Game review: Drox Operative
Guest Review by Tof Eklund
Soldak Entertainment has built their reputation on action RPGs in the roguelike vein that Diablo popularized. The award-winning Din’s Curse may be their best known release, with its complex character interactions and dynamic world.
Some years ago, I got sucked into an ambitious but incomplete space action roguelike called Transcendence (side note: it seems that Transcendence is still in development). Drox Operative promises to take what I liked about that game and really push the RPG and simulation elements.
The setup is simple: dating back at least to Master of Orion 2, 4x space strategy games have included mercenaries for hire, either to captain your ships or with their own tricked-out ships. Drox Operative situates you as one of those mercenaries, taking jobs for the various powers seeking to conquer the known universe.
The greatest strength of the game, and some of its weaknesses, stem from the fact that this isn’t just set up: you start a game by making decisions not just about your ship, but also the size of the local sector of space and the number of alien factions in it. From there on, the game plays out like a 4x RTS, except that you don’t control any of the factions. You’re playing an Action RPG within a fully-simulated RTS, where events will unfold regardless of your actions, and you have the opportunity to shape their course.
That’s awesome. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always make for the best gameplay. The game’s difficulty curve is fairly steep, and once you climb it, you figure out that the nature of the world makes time management crucial, and sometimes simply impossible.
It’s really appealing to think that, if you answer a planetary distress call, you actually have to get there in time to save the world, rather than knowing that hostiles will spawn right as you enter the system, and not a moment sooner. On the other hand, this all too often means that you’re rushing to a conflict or attempting to complete a quest only to have it go up in smoke en-route.
There’s no notification when a quest is about to become impossible to complete, so even milk runs can become dicey until you get a feeling for about how long you’re likely to have to get that medicine to Planet X. Thankfully, the general time frame for quests and for random enemy respawns can be tweaked faster or slower when starting a new game (but not in mid-game).
Similarly, planetary merchants have credits to buy your unwanted junk based on two things: the income of the planet and any money they get from selling things to you. This makes a lot of sense, but also leads to a lot of frustration as you have to either dump your lower-value finds when you could still use the cash, or else run around looking for planets wealthy enough to buy your salvage.
This may actually encourage smart looting in the long run, much like all high-level action RPG players do, but initially it’s just frustrating. I suspect the game acquires a certain zen and clarity about priorities if you really get into it, but I wasn’t able to find my stride with it.
Drox Operative is a RPG in mechanics, not story. You level up your operative in stats like Engineering, which allows you to equip better ship systems. Your ship’s crew can also level up over time, increasing the stat bonuses they offer. Upgrading to a bigger ship is a matter of increasing your Command stat (and presumably being granted the new ship by the guild).
There is no pre-scripted story whatsoever, just your choice of missions and your simple interactions with merchants and diplomats. I’ve written elsewhere about the idea of “processual narrative” in games (particularly strategy games) where, given a sufficiently developed world and conflicts, players will easily craft their own narratives as an interactive result of the process of playing the game.
I’d hoped to get that sense out of Drox Operative, but while the game is rich in behind-the-scenes data, it is impoverished in terms of clues as to why the universe works the way it does. In addition to and entirely separate from the organized factions in the game, random enemies fill every system, serving as XP, equipment, and quest fodder.
No attempt whatsoever is made to explain who these hostiles are or where they’re coming from. There isn’t even the slender excuse that they’re all space pirates. In fact, judging from the number of quests involving killing so many “male” or “female” randomized-name ships, many of them are supposed to be living creatures, but they look and attack like space ships, not monsters.
That’s just one example of how the game’s generally well-executed art wasn’t as clear in meaning as I would have liked. The brightest, prettiest objects on-screen (after stars and planets) are usually mines of various sorts. I learned the hard way: if it looks like candy, stay the hell away. At the same time, the use of realistic light sourcing for ships means that they are often very dark: I’ve repeatedly started shooting hostiles before realizing that anyone was there.
Another blow to clarity is dealt by the game’s inventory art, which is highly monotonous: you have to look for the colored border and tiny dots in the corner to tell you anything more than “that’s an power plant” or “that’s a shield generator.” To be fair, it’s hard to come up with art that says at a glance “I’m a superior shield capacitor.”
Given how strong the underlying game engine seems to be, and that the game’s flaws are largely in presentation and writing, I get the impression that the game was rushed out in order to have the full version available before Christmas. If this was still a beta, I’d give it high marks and high hopes.
I’m still hopeful for improvements to the quest system, tweaking the brightness and light sourcing should be an easy patch, and it’s not too late to hire a writer. I hope Soldak will continue improving Drox Operative, because the game is rich with partially-realized potential.
The Verdict: 3/5. Drox Operative is highly ambitious, but only partially lives up to its potential due to a steep difficulty curve, minimalist writing, and lack of clear, immediate access to the information the player needs (mainly in the art and quest components). I’m impressed with what Soldak was trying to do here, and recommend the game to people looking for a hardcore action roguelike as well as those who enjoy micromanaging under time pressure, but in its present state its not for a broader audience.
Tof Eklund is a scholar, player, and occasional creator of games, and teaches Creative Writing at Full Sail University. You can find Tof’s iOS reviews at Touch Arcade, other reviews strewn about the net, and mature webseries/podfic at Big World Network.