Space Got You Tense? I Got Your Back!
A scavenger? I knew already Flatspace was going to grab my attention. Any game where I can basically play a space trucker, I am in. But you let me play a space scavenger? Oh boy, now I’m getting excited – I barely even looked at the other classes when I created my first character. Mordaith the Scavenger was born, with a little over 80 space credits to his name.
But money wasn’t the only information to pop up after character creation. Two other bits grabbed my attention: Training and Specialty. The first was listed as Medical, and I wondered what kind of life my character had led that took him from his medical training to the life of scavenging junk in space. Then I saw his specialty: Massage.
I was a wandering junk dealing space masseuse. After taking a moment to absorb that, I started wondering what the in-game implications were. Would I get special massage related missions or a chance to relax the crew if they got unruly? Was this all just fluff with no mechanical impact? I decided to set out into the hyperlanes of Flatspace to find out.
Flatspace IIk is a free roaming space simulator, in which the player explores sectors via a top down map, and traverses the multitude of sectors through the larger galactic map. The game allows you to take on many roles to help you in your expeditions – from bounty hunter or space cop to scavenger or deadly assassin. And those are just if you are playing a human.
A Cult Classic Seeking Rebirth
Flatspace isn’t an unknown. It is, however, very much a cult classic. A small game from a small team that with a dedicated fanbase, the first of the series was put out in end of 2003 and a sequel followed in 2005. In 2012 we see Flatspace IIk emerges, an expanded version of its predecessor with sharper game mechanics.
It was this version that was eventually put up on Steam in April of 2017. I had the pleasure of speaking with creator Mark Sheeky, and he explained that the game’s journey to Steam was mostly the result of the urging of long time fans who have joined the modern era of game distribution, and who wanted to see this beloved classic in their Steam libraries.
While this article is going to obviously focus on Flatspace and his efforts with it, Sheeky is an interesting character with a variety of talents. Having done the original music for the games, he boasts an impressive collection of artistic feats that you can read more about on his home page. This is a person who cares deeply about the craft, regardless of if it is writing, music, game design, or anything else that matters. In a time when many developers are just spitting garbage onto our platforms, it is good to see someone take pride in their work.
A Bumpy Start into Flatspace
At first I was conflicted about this game. Right off the bat, I was worried that this old classic freshly ported to Steam was going to struggle with some optimization issues. It happens with older games; Witcher 3 runs better on my machine than even Witcher 2, for example. But Flatspace was a different beast. The initial load time was worrying, but ultimately an unfounded worry.
Except when it comes to multitasking. If you like to flit quickly between games and other computer tasks, Flatspace has a massive hang time when making use of the old Alt-Tab buttons. Other players have mentioned crashes when trying it, but I never experienced them myself.
On the whole, these are small issues that a person should just be aware of before setting up your game. And you can invest some serious time into the setup of a Flatspace game. With two races to choose from, Human and the Scarrid, a variety of original classes for each race, and then the mysterious specialties and training to tack on your character, there is a variety of different character set-ups available to a player.
There are also plenty of other game options to fiddle with, most under the Custom game menu. These options allowed you to play in a peaceful setting where violence was rare and you can enjoy just trading. Alternatively, you could set up a universe perfect for a cops and robbers style game. There are many more incarnations, all made more varied by map randomization, settings for your space stations, and density of the asteroids and nebulae peppered around the game.
One interesting option of game setup is the save game schematic. Nowadays it would called Hardcore or Ironman mode, but what ever you call it, it is the default. If you are looking to not have all your save data for a new character deleted, be sure to adjust those settings. Lets just say, there was no happy ending for my masseuse. Characters who meet a grizzly end in the depths of space under the “one life” mode get added to the list of fallen in the graveyard.
Into the Black
Getting into space was easy, and fortunately so was getting around. A simple mechanic where you rotate your ship’s facing with the mouse, and then hold in a button to move forward. The other button was shooting, and let me tell you, you don’t want to mix these up. Depending on the weapon, ammo depletes and needs to be purchased and reloaded. Beyond fiscal concerns, accidentally shooting a ship or station can be a game over.
The controls are mostly easy to understand, though some features do lack detailed in game explanation. Fortunately, hitting F1 brings a help menu up in an overlay. It is here you can see that there is more to this game than just zipping around and shooting things. Your first play will give you a little tutorial covering the more non-standard basics, covering how to hail vessels and stations, request docking, and scan various things for information.
It should be pointed out that there is an option for controller support, but I’ll be danged if I could get my Xbox pad to work for it. I haven’t tried it with my Steam Controller, as I found the mouse and keyboard controls acceptable. Maybe others have had more luck getting gamepads to work, but as it is now, don’t expect a plug and play experience. If they were going to start updating this game, I would start with a more contemporary take on controller support.
The information you get from your scanners depends completely on the make and model of that particular piece of equipment. A trip to the shipyard and outfitters opens your eyes to the vast and often expensive customization that is available in this game. In fact, there is a much larger selection of options than I was expecting, about on par with many bigger, flashier space sims.
In addition to being able to hail vessels, I discovered you could actually send out distress calls and request police assistance. My traders and scavengers often survived through the kindness of passing strangers or through the timely intervention of police. Combat can be brutal, if only because of hyperspace travel and how sectors are set up.
The map is a large grid, with a great deal of unexplored space. Strange symbols dot this gridwork, and even when toggling descriptions not all of the symbols or colouring are clear. Navigating this grid is simple – open the map, click on the sector you want to travel to, make sure it doesn’t say “Out of Range,” and then return to the ship controls. As long as your hyperdrive is charged up, you can activate the jump and prepare to do the same in the next sector. As you move along the grid of Flatspace, more of the fog of war peels back and you find all manner of stations – from Traders to Police, various points of interest, and of course enemies and pirates.
There are two major difficulties when travelling. The game doesn’t pause when you bring up your galactic map, so you have to be mindful of what’s going on around you while plotting a course. The other issue is the charge time on your hyperdrive; it takes a while to get ready to jump again, and in some sectors this will be longer than others. This can be disasterous when you jump into the midst of a patch of pirates or an ongoing space battle. If you are being pursued you do not have time to plot a course, so even if you evade your enemies until your hyperdrive charges, you still need to stop flying, go to the map screen, and hope you are in range for whatever the sector you first click on in your desperation to escape.
I’m tempted to say that as long as a grid is adjacent you are fine to jump there, but that’s a lie because sometimes you can’t jump to those sectors either. It was never completely clear to me why this was – I can only guess it had something to do with anomalies or energy capabilities, but the game doesn’t give any real explanation other than “Out of Range.” Honestly, some sort of emergency jump button, or maybe a consumable that would bring you to a local space port as an emergency out would be great. As it is, even radioing the space police requires a bit of mulitasking and isn’t always going to help.
Combat is more rewarding if you are playing a bounty hunter or assassin. I had lots of fun just cruising around, scanning ships for wanted captains, then getting the drop on them. Less reputable characters can even set up traps for the gullible with a fake distress call.
A Fair Trade
Trading is simple, more so if you have the proper import/export scanner on your ship. You find out what goods are selling cheap in one station and take them to a place that needs them. While this would be overly simple trading mechanics on its own, the market has trends where you can observe how a particular good is doing on the market, which allows you to consider your purchases carefully and make an informed choice. Thankfully the game also will tell you the historical average price of what you are looking at, and this gives you a good idea on whether or not you’re getting a good deal.
It can be a pain to go through the list, item by item, checking the prices and examining this station’s imports and exports. The menu for trade goods could use an overhaul – perhaps simple icons to show if a good is increasing or decreasing in price, or noting imports and exports by colour. I love games where I can be a merchant and build a fiscal empire, and while it looks like you can eventually buy your own stations in this game, the user interface for this game is less than ideal, so it can get frustrating and boring clicking on all the goods to see what their deal is.
Missions, on the other hand, pay very well and are very simple to understand. Escorting a passenger, if you have the extra quarters? Delivering some a sculpture or organ to a space station? Assassinating or capturing various personalities out in Flatspace? All sorts of different missions are available at virtually every star port. You are given a the co-ordinates of the mission, and as long as your ship has the space to hold your goods, you can head out to make some easy cash. The further away the mission is, the higher the reward. If you find a 20 sector journey acceptable, you can start making some serious cash. Mission rewards are given out on arrival at your destination, so no need to travel all the way back and collect the reward.
While I focused on smaller ships, trading and a bit of light combat while playing this game, the truth is that there is so much more it has to offer. Crews, quarter size, and faction interaction all play a part in the greater game and there are many secrets that I will not be posting spoilers for. Rest assured people looking to play space explorer won’t be disappointed with Flatspace. Just be mindful of those space noises. I’m not kidding. Determining the source of some strange sounds you may have heard is fairly important. It can help you avoid battles, pirates or authorities, but can also lead you to some interesting finds in the galaxy.
So we have an issue with my thoughts on this game. There are two very valid schools of approach to the matter. Do we preserve a cult classic in it’s original and intended form, or do we urge for updates and modernization on the quality of life issues present? From someone interested in the history of gaming and the evolution of games as both art and business, I love seeing games like this as a “where we came from.” But as a consumer who is wondering if they should shell out $14.99 USD ($16.99 CAD) for the product, I’m inclined to demand a better quality of life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very fond of Flatspace. It offers a wealth of options for a variety of play styles. It’s easy to get in to, even though better controller support would be nice, and it has high replayability. Many games of this type don’t allow the level of customization for the universe the player is in, and that is also a big deal. So there are lots of positives on this game. But it shows its age. I would recommend going in knowing that it is a complete unknown if the updates that Cornutopia Software have planned will address the Quality of Life issues. But if you go in eyes wide open on that matter, I think the game is worth the time despite these issues.
Another great thing is the developer’s appreciation for modding. A respect for the modding community can take you a long way in indie game development. Cornutopia goes as far as including tips on how players can add their own music to the game, and Sheeky informed me modding was encouraged – fans with the know-how can even change up the UI and HUDS. This is always great news, and while he noted that adding new ships maybe more technically problematic, he remained optimistic for the future releases and an increased mod compatibility.
All this said, I never was able to find out if my Scavengers time spent in Massage therapy school would have had any bearing on the game, outside of an amusing side flavor. I could have asked Mark, but I didn’t want to spoil the mystery for myself.
As a classic game standing up to moderns conventions, it gets a 7/10. With a bit of Quality of Life work and some polish it could go much higher.
Review by Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts
This game was received for free for purposes of review.