I wouldn’t ordinarily describe the constant threat of betrayal as a knee-slapping lark. It’s nervy, doubtful and ultimately it’s isolating. And that should go double if you happen to be piloting a spacecraft.
Yet, that’s exactly the gimmick Defect SDK (that’s ‘Spaceship Destruction Kit’) employs. You’re shot out into the vast realms of outer space, left to build and conquer numerous fleets of bolshy spacecrafts until your crew inevitably leaves you. It’s smirkingly strategic, but it can daunt some, and you’ll never know for sure if you can truly trust your creations. But if there’s one good thing about distrust, it’s that you get to know your ship really…really well.
Developer: Three Phase Interactive
Publisher: Three Phase Interactive
Reviewed on: PC
Also Available On: Mac, Linux
Release Date: Out Now
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher.
The story is relatively minimal. You play a low-ranking captain, who’s shot onto the unnerving Frontier of Planet Asbestos. Accompanied by a Seagull companion and a host of sci-fi references, you’re quickly sent sprawling across numerous galaxies, fighting your way through intergalactic gangs to take on their notorious leaders.
The overall gameplay is presented with strategy gaming oeuvre. Levels are stacked across a hexagonal board, with each corner leading to a specialised boss zone. All combat takes place across an open, stellar map. The 3D art style reminds of a less intricate Homeworld, composing areas that feel clean, and not quite as populated. Animation is kept slim, but it’s a sleek addition, with enemy ships afforded their own (albeit minimalist) moments of slow-mo dramaticism that adds to the game’s sci-fi humour.
On the face of it, Defect strikes as a relatively standard space-shooter. You’re placed straight behind the yoke of a titchy spacecraft, which can move forward in any direction via the keyboard. Steering is done via two separate keys, leaving the mouse free to handle the game’s various sandbox options. Steering can take some getting used to, and I occasionally found myself wishing I’d had the speed of the mouse to direct my voyage (though ship-building renders it more manageable), but the simple control scheme is robust enough to lend a light challenge, without really venturing into frustration territory. It’s also remarkably easy to get into, with its succinct control scheme proving accessible to newcomers to the strategy vein.
Combat is executed automatically, with the player using the A and D keys to manually aim their weapon. It’s a comfortable move, if at first unsatisfying, as some of the earlier levels can be blustered through with ease. The tension mounts as levels progress, however, with some of the more populated skirmishes requiring speed, as well as accuracy – especially on the difficult modes. You’ll also need to maintain your ship during combat – a welcome feature that significantly ramps up the challenge level of each intergalactic dogfight. As you destroy your invariable foes, you’ll be able to scavenge scrap from their decimated, mechanised corpses in order to repair ship components. If your engine gets dented by one too many missiles, you’ll be rendered immobile until you patch things over. If your crew gets injured, you’ll be sent spiralling out of control – with the threat of mutiny on the horizon. It’s this constant maintenance mechanic that ensures its straightforward dogfights aren’t rendered bland, and if you ever end up with a useless spacecraft – it’s because something was amiss during the ship’s creation. Live, die and learn.
However, it’s apparent from the beginning that combat isn’t Defect’s main focus. Indeed, it’s rather an examination of your engineering efforts. Ship-building itself evokes Kerbal Space Program – though it’s much simpler, with much more charisma. Guided by a comprehensive, brick-by-brick tutorial, creation is approached in an accessible, organised way that welcomes newcomers – without patronising veterans. Ships are simply constructed, and can be customised on six main plains: Cores, Crew, Hull, Engine, Wings and Weapons.
And you’re unlikely to be hard-pushed for choice, either. While ship components are gradually unlocked as levels progress, the vista of customisation that begins to unfold in Defect is abundant. Proffering nearly two hundred separate components, the construction in Defect is varied enough to support its direct combat elements. You can cast up anything from dagger-like drones to bulky, turret-wielding behemoths, though the tutorial – thankfully – will soon let you know if your components aren’t gelling well.
There are over a billion different ship combinations native to Defect’s ship-building, and though you’ll never come close to uncovering all of them, your engineering expertise will grow each time your ship is destroyed as a result of your disgusting, mutinous crew. To create, one must first destroy.
While main components all contribute to your functionality during combat, special items can be particularly useful in anticipating the actions of your crew. If you’ve racked up enough scrap from the enemies you’ve destroyed, you can fit your ship with a variety of components that offer minor (yet often pivotal) weak points. There are specialised cores that demand extra power, or generators that ever so slightly weighs you down. Not only are you adapting your ship to take the opposition down, you’re also orchestrating its inevitable downfall; something that really aids the game’s Frankensteinian motivations.
And that’s where the true uniquity of Defect’s ship-building. As the game’s very opening moments see you chucked off by your crew, each of your creations is approached with the distinct expectation that you’ll be pitted against it later. While strategy and the space genre aren’t exactly estranged components, it’s refreshing to see a strategy game in which you don’t only have to second guess your crew, but be constantly scrutinizing your own handiwork to ensure it doesn’t bite you on the behind.
But though much of the game is spent destroying your labours of love, Defect’s charming narrative does a lot to defuse its largely self-destructive themes. The story unfolds with a sharp wit, with pop culture references practically splattering the game’s script. From the Martian-esque look of your space suit, to the charming collection of Trek-inspired one-liners, to the Hitchhiker’s Guide-style humour underlying each component’s history, every inch of Defect’s script bleeds love for the sci-fi world, and it’s something worn proudly for both die-hards and casuals to see. You can even select components from the 1950’s, and take on the galaxy’s grunts and goons with a classic NASA craft.
Humorous, accessible and easily picked up, Defect SDK succeeds most as a sandbox strategy game, and Three Phase flaunts it with pride. It’s diverse, and bursting with sci-fi quirk, and though combat elements may feel simplistic for some, a unique premise of betrayal and mutiny ensures that no fight feels meaningless.
You can check out Defect SDK’s official website here.