I won’t beat around the bush here: Deep Sky Derelicts is a game that demands a dedication to tedium and a large reservoir of grit. It can take quite a bit of time to even start to comprehend how all the game’s systems function, as most things are not fully explained and you’ll have to learn quite a bit on the go. Navigating derelicts requires a few skills that only experienced mercs have mastered: managing energy reserves and identifying the variety of map symbols is just the start. You’ll soon take on the task of understanding the combat system, which leads into a greater appreciation- and possible hatred- for the item system. A master’s degree may be required to understand how the mod, tool, and weapons all work together. In the end, it’s on your shoulders to learn how it all harmoniously works together, or for some, how it doesn’t- and falls in a pool of tediousness. I absolutely loved this game and was driven to play it right to the end, but it all started off on one extremely shaky derelict.
Looking at it from afar, Deep Sky Derelicts is played by maneuvering your mercenary crew through uncharted derelicts via a board-game like map. The reasons for digging around in old derelicts is shrouded in mystery from the get-go, bu you’ll attempt to uncover secrets, scavenge materials, and obtain location data at the behest of the someone that calls themselves the sub-governor. Zooming into the gameplay a bit further reveals a hefty amount of crunchy item and crew skill management, with a few minor additions found within the implant and research upgrades. If this all sounds daunting, that’s because it is. There’s a lot stowed away in Deep Sky Derelicts.
The game’s combat system relies on building a solid deck of cards by equipping various tools, weapons, shields, and mods. The number and type of each item slot is dependent on the class of the party member. A medic may be able to equip, two tools but is limited by their ability to only equip a ranged weapon, whereas other classes may be able to equip both a melee and ranged weapon. There is a total of 8 different classes, 5 different personality traits, and 10 different class specializations. Equipment may come with a variety of stat adjustments and cards. This is probably an understatement, but there’s a huge variety in all types of equipment. If you don’t like something you just looted, don’t worry, you’ll soon be swimming in more than enough extra loot. Herein lies a bit of a catch-22: because of its predictable, luck-based deck mechanics, by equipping more items you’ll increase the number of cards in your hand and decrease the chances of drawing those cards you really need. The whole system is quite flexible and can be changed any time by accessing the menu. I went through numerous cutting and bulking phases during my playthrough until I ended up where I felt like I needed to be.
Deciding on what equipment to use, buy, or sell is one of the most tedious and awesome aspects of Deep Sky Derelicts. You will acquire enough loot to often max out your inventory while out exploring a derelict, only to be presented with a vendor who is selling a large number of new items when you return to home base. At first, this presents itself as a surplus of player choice, which is often welcomed with open arms. Except that it takes quite some time to determine what’s better than your current setup. Deep Sky Derelicts doesn’t give you an easy way to compare whats equipped versus that cool new item, forcing you to switch back and forth. As you might imagine, this is not the most efficient way to deal with a major stockpile of new loot. It does get better as you become more familiar with items and what is possible, but it feels like a number-crunching chore at the start.
On the positive side of the spectrum, the large volume of new loot means you get a lot of chances to customize each character to your liking. You’re free to substitute out items as soon as you get them, no need to head to base or find a specialized shop. That’s not to say there aren’t shop vendors on derelicts. There’s quite the cast of characters on each derelict and due to the game’s roguelike nature, each one seems new and unique. Eventually, you won’t be poor and will have the ability to use the hefty crafting system the game has to offer. While it’s not required, the temptation to spend thousands upon thousands on random stat crafting is enticing. When crafting, the potential stats of each item are clearly displayed, so you know what you’re getting into before spending your hard-earned cash. To unlock crafting specific items you just have to disassemble an item of that type. As with a lot of things in Deep Sky Derelicts, the choice is yours. I didn’t do as much crafting as I thought I would simply because looting derelicts was so profitable.
Exploring derelicts requires energy. Moving spaces and combat rounds all require energy to complete. While exploring derelicts, you are free to come and go as you please, so long as your energy reserves allow. Run out of energy, and for each turn you take you’ll be one turn closer to death, as your health ticks away. Energy consumption is clearly displayed in the game’s interface prior to moving, so there’s really no surprises and you’ll only have yourself to blame if you don’t have enough to make it back to the landing pad. Be sure to keep some energy cells on hand in case you get in a pinch and need a refill. It is here you will find the grind cycle of explore derelicts, find things, return to base, return to derelicts. There’s quite a deep middle to this game so prepare yourself for a bit of constant grinding through the abandoned derelicts.
Character progression in Deep Sky Derelicts is level-based. By completing quests, battling enemies, and finding your way out of sticky trap-like situations you will be awarded experience points. Gain enough experience points, and you’ll then gain ability points, which can be used to learn new skills and (after level 4,) specializations. Character level has no impact on what items you can equip, but you’re unlikely to find level six items while at level one, so the system evens itself out in the end. There are skill respec options available anytime through the medical facilities at home base, which I encourage you to seek out and utilize. You’ll likely find out those skills you originally thought useful are now dragging you down. Sometimes respecing and refocusing each character is your best bet to advancing through difficult fights.
Deep Sky Derelicts doesn’t have a whole lot of narrative, starting off and remaining extremely weak throughout the entire game. The player is not given a whole lot of direction, only to go search derelicts for information from a mysterious man in charge. This is the main premise for the entire game all the way up to till you reach the mothership and discover the neglected derelict secret. I can’t say Deep Sky Derelicts is worth it from a main story arc standpoint, but then again, I wasn’t really playing it for the story to begin with.
The game is not without any narrative, though. The best storytelling elements are found while out rummaging through derelicts, as each has its own set of quests and characters that can be done immediately or left for a later date. I didn’t find any quests that were time-boxed, which allowed me to jump back and forth between derelict and home base reliably. I’ll call these derelict-based quests the title’s side quests, and for what Deep Sky Derelicts lacks in its main storyline, it makes up for it plus some with these character-filled side stories. They wildly range from deadly serious, to funny, to making you question all of your life choices. While spelunking through derelicts to get to the information is the overarching goal, the journey itself is filled with many more interesting events and plotlines that you should definitely pay attention to.
Deep Sky Derelicts showcases a unique comic-book aesthetic style. I’m a big fan of hand-drawn art styles in general, but Deep Sky Derelicts has to be one of the best in this category. All of the narrative sequences, home base shops, combat, and character avatars are done in this aesthetic. The game looks absolutely stunning, and the way Snowhound Games has added the small animation effects to the battle scenes makes it all even better.
Considering you’ll be spending a lot of time managing items, it’s a good thing that the background music and sound design is not atrocious. I’m not one to call out sound effects or music unless they are either very good or bad, and Deep Sky Derelicts falls somewhere on the high-end of this spectrum. Sitting here writing, I don’t vividly remember any of the main themes nor do I fear to hear them again. What’s important is that when I really blasted my enemies for major damage it both looked and sounded like a major hit. This is an easy win in my book.
Impressions and Conclusion
Many games are not without their issues, but instead of feeding you a line of “it’s great, but comes with problems!” I’ll lay it out plain and simple: Deep Sky Derelicts has quite a few user interface-related bugs. One I encountered often occurred after utilizing a skill that lets you redraw your hand, where I couldn’t select any of my cards to play until the select button was pressed. This was quite annoying, but far from a show-stopping bug. There’s also a nasty delay or interface bug where after you deploy a generator, when the game sits there processing while you mash buttons wondering whats going on. I never got to the bottom of this one, but waiting seemed to do the trick. Once again, annoying but far from offensive enough to cause me to close the game and find something else to do. There was also this one time when the game thought one enemy was actually a different type of enemy, but this was more hilarious than anything.
Now there was one bug that I couldn’t let go by unscathed. The level six Tinkerer ability Scrounger allows you to pick and keep one of three cards at the beginning of each turn and put the rest back into the deck. The card select cursor never lets you choose one of the three cards, however, and you just have to accept what is given to you. It’s no better than not getting the skill at all and is entirely broken. I also experienced a larger-than-normal amount of hard crashes. My only advice to you here is to save early and often. It’s the only defense against the dark arts of buggery.
Deep Sky Derelicts is an impressive title for the Nintendo Switch, and one that I’ve come to enjoy quite a bit. It took quite a while for all the mechanics and cycles to sink in, which then helped me appreciate it for what it is. Sure, the item management is heavy-handed, but I did get more adept at working the system rather than against it, sailing quite smoothly through the last third of the game. It has its fair share of quirky bugs and game stoppages, but absolutely none of these stopped me on my quite enjoyable 30-hour marathon towards the finish line. This is easily one of the top games of 2020 for me- the flexibility and sheer amount of choice in the skills and item system lets you build your characters based on your whims. It almost feels like a gigantic space sandbox, where you- the lone captain- steer your mercs through dangerous and deadly space, fighting aliens, robots, dealing with rude computers, and finding out just how much grit you really have.