Version tested: 3DS
"Welcome, Mr. Guest."
It seems friendly, but it's not. It's spoken in a robotic, chilly monotone. And it's the very first thing you hear after downloading The Starship Damrey and unwrapping that cute little present on the Home Screen of your 3DS. It's not quite the cheery jingle I'd be listening to if I'd tapped the StreetPass icon, that's for sure, and it's considerably less stirring than Fire Emblem's rousing fanfare. It's downright ominous, and it strikes the perfect tone.
Part of Level-5's Guild02 anthology, The Starship Damrey is a stark little adventure title set in the gloomy, metallic corridors of a seemingly abandoned spaceship. Your character wakes from cryogenic sleep still trapped within their stasis pod, and can only explore the Damrey proper by remotely controlling a cute R2D2-alike that slowly trundles through the starship's echoing, shadowy corridors.
And I do mean trundles. Barring the very opening scenes, in which you come to life inside the stasis pod and must log in to ship's operating system (weirdly, the game's most involved puzzle), you'll spend the entire game piloting this little robot through the starship, and he's a clunky droid indeed: not particularly fast, capable only of 90-degree turns and equipped with an irritatingly limited field of view. You navigate with the d-pad and look around with the circle pad, which means much switching between the two when poking around obscure little corners of the ship. At times, playing The Starship Damrey feels like trying to control a fussy little RC car from a first-person perspective. To be fair, that's sort of what you're doing, so I'll be charitable and say the game does an excellent job of simulating awkward controls.
Thankfully, The Starship Damrey's simplistic tasks rarely need precision. More of a short, sci-fi horror story than full-blown adventure title, the puzzles simply pad out your tentative exploration of the clanking, darkness-shrouded ship. To begin with, the dread-filled atmosphere onboard genuinely intimidates. It takes courage, pushing your little droid onward into the darkness, where there's little other than corpses and unsettling glimpses of a ghostly little girl to be found.
This air of mounting horror is aided by some understated, effective sound design: sit still for too long and you'll hear an occasional, intimidating clank in the distance, but keep moving and you can barely hear anything over the droning whirr of your robot's treads. The game keeps things visually sparse, too, but to a much more mixed result. The barebones industrial aesthetic adds to the oppressive air, but there's so little detail in these barely furnished rooms that it becomes hard to genuinely believe in the Starship Damrey as a place where people lived and worked - which undermines the tragedy of the fact that it's now their tomb.
But what really sees all tension and fear rush out of The Starship Damrey, as if from a rapidly deflating Halloween decoration, is the gradual, dawning realisation that you're never in any real danger at all. Sure, it's spooky. And yes, something monstrous killed the crew. But whatever that was clearly doesn't want to kill you, because The Starship Damrey isn't that kind of game. This is an adventure title, not a survival horror, and that means encounters with things unknown or hostile are exclusively confined to scripted sequences and cut-scenes. The game choreographs a few jump scares with precise, shocking timing, but it has no means of making good on its threats. The Starship Damrey is bluffing.
Something like Amnesia: The Dark Descent's horrible, instinct-suppressing requirement to run away, hide and not even look at your tormentor could have worked well here, giving The Starship Damrey that dash of genuine threat necessary to maintain the tension conjured by its early scenes, without burdening the game with unnecessary combat. Something was needed, at any rate, because once the atmosphere starts dissipating you'll realise that Starship Damrey is a rather threadbare adventure game.
"This game contains no tutorials or explanations. Part of the experience is to discover things yourself" boasts The Starship Damrey's opening screen. That's a bold claim - too bold for what turns out to be a series of basic environmental puzzles that need little explanation if you've ever played an adventure game. In order to maintain its sci-fi novella pacing, The Starship Damrey has been stripped to the essentials. You only carry one item at a time, which naturally limits the complexity of its puzzles but also means that, if you're looking for a solution, you're probably already clutching it in your cold, metal claws. If not, it's probably sitting patiently on the floor of a nearby room, waiting for you to grab it. This sense - that the Damrey has been ransacked of anything that doesn't have direct relevance to your journey through it - extends to the occasional diaries or journals you'll find littering the starship: with a single exception these are there to drop clunking hints as to what you're supposed to do next, when they could be exploring the characters or backstory of the vessel.
The barebones puzzling is padded out, surprisingly enough, with some light pest control. The Damrey's been infested with Space Leeches, you see, and even though the near-entirety of its crew is dead you're still going to keep the damned place clean. Killing leeches is as simple as moving the cursor over the tiny little critters and selecting "Exterminate", and while this dull, optional side-quest offers little more than filler for completionists, you do at least get to pretend you're a Dalek whilst going about it.
Like all the best pulpy horror tales, The Starship Damrey ends with a denouement of surprising cleverness, and there are some scraps of extra content to pick over if you find yourself absorbed by its fiction (a short story unlocks if you complete an optional, late-game sidequest, while owners of another Guild 02 game can access another brief tale). Despite its awkward controls, its waning sense of fear and some crude, basic puzzling, I nonetheless found myself gripped during the game's closing minutes. But that's a tribute to the sense of mystery set up right at the beginning of Starship Damrey, not the journey I trundled along to solve it.
5 / 10