There's a reason that some gamers get excited at the news of Guild01 and Guild02 localisations in the West, as Level-5's collections gather some of the Japanese development community's finest names to produce small titles of, well, whatever genre they feel like trying out. The Starship Damrey is the first of the second collection to come West, from Kazuya Asano and Takemaru Abiko, with a focus on storytelling above all else. This isn't survival horror, it's not quite a puzzle adventure, and we'd categorise it more as an interactive story. When played in the right circumstances, with headphones in a quiet room, the atmosphere has the ability to draw you in for the short time that it lasts.
Set aboard the Starship Damrey, you awaken in a sleep capsule that you can't leave on your own, forcing you to use a computer to control a robot throughout the ship. You don't know who you are, what you're supposed to be doing or why, so it's simply a case of figuring it all out by yourself.
It's a risky premise to try in the modern age of gaming, but this title's simplicity means that it succeeds without baffling and confusing the player. In fact, the trickiest puzzle is at the start as you boot up your computer, a quirky segment that immediately immerses you into the tale. Once you've taken control of your robot the meat of the experience begins, as you clunkily maneuver — it is a robot, after all — throughout the ship with the d-pad, while regularly stopping to explore the immediate vicinity with the Circle Pad.
You start off with a map of unknown rooms, and a pattern quickly emerges: you move to the next room, explore it thoroughly — looking for the tell-tale prompt to learn about or interact with an item — and then move onto the next area. Early on that's the focus, and you gradually earn a greater perspective of the environment, discovering items and individuals and, piece by piece, form the beginnings of an understanding of what's happened on the ship.
Puzzles do come into play, but the structure remains simplistic courtesy of a fairly linear progression and the robot's ability to carry just one item at a time. The ship is split up into three floors and plenty of rooms, but with ID cards to be discovered that allow access to various areas, it's difficult to go too far off course. In our playthrough there were just two occasions where we were stuck, but both times brief backtracking and experimentation brought the solution into the open.
In that respect, this game rewards diligent focus in order to avoid missing details, with some items requiring multiple but logical scans. Anyone looking for mind-bending challenge will be disappointed, but the puzzles do at least necessitate a steady, gradual exploration, in the process setting the narrative tempo on the game's terms. Add in the methodical and mechanical movement of the robot, and it's clear that the game, rather than the player, is determining the experience.
And that is fitting. As we've suggested before, this is more an interactive story than a video game, reminiscent of exploration point-and-click PC titles of past gaming eras. The story is only told with a clear narrative at the end, in what is a fairly clever denouement, and what comes before is a mystery to be unpicked one item description or journal entry at a time. What matters is that, regardless of it 'reading' like a re-tread of sci-fi tales well-worn, it's compelling and effective. Our playthrough took just three hours, but would have been in one sitting had it not been for the inconvenience of a meal interfering progress. You start off knowing nothing, and the experience compels you to remedy that, one room at a time.
Presentation does matter with this story-telling approach, though luckily for The Starship Damrey design and concept matters more than the raw visuals, which are choppy and not far beyond N64 standards. The 3D effect is shallow but adds a little to the overall result, while sound design is well done with clunks and bangs occasionally serving to spook you out. The only weaknesses are the occasional pre-rendered cut-scenes, which are betrayed by poor resolution that, ultimately, looks worse than the main game engine.
Despite the crudity of the graphics, the art design does serve its purpose rather well. The ship is a brooding metallic shell, with its darkness and look giving it a cold, foreboding vibe. Beyond the realities of crew quarters and storage rooms, there are some touches of the supernatural that can genuinely put you on edge. Peculiarly, we also became rather attached to our robot, which shows glimpses of heroism and humour at key moments; we may have been controlling it, but that speaks volumes for the solid scripting on show.
Ultimately, what serves to let this game down is that, for some, it'll be a little short, while the minimalist approach and simplistic puzzles can be considered negatives. Extras such as spotting and exterminating space leeches scattered around the ship and an option to link save data from Guild01 releases on the system give little pay off, with extra back-story and little more. It's over as fast as it's begun, with no real reason to play through again, while the robot's mechanical movement can be imprecise and a frustration at points.
Whether this provides an enjoyable experience is strongly dependent on the audience, in that case, as this title may struggle to hit the universal appeal of more cinematic, flowing exploration adventure games, with design choices and pacing that can feel a tad over deliberate. That said, if the concept is appealing, we'd suggest that this experience does deliver with compelling, atmospheric storytelling. Recent confirmation of additional "chapters" to be released are good news, in that respect, as much is left unexplained, with plenty of context ready to be clarified.
The Starship Damrey is more like a narrative experience than a typical video game, harking back to retro equivalents of the PC-age in the '90s. Rarely taxing, with the only dead ends coming because of a failure to thoroughly explore rooms and find relevant objects, it's all about the environment and piecing together a storyline. It's well written and utterly engrossing for fans of the genre or mystery sci-fi, even if its deliberate pacing and simplistic approach can be a turn-off to some. We expect this to be a divisive title, and it could do with a little extra content, but delivers exactly what it has promised, and is unapologetic as it does so.