gameplay 88 / story 60 / graphics 65 / sound 73
A knock-down, drag-out, beat-em-up, ship boarding, space ninja game where you liberate the galaxy and hopefully live long enough to retire to brag of your exploits at the station bar. Unfortunately for a game so packed with awesome concepts and emergent gameplay, it seems a bit empty a few hours in.
You start Heat Signature as Sader Fiasco, an assassin who took her stealth pod out into the cold dark of space and got the job done, any job, for the last 40 years. Except now she has retired. She’s claimed her own station, and is content to rest…and occasionally help other mercenaries who follow in her footsteps.
After playing through Sader Fiasco’s little intro/tutorial, the game opens up to you. You can pick your mercenary based on their name, look, starting equipment, and backstory. Are you avenging a dead wife? Working off debts? You decide.
Pick an existence, any existence.
From there, you can play pretty much how you choose. You have a personal vendetta that you are pursuing. But progress in the form of intel takes time and money to arrange. The retired, now NPC, Sader Fiasco is willing to help you, for a price. So, you work kidnapping gigs, snatch and grabs, wetwork, whatever it takes to get enough acid (the game’s money) to fund Sader Fiasco’s help and achieve your personal goal.
For example, I chose a lady named Thankful Cassiopeia who had a metal arm and a hankerin’ to kill her way through the Glitchers until she found the kid they took from her. She had a fun run of missions before one too many trips out the airlock left her weakened. She got shot and thrown out of an airlock one last time, and before I could remote pilot the breaching pod to rescue her, she perished.
But that is the game. It’s definitely a rogue-like. Sometimes you die and start from scratch (aside from the liberations, which carry over). But even if you live a long and glorious career, Heat Signature incentivizes you to retire characters, and pass on their knowledge and hopefully some self-charging equipment to keep to overall meta-story flowing.
I worked my way through more mercenaries to liberate 40 stations. This is every point of interest in the galaxy you play in, which is called the Drift. Each station you liberate unlocks new equipment for purchase, from long-range key cloners to new pods with special perks. If you remove all the stations of a faction, that faction is knocked out the game.
I won’t give away the ending after you liberate the entire Drift, but it does seem like you are set up for a sequel or at least a decent expansion.
The vast majority of the game has you playing as a merc running missions from your home station. You go to the mission board and pick from a range of options with scaling difficulties and rewards
A galaxy-full of missions at your fingertips.
The you step away from the mission board, run to your ship, and blast off across the Drift towards your mission location, to accomplish your task of assassinating, kidnaping, rescuing, liberating, or stealing whatever target you have selected.
A cool aspect of this game is that the only difference from your map of you missions and your view of running down ship hallways kicking in faces is the level of zoom. That’s right, there is no map screen. You can zoom out and maneuver your ship from a character-level view, or a galaxy-level view.
Zoom in to a character-level view
Zoom out all the way to a galaxy-level view
Once you have found your target ship, you view zooms in (and you can help it along) to a ship-to-ship level. You dodge the view range of the target ship’s view ports and attempt to match speed and maneuver to the point of reaching the docking point. From there, your stealthy breacher pod locks on and you are launched into the enemy vessel.
Each of the four factions has their own aesthetic, but basically ships are a collection of procedurally-generated rooms and hallways for you to navigate. There is a random arrangement of guards, sentry guns, locked doors, equipment chests full of tasty new items, and more between you and your target item or person. How you complete each mission is up to you. Do you glitch around with personal teleporters killing everyone like a cyber-specter? Or do you dodge all patrols, collect keys from a distance with a key cloner, and disappear without anyone ever knowing you’re there?
What you can accomplish is a combination of your equipment, real life skill level, and imagination. You gain more equipment as you go through the game. You have 8 inventory slots but your character can only be equipped with two items at any time. One for your left mouse click and one for your right. Looks like everyone in the galaxy is ambidextrous!
Your pause menu is where your character’s main power is released. You can switch out equipment instantly, kill unconscious people, hold shift to pan your view across the whole ship and more. This may seem trivial, but you will find yourself pausing a lot, even if it is only to catch your breath and plan your next move. Many items have a cool down, so you can use an item, pause to switch out for an identical item, and effectively use the same type of item again. Pause will get you through some tough scrapes and unexpected turns.
The random layouts and challenges, having to evolve your plans as guards respond to you, and somehow making it through each time by the skin of your space-ass is the whole fun of the game. You can solve a most of the missions any way you want, unless you are trying to hit specific success clauses for a little extra acid. You’ll find yourself blasting people out of starship windows when your guns can’t scratch them, killing your way through ships where you planned to be stealthy, and sometimes hijacking a nearby vessel to rain missiles down on your target ship.
Heat Signature is a lot of fun. At $15 after the release sale, it is well priced for what you get. And Suspicious Developments is hard at work patching the game and responding to feedback, which is great.
Active Devs are critical to a game’s success and longevity, making Heat Signature’s future bright.
What I loved about Heat Signature was the emergent gameplay. The tiny little stories that you find in having tools not quite right for the job, but still manage to succeed are awesome. The unexpected combinations of skill, chance, and circumstance is one of the best things about procedural generation. You could never plan all these awesome moments into a game like Heat Signature. But thanks to randomness, you can always find fun tales to share with your friends. Look at the community right now and you’ll see tons of people writing stories about their exploits, drawing their characters, and bragging about their seemingly impossible and unique situations they somehow survived.
Having the all the right tools for the job and successfully executing your plan is deeply satisfying.
Even your failures can be a lot of fun. For example, I didn’t know how my new piece of equipment I looted from a cargo container worked, so I read the description. It was a type of teleporter called a Visitor that would let me teleport into a location, do what I needed to do, and teleport me back to my original location after two seconds. Perfect! I was on a rescue mission and there were a lot of guards I could bypass with this. What could go wrong?
I teleported in, waved to the nearest guards and dodged their shots as I grabbed the unconscious rescue target. Then my Visitor device triggered and I teleported out and started running to my ship. Without the lady I was supposed to rescue. Seems like teleporters only work on you and your equipment.
I had a good laugh picturing things from the point of view of the guards. Some guy shows up and snatches up their prisoner, only to drop her on the floor when teleporting out. Once I recovered from my mirth, I went back and strategically negotiated the guards into unconscious with my trusty wrench, and picked the poor woman up off the floor.
Some of the missions I enjoyed the most were the Defector missions. You are assigned a randomly generated Defector with only a few pieces of random equipment. Then you have to figure out how to get through your mission with different tools than you usually played with, often in unexpected situations. Like having to start the mission by using a shotgun to direct yourself through space to get to the target vessel, rather than your usual breacher pod. I barely had any oxygen left when I finally made it, but it was a hell of a rush!
The emergent gameplay is the best part of Heat Signature. Sometimes you snatch unlikely victory from the slavering jaws of defeat. And sometimes you knock out three guards and yourself by launching wrenches a little too frantically from the Everything Gun.
So why didn’t I love Heat Signature long term? I couldn’t get immersed. I was constantly taken out of the experience and reminded I was playing a game.
When I first started playing Heat Signature, my thoughts were Hotline Miami…IN SPACE! My fudge was melting all over the place making one heck of a mess, and I was crazy excited. But the more I played, the more it seemed like Pause: THE GAME. Heat Signature literally tells you that many of your best options are only possible through your pause menu, and it’s true. But relying so heavily on the pause menu breaks the flow of the game and lightens the challenge. So, I’d try to use it as little as possible. But then I’d feel like I am missing out.
Let me give you a gameplay example of the pros and cons of pause in Heat Signature. One of the most powerful abilities is being able to pick up an unattended object from anywhere on the ship you are on while paused. It makes things almost too easy sometimes. Concussion Gun empty and you threw your last wrench? No worries you can pick up all 8 wrenches and 12 guns on the ship from your pause menu. You never run out of options or get truly desperate. Facing three guards and only have one wrench? Swing once and you’ve knocked one guy out. But wrenches are heavy and you are never going to recover from your swing before you are shot by the other two. Just throw it! Boom, two baddies down. But oh shit, you threw your weapon away. No worries, you can pick up a wrench from across the ship in the pause menu and throw that too. Problem solved.
In fact, reading through online guides and tips articles, you’ll see players advocating carrying four copies of items that have cooldowns, such as four longswords. Use your right one, you left one, pause to switch to your next pair, and repeat. Sure, you can stab the faces off all the guards in the room. But it makes for monotonous gameplay. I’d recommend avoiding that unless you truly enjoy that style of play.
Outside of game mechanics, some of the basic aspects of the game would take me out of it. On mission select screens, the two types of enemies you face are called guards and bosses. Bosses? Why not sergeants, captains, leaders, assholes, or literally anything else but bosses
Even the optimal zoom level when in a ship threw me off. Hotline Miami had a tight zoom level so you could often only see part of adjacent rooms, mimicking what you could “sense” in real life through what you could over hear through doors/see through windows/etc. But in Heat Signature, your optimal zoom lets you see about four rooms away (on addition being able to pan over the entire ship at your leisure from the pause menu). This robs the game of immediacy and a sense of danger, but enables you to plan out actions and paths. Neither option is right or wrong, just different. And apparently the version in Heat Signature doesn’t appeal to me as much.
I’ll show you the zoom levels in the pair of graphics below.
You can zoom in close for more immersion, but the resolution this close in and the fact that guards can see you from three rooms away if they have line of sight tells you this isn’t a great idea.
The optimal zoom lets you see at least three or four rooms in any direction, letting you plan and respond before guards can spot you, but takes you far from the action.
Outside of these subjective nitpicks, what also took my out of the game was the lack of new mid to late game content. By the time you have died a few times, retired a mercenary, and liberated a few stations, you have already seen most that the game has to offer. You’ll be about three hours into the game. From here you have 30-something more stations to liberate. You’ll see a few more variations of tools and weapons. Maybe you have a self-charging key swapper, but not a self-charging, long-range key swapper.
There are still a few new variations and challenges, but after a ton more missions to earn liberation progress and 20 more stations liberated, you’ve seen it all. By this time, you’ve unlocked a lot of equipment and new ships for the shops. Some are not worth your time, like the ship that lets you sneak past sensors. The sensor range on enemy ships is so tiny, I never had a problem with it. Some unlockables are definitely worth your time, though. I had a hard time choosing between the ship that let you teleport into position to breach a ship (great for short timeline missions), and the one that kept my health from degrading when I got spaced out an airlock by guards who knocked me unconscious (yet again).
I found myself falling into habits and preferred equipment. Various teleporters and key swappers that let me snag security keys without bothering guards, plus the necessary subverter to turn shields and turrets against their owners. But this made the game a grind. So, I forced myself to reenact the restrictions of the Defector missions. Completing a mission with only melee weapons, going on a killing spree. Only being able to disable turrets by running up to them and turning them off. Completing a mission with no weapons. Completing a mission using only the Everything Gun, which launches nearby unattended objects as projectiles.
I love the idea of Heat Signature. I love indy gaming. And as a random fudge-being on the internet reviewing a game that a studio I love, Suspicious Developments, makers of Gunpoint, spent 3 years of their lives on, I deeply regret to say I did not love this game.
That said, many parts of this game did get my fudge all melty. The procedural generation in this game is awesome, and the little stories your mercenaries find when they are running their missions are the majority of the fun in the game. The ships start to feel samey after a while, and missions start to blur together before you liberate all the stations. I found more fun when the game started to grind by forcing limitations on my approach and loadouts.
Once there are some expansions to buff out the end game, Heat signature will be great. For now, it is still priced right for the game play you get, but if you have doubts, definitely hold out for a sale.
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