I’ve enjoyed all of the previous Level-5 Guild titles with apologies to Yoot Saito, as I downloaded Areo Porter on sale after Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate came out and therefore have not found the time to find Aero Porter as addictive as he would want; and Liberation Maiden and I aren’t the best of friends because I’m left-handed. Damn, Crimson Shroud was an incredibly executed concept, though.
The first Western release from the Guild 02 series, The Starship Damrey, held an interesting promise for me as someone who grew up during the golden age of home computing, when tutorials were non-existent and even manuals (sometimes nothing more than a mimeographed sheet) were scant: you are dropped into the situation, and you have to figure everything out for yourself. When games consisted of I, J, K, and M controls and anything onscreen that responded to your input was you and anything else that moved was generally to be avoided or subjected to pretend laser fire this was not usually a tall order. The complexity of modern console games makes tutorials a must in most cases (and for a game like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate the gameplay is so demanding it could be argued that all progression is instructional) so this waving of the DIY ethos under my nose made The Starship Damrey a first-hour Nintendo eShop purchase for me.
I’m no real fan of ghost ship stories as I haven’t seen a single one that I felt justified my time and/or money (and one in particular will find a way to get me that ninety-plus minutes back if there’s any justice to be had in this life, because at this point I’m willing to forget the CDN$8.50). On this front The Starship Damrey was surprisingly good. The design of the ship and its technology, which the player mostly traverses in near darkness and inspects with nothing more than a headlamp, had a hard-edged but not trying too hard to be futuristic look that lent absolute gobs of atmosphere to the experience. Although the game didn’t go for many jump scares, the pervading darkness of the ship was as eerie as it was serene. The story broaches some of the usual ghost ship clichés, but in the ending and post-ending sequences manage to provide some plausible and even clever reasons for them. Characterization of the Damrey’s crew members and the assistant robot that acts as your eyes, ears and hands for much of the game is handled exceptionally well. Even though the player has little face-to-face interaction with the crew, all of them emerge as sympathetic or interesting at the very least. The assistant robot that you guide through hallways with that “zzzzsh zzzzsh” sound like some technologically accomplished carpet sweeper has moments where it shows genuine bravery and wit. One cinematic in particular which can be interpreted as either an homage or flip of the bird to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is worth the price of admission and time invested alone.
For all its promise The Starship Damrey’s gameplay fell short of the golden age experience for me. None of the puzzles tested my lateral thinking, which at the time felt merciful because of all the zzzzsh zzzzshing I had to do through the halls for the sake of rubbing one object against another, but in retrospect it feels disappointing. The one big puzzle-solving breakthrough I had was when I finally made a ninety degree turn in the right place to find the right machine to allow me to manipulate the object the assistant robot was currently carrying in the needed way. Disappointments aside, I’ll definitely be purchasing any future games in the Starship Damrey series. I think there are a lot of improvements that can and are likely to be made in future titles set in the game’s universe, which was established beautifully in this first outing and begs to be further explored.