up with a Provoking Strike to taunt the enemy into attacking that unit, leaving the other two team members safe from harm. But actually crafting a top-tier deck is pretty tricky – some cards come ‘built-in’ with certain classes of characters, but most cards are gained through equipping new, randomly generated weapons, tools and shields, each of which can be modified with two attachments that add further cards.
If that sounds confusing, then that’s because it is – and things are further complicated by the fact that each bit of equipment can have its own special quirks, like adding 5% damage or offering resistance to being stunned. Juggling all of these bits of equipment in an attempt to maintain an effective fighting force is a full-time job, and this constant micro-management will either thrill or bore you, depending on your temperament. In my case, I love all this constant optimising, but on the other hand, Deep Sky Derelicts doesn’t exactly make it easy.
With so many new bits of equipment being constantly thrown your way, ideally you want a way to easily compare your existing equipment with the stuff you’ve acquired. But here you’re forced to scroll through your inventory to see what you’ve got, then flick back to your character’s inventory to see whether the new stuff is better than what you have equipped. It’s kind of infuriating, and it could have been solved with an option to compare equipment side by side. There is a button to view compatible items for each equipment slot, which brings up any inventory items that will fit there, but you still have to tediously flick back and forth between them to find out what’s worth having.
In fact, the menu system in general is a bit clunky and inelegant, with big pop-ups for each item that obscure other parts of the menu. It feels like the designers have tried to cram every single bit of information on one screen, when it might have been a lot clearer to keep things like stats, equipment and card decks on separate tabs, with data displayed permanently under each item to avoid you having to select the icon to find out what that particular doohickey does. And in a further example of inelegance, the button to view the information on a card changes between the menu and the battle screen. I’m playing on PS4, and in battles you press R2 to view cards, but in menus it’s R3. I have absolutely no idea why this is, and even after hours of play, I find myself constantly pressing the wrong button.
Adding to all this frustration is the fact that the game’s systems are unreasonably obscure. Very little is explained to you, and working out what all the game’s stats and hazards actually mean is mostly down to trial and error or extensive trawls through the game’s codex. For example, on one level I noticed that my team’s health was torn to shreds when I went through certain cross-hatched squares, which I subsequently discovered were blizzards. It took a long time, and a lot of scrolling through codex entries, to discover that I had to buy expendable hazard protection suits from the home space station’s store to avoid this kind of damage.
Then again, the actual act of exploration is pretty good fun, and enjoyably tense. You have a single pool of energy which is depleted as you explore, as well as being run down every time you play a card in battle. Running a scan also uses up energy, but doing this is essential to reveal nearby hazards, enemies and potential loot. Gradually filling in the black squares on an unexplored spaceship is compelling, and the fact that you have to make sure you always have enough energy in reserve to make it back to the entrance adds in a constant frisson of tension and excitement. You can also opt to choose between three movement modes: Stealth, Normal and Rush, with Stealth using more energy but potentially letting you get the jump on baddies, while Rush uses the least energy but opens you up to being ambushed. All this makes for lots of enjoyable decision-making as you press into the depths, balancing risk with reward.
The battles are fun, too, with enjoyable changes in fortune as you wrestle to get the upper hand against packs of weird creatures, which incidentally are wonderfully designed. You’re constantly having to adapt your strategy according to the cards you’re randomly dealt, and the times when it all goes to plan are incredibly satisfying. Like temporarily disabling an enemy’s shield with one character using the Shield Manipulation card, then finishing it off with a powerful strike from your melee character straight afterwards.
But even with all these strategy options, the game does tend to get a little repetitive, and it doesn’t help that it’s essentially linear. You have several derelicts available to explore at any time, but they each have a set level of difficulty, so the only sensible option is to tackle the ones that are the same level as your characters and do them in order. There’s also the option to hire new mercenaries of different classes as a way to change your approach and inject some variety, but really this isn’t practical. Hiring a new team member costs around 1,000 credits, and credits are generally in short supply since you need them to heal your team and restock your energy after every mission. But even if you can afford to recruit a new member, it would mean permanently dismissing one of your existing crew – which is a risk seeing as you might not get on with the new crew mate’s fighting style. Plus there’s the fact that you’ll have to pour even more credits into outfitting the new team member with weapon mods and implants to get them up to speed with the rest of the team.
It would have been much better if you could recruit new team members by finding them on the derelicts as you explore. Then they could be added to a team roster back on the space station that you could select from at will before each mission. This would have encouraged more experimentation with different playing styles, as well as giving an extra impetus to explore every nook and cranny of the derelicts in the hope of finding (or rescuing) potential crew.
As it is, you’re pretty much stuck with your original team selection unless you have the cash – and the guts – to permanently ditch one of your crew in favour of an untested new recruit. This is kind of irritating, but it is far from the game’s worst problem – which is its tendency to crash. On PS4, Deep Sky Derelicts has frozen or crashed completely on me three times now, which might not sound like a lot, but each time I’ve lost up to around an hour of gameplay. The game only autosaves when you enter a derelict, so unless you remember to perform manual saves frequently as you go, your progress across entire maps can be wiped out with one crash. Part of the reason why this review has taken so long is that I’ve set the game aside for days at a time after a particularly infuriating crash-induced progress wipe.
So Deep Sky Derelicts has more than a few problems, then. But having said that, its core is solid: the card-based battles are exciting and infinitely customisable, while exploring abandoned spaceships is a brilliant exercise in trading risk with reward. The graphics, too, are wonderful, with that excellent 2000AD art style. Yet it all falls down somewhat in the finer details – the clunky menus, the linear gameplay and the unnecessary difficulty in changing your team. And let’s not get started on the crashes.
Still, I enjoyed my time delving into darkened space hulks, and as card battlers go it’s a pretty good one, just not up there with genre leaders like Slay the Spire. But if a few of those rough edges could be filed off, Deep Sky Derelicts could be truly amazing.
Deep Sky Derelicts was developed by Snowhound and is available on PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Switch and Xbox One. We played the PS4 version.
Disclosure statement: review code for Deep Sky Derelicts: Definitive Edition was provided by Evolve PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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