With a deep dive into a quality turn-based strategy game Depth of Extinction melds retro looks with hardcore permadeath. Are you up to the challenge? Read on…
Genre: RPG, Strategy
Developer: HOF Studios
Publisher: HOF Studios
Release Date: 27 Sep, 2018
In a world rife with violence, rumours of killer machines have spread far and wide. As a number of factions emerge – violently vying for power – you become the sole defender of humanity’s last standing government. Only you can create the ultimate squad and save humanity!
Explore a deep storyline with random encounters as you traverse an underwater world. With just yourself and your soldiers facing an unknown enemy, gear up and prepare to engage in combat at any given moment – uncovering the deep storyline one battle at a time. Choose from 10 different classes, each with their own unique skill set, and give your soldiers a choice of more than 150 different weapons and armour to strike back at the enemy.
A word of warning, though: Depth of Extinction is not forgiving – and death is permanent.
Gather your troops and take part in intense turn-based tactical battles on humankind’s last stand against the unknown!
Depth Of Extinction is the creation of HOF Studios based in Atlanta, USA. Founded by Mike Stumhofer in 2015, after a 15-year career as a software engineer and architect, this small independent development team has been beavering away at the title for almost 18 months.
I originally played DOE(Depth Of Extinction) way back in April 2017 as an early free demo was available on the itch.io web store. Being a massive turn-based fan my interest was piqued by the retro art style and the permadeath hardcore progression system. Even back then, the game had lots of promise. The demo wasn’t time gated so you could repeatedly play over the content, trying the various classes and random missions at your leisure. I sunk a good few hours into the demo build and immediately marked the game down as one to watch. Fast forward to now and the game is finally released on Steam, GOG and of course Itch.io
The release build has come a long way since the alpha prototype demo. Numerous systems and tweaks have been added and the art style has been updated along with an expanded soundtrack. The campaign has undergone a startling transformation from the basic mission structure I played last year.
The storyline underpinning the game is an interesting one. 500 years after the waters rose, humanity is dying and only your team of mercs can find out what is trying to bring mankind to extinction. The opening cinematic presents a squad encounter with an apparently salient android warning you that some errant A.I. has become hostile and plans to wipe out what is left of the human race. In order to foil this dastardly plot, you have to acquire three parts of a key that will hopefully save the world from doom.
The prologue eases newbies into the whole turn-based mechanic. Text boxes guide you through the first encounter step by step, highlighting the movement, cover and range mechanics. This is simple to understand and will foster a familiarity with the systems for even the most green of commanders. Once complete you are given the first part of the main quest as your next goal.
The initial loadout screen presents you with squad and transport selections. With the main theme of the game being water based, you have the choice of three submarines with various fuel and soldier capacities. You only start off with two characters in your party but this number can be bolstered with mercenaries.
You traverse the game world via a map. This is split up into regions and further subdivided into local area nodes, much like the indie darling hit FTL. Each one of these nodes acts as a mini-encounter. They can contain missions, merchants and unknown events. These are procedurally created along with the turn-based environments. So no two gameplay sessions are the same.
There are six classes to choose from the starting roster. As you progress deeper into the adventure another four are further unlocked. Beyond the usual fare of the basic soldier, sniper(deadeye) guard and assault types, there are a few new spins on the common specialist you would find in most strategy games. The wildcat class are SMG experts, they have the ability to fire extra shots on every attack. Wreckers can carry heavy machine guns and use grenades with a larger area of effect and increased explosive power. Further perks can be unlocked as your team gains experience.
No squad game would be complete without a good variety of guns, ammo and special items to collect and use. The press blurb announced that there are 115 different weapons, armour, and items. There’s a handy in-game equipment database which you can see what stuff you have snaffled. During my play test, I only managed to unearth a couple of dozen different items. So there’s plenty of cool gadgets and powerful armaments to gather up.
The game loop has the usual two phases: One for movement, item use, skill buff. The second is for defending, attacking and overwatch (cover fire). All this is displayed clearly on the screen. Cover icons show how much protection the surroundings offer. They can be turned off in the options menu once the player becomes accustomed to the various environments.
The turn-based skirmishes with the various factions are the real meat of the game. Anybody familiar with Xcom or the classic ZX Spectrum title Rebelstar Raiders will feel immediately at home. Upgrading your squad and finding new loot, items and cash never gets old. I soon got into the flow and was feeling pleased with my progress until…One encounter.
Perhaps I was a little too casual into my approach into a rebel camp, searching for weapon attachments. My party consisted of a tank like class and two snipers. My strategy was a very basic breach and clear technique. I cleared a couple of rooms and was opening the airlock to the final arena when all hell broke loose. I’d stepped into a fracas way above my pay grade. A swift close quarter berserker type class bypassed my slow-moving tank and set about my lightly armoured snipers with a gleeful zeal. Before I knew it, I was two men down and tried in vain to retreat my tank. Unfortunately, he was overwhelmed and I suffered my first party wipe. Great stuff. This is why I like permadeath games. Complacency is not a good trait to have as a commander or strategist. This taught me a valuable lesson early in my DOE career. A challenging AI is hard to program and even harder to implement with a satisfying sweet spot difficulty level. Not too frustrating, nor too easy. This game, from my review testing sessions, has it set just right for my skill set.
A quality of life feature I’ve not experienced before in a turn-based strategy game is the follow command (maybe I’m out of the loop and it’s a common system). This takes all the hassle of moving your squad individually. You set your point as the lead character and what stance, either defensive or aggressive, for the rest of your gang. You can also set a trailer/tail guy who protects your snipers/support classes rear. This is competently programmed as your troops follow in an intelligent manner, hugging cover and keeping close. They also pick up cash piles, fuel canisters and any items that fallen foes have dropped. When you happen upon an enemy, the mode disables itself and allows you to take the reins to engage with the bad guys. Once the skirmish is done and the coast is clear, the follow command automatically kicks back in. Excellent! Such a well crafted and easy to use the system should become a defacto gameplay mechanic for all team strategy games in the future. Kudos to Hof studio for being the first to implement this is such a seamless fashion.
There are no restrictions on inventory limits a far as I’m aware. So stockpiling guns, armour, and items that your current squad can’t use can be safeguarded for classes that will unlock the deeper you get into the campaign. There’s also no limit on ammunition. Given the squad specialization, this is a wise design choice.
Like all games, nothing is perfect. There are a few quirks with Inventory management. Mercenaries don’t share their loadouts. Mid-mission collected loot and items cannot be used instantly. I also encountered an issue with unequipping certain items of clothing. In the game, there’s a neckerchief which has two properties. It protects from poisonous fumes but also restricts your vision. This debuffs your range awareness. The only way I could unequip it was to equip another item unless I am missing something fundamental in the GUI.
DOE has an interesting art style. The colour palette is mostly slate greys and muted blues, With a sprinkle of reds and ambers to signify explodable crates. Immediately I was getting an early era Metal Gear Solid vibe. This is a good thing, It lends to the tone of the game and adds a cohesive aesthetic overall. Your characters are not just stock static sprites. Every change of gear, weapons, armour suits and even class specific items are displayed on the screen. This adds a great deal of personality to your squad members. I upgraded my fledgling character “Bear” to the sniper class. On the next outing, she was replete with a scoped rifle and high-tech glass monocle. Badass!
The soundtrack is an audio treat for anybody brought up on Moroder, Jan Hammer, and late-era Tangerine Dream. A thumping synthwave experience, full of Linndrum samples, DX7 washes and the like. The opening menu theme sets the tone. A sparse arpeggiated bassline bubbles away with a four on the floor bass drum/snare accompaniment. It sounds like it’s been lifted straight from the Drive movie original score. But obviously, it’s a new composition.
After a little research, I’ve found out the two lead composers for the entire score are Kim Lightyear and Badass Wolf Shirt ( just a great username). Whoever picked these musicians from the scores who inhabit the Bandcamp universe deserves a pat on the back. Their style fits the whole retro aesthetic like a glove. I love games which introduce me to new talented people. Hotline Miami was the poster child for this kind of curated audio content. Without this exposure, I would have never been aware of the likes of awesome leftfield tunesmiths such as Perturbator and M.O.O.N.
DOE system requirements are not going to trouble any modern day PC. My battered old Dell ran the game butter smooth. Obviously the genre and retro aesthetic are not CPU or graphically intensive. That being said sloppily coded Unity games can bring even the most powerful rigs to their knees with memory leaks and bugs. I’m happy to report this is not the case. In my extensive play test I didn’t encounter any glitches or crashes. The years in development have been well spent. The game oozes polish and refinement. Given that the head coder is a 15-year industry veteran, this is not surprising. This is a tightly programmed product.
DOE is a unique spin on the well-loved strategy genre. It has not been thrown together and it shows. The months of hard work coding have resulted in a great indie game. Through wise design decisions, the usual chore of moving numerous squad members have been streamlined with the excellent follow system. This focuses the player attention on what really matters, the toe to toe assaults and skirmishes. Because of the distinctive classes on both sides of the conflict. The warfare is also new and engaging. Forget what strategies you learned over the years, they will not wash in this feud. You’ll have to skill up quick if you don’t want mankind to sink without a trace. Highly recommended.