Card games have had a surprising resurgence in creativity over the last few years. The phenomenal Slay the Spire from 2019 is so unique it could have its own genre. This probably couldn’t have existed without the equally interesting Card Hunter from 2015. Deep Sky Derelicts: Definitive Edition attempts to channel these and add a splash of Darkest Dungeon to carve its own identity. Unfortunately, channelling these makes it hard not to compare – this is a high bar. Can Deep Sky Derelicts achieve this or does it fail to take off?
The first thing you notice upon booting up Deep Sky Derelicts is its art style. It won’t blow you away but will offer a rather nice grimey graphic novel style. At points, it feels like it could be taken directly from a comic book. It’s a more upbeat parallel to Darkest Dungeon’s style. The similarities don’t end here. It starts out quite tough. I’ve often found myself retreating from battle to heal up just because I’ve lost a small bit of health. The game almost never makes it worthwhile to continue on past where you think you should go. Darkest Dungeon plays with this in fascinating ways; the deeper you go, the better the items you get are. Oftentimes you are directly rewarded for treating your team as expendable. There will always be more cannon fodder. This isn’t the case with Deep Sky Derelicts.
Deep Sky Derelicts promotes getting attached to your team. You may name them, change their stats, their equipment and their appearance. Whilst teammates can (and often do) die in battle, the consequences of that are not permanent. You can go home by finding your ship and may simply resurrect them at the health services for a fee. If you don’t want to do this, you can hire new mercenaries but the revival cost is very similar so that attachment drives you to pick your own teammates.
This enunciates the innate ethicality of Deep Sky Derelicts. Where Darkest Dungeon promotes treating your team as expendable, Deep Sky Derelicts drives that attachment and gives them their own personality. As you look back on the things they’ve done, it’s hard to let them go. Validating a robot’s opinions on his flower, feeding an unquestionably hungry wall rubbish, acting on behalf of a taxi service. These are little organic stories that feel like part of your character’s story. This sense of morality is taken in a more literal direction with the side quests and choices.
Most side quests tend to have an eloquent way, a medical way and a punching way of beating them (pardon the pun). There is often a morally good and morally bad way to play but you’re never punished for picking bad. In fact, there is often a reward to being a ruthless scavenger, picking fights with everyone you meet. Most friendly scavengers you come across have an option to fight, offering an optional tough fight in return for that sweet, sweet loot. Inversely you may heal scavengers or take quests for them to earn rewards.
This moves one onto the gameplay. At its heart, Deep Sky Derelicts is an RPG card game, as strange as that sounds. You start off picking a class for your character that affects things such as your health, your charisma and your medical ability. These then give you a basic loadout. It might provide you a strong melee weapon or a big heavy ranged weapon. This, in turn, forms your deck, and in most you have a combination of ranged and melee attacks as well as general buffs.
The general formation of combat is delivered in turn-based RPG fashion. You traditionally have one move per turn (although this can be affected by the inspiration mechanic) and that move can be used to activate one of many cards in your current hand – a nice way of building your overall deck. You want more attack cards? Take out some of the buffs. You can affect your deck by adding weapons, tools and mods to your loadout. Both you and your equipment have a level too, with the former upgraded via experience and your gear can be used when you reach the required level. You constantly feel like you’re just a few battles away from being as strong as you would like. This is the magic of an RPG.
At Level 4, you can choose a specialisation that affects your deck from this point forward. You can make your leader more of a robot leader or make your medic a little more explosive. Unfortunately, while specialization is great, the progression tends to feel a little stale outside of this and the max level is disappointingly small.
The same could be said of the game itself. There are plenty of interesting ideas but it could benefit from being longer and more stretched out. Unfortunately, the parts that have been stretched out, such as the dungeon crawling, get old very quickly and could benefit from a more varied style of gameplay. Furthermore, in combat, the difference from one level to the other is often very large. Taking on a level 4 area as a level 3 is practically a death sentence. While this promotes a tacticality to the way you think, it can be a little harsh in the opening stages.
The story of Deep Sky Derelicts is a bit sparse but the side quests are where its writing shines. To put it simply, you are a group of scavengers hired to find a theorised “Mothership”. This is all left intentionally very vague, letting you discover everything organically. This gives the side stories the spotlight, in many respects. When coming away from Deep Sky Derelicts, they are what I remembered most. The gameplay itself is mostly “go here, now go there” but the writing shines through. The weird encounters and excerpts of humour feel like they wouldn’t be out of place in Fallout 1 and 2.
Overall, Deep Sky Derelicts on Xbox One offers a tough but rewarding RPG with interesting mechanics, but this is sometimes let down by a small level cap and occasionally tedious dungeon crawling. While its performance isn’t bad for the most part, I did have a few glitches in my time forcing a restart. There is a lot of potential in Deep Sky Derelicts but I have been left wanting a bit more.