Suddenly, without warning ... SCIENCE! You're in a half-wrecked World War One-era submarine, floating in space. Try not to die. Thus are we introduced to Danish indie developer Porta Play's Tales From The Void, coming to Steam via Black Dog Publishing later this month. Despite couching itself in a touch of realism (your sub, the British HMS E18, did indeed go missing in June 1916 while patrolling the Baltic Sea), nothing else about Tales From The Void should be taken the least bit seriously.
Nor was it meant to. The story revolves around a British superweapon, the "oscillator cannon", designed by mad genius (of course) Doctor Dragoslav. Designed with the intent of destroying Germany (somehow), the cannon backfires instead, teleporting your submarine and crew to an extrasolar asteroid belt full of alien flora and fauna. Porta Play's narrative angle is along the lines of old schlocky science-fiction movies, like this classic:
From that particular angle, it would seem Tales From The Void could get some real traction just on sheer quirkiness alone. Thrust by science gone awry into an unforgiving alien realm, how can our brave heroes survive - let alone return to their planet of origin?! Cue dramatic musical sting.
It's a shame, then, that Porta Play initially seems to have such limited resources that Tales doesn't even measure up to a lousy B-movie. Much of the opening dialogue is lifelessly tone-deaf, as though recorded with a British text-to-speech program, even in the trailer. On the graphics side, yes, we all know that using the in-game engine is all the rage these days for cutscenes, but, just look.
Then there are the sound controls. By which I mean, the utter lack thereof. Not in the launcher, not in the game settings, nowhere whatsoever. It's never fun to have your ears blown off the second you start a game, much less having to take the headphones off to fiddle with your PC's native controls while the opening cut-scene blithely continues without you.
BUT IS IT FUN?
Once you start playing? Yes. Yes, it is. Despite an underwhelming first impression, there is something to be said for Tales From The Void once it gets rolling.
In a nutshell, you've got to raid asteroids for flotsam and jetsam which got yanked into space along with the HMS E18. Since the oscillator cannon knocked loose in the same collision which breached the hull (naturally), and since it's the only way to get home, you'll need to hunt it down as well. Each such mission consumes air, the only option for maneuvering your submarine through space. One needn't dwell much on what happens, should you run out.
The tutorial is simple enough, walking you point by point through the control scheme with a "training asteroid". Strangely, Porta Play seems to have set the scenario up in a way that could easily have been very immersive but is written and voiced in an entirely throwaway fashion. Think about it: somehow (and on very short notice) you've managed to make a primitive submarine space-worthy, rigged oxygen tanks for jetpacks, and you're critically low on both food and air. This asteroid could have been presented as a crucial combination of testing and training in an utterly unknown environment. Instead, you might as well be at the Department of Motor Vehicles getting your license.
Three campaign options are available, switching up the balance between food, air, and the sub's marine complement, after which you select the difficulty. I went with the hardest, Veteran, just to see what Tales would throw at me.
TALES IS A REAL BUG HUNT...
Things start off with a narrated log entry summing up the situation, then cutting to the ship's periscope to select an asteroid for raiding. Although there's a little play in the periscope's rotation, it's purely cosmetic; your only options are right in front of you. Clicking on one will pop up a report on what to expect there, costs in food and air for traveling to the selected rock, and recommendations for what sort of troops to deploy. So far, all well and good.
You can pick up to five marines from your crew - Scouts, Engineers, and Gunners - for each mission. Subject to class-based limitations, each can be equipped with anything in the ship's armory. Whichever marine you designate as "leader" will be the first to land, the others on reserve until you order them to drop in. There's a lot of flexibility here: whichever marine you've currently selected becomes the drop target, which can be performed anytime unless something is directly above them. A word of warning here: Tales doesn't tell you up front, but it seems that the more marines you deploy on a mission and the longer you take to complete your task, the more it costs your ship's air reserves.
Now here's where things get fun.
Most asteroids don't end up looking like they do through the periscope. Instead, they're fairly intricate three-dimensional mazes where, if you fall off the path or miss a jump, your marine will tumble into the Void with a plaintive wail of despair. On top of that, gravity just doesn't work as it should - it's something closer to what one might experience on the Moon, with a definite "down" which isn't defined by the asteroid one little bit. Which is what you'd expect from a cheesy old sci-fi flick, so consider that a plus.
These factors often lead to delightfully tense moments of decision: would moving along that narrow ledge split up the team? Can that ice bridge hold the engineer and his backpack mortar? Would shooting those boulders clear a way through, or might they rebound to cause even bigger problems? Because your view is limited to the area around your selected marine, and since Tales uses depth-of-field to solid effect, it's only the careless who'll feel safe enough just to boost on through.
Oh, what's that you say? If you screw up, you'll just reload from a save? Hah!
Deliberately, there are only autosaves here. You can choose to abort and restart the mission if things go horribly awry, but even that costs you extra air - and it doesn't turn back time, either! You'll just have to live with and adapt to the results of your decisions as a Captain.
Nonetheless, there's one crucial benefit to being a seasoned British naval officer: you can stop time, like a newsreel being paused, to give each member of your away team individual orders. It's a simple mechanic by current gaming standards, sure, but here it brings Tales into its own, allowing for much more complexity in your tactical decisions. What's even better is that its use isn't limited to combat. Should a scout miss their landing after a jump and stumble towards their doom, a tap of the spacebar will give you all the time needed to consider your options.
Additionally, the sound design is quite enjoyable. Aboard ship there's a tinny gramophone, playing authentic bits of World War One-era music in the background (until, in another nice touch, its needle begins to skip and some unseen crewman clomps over to fix it). The ship creaks, groans, and runs its thumping engines for precious heat. Down on the asteroids, ambient background music lends synthesizer-suffused tones to those of alien flora and fauna, clicking, rustling, lying in wait for your crew to come bobbling along.
This combination of flexibility and moody atmosphere make Tales' gameplay a genuine pleasure to experience.
...COMPLETE WITH BUGS WHAT NEED HUNTING
All of which is then horribly marred, by unpolished chunks of play between the action. Just to start off, you can get mission notes where the text overruns the allowed space. Not just once, either; it happened several times in a single run, including losing bits of the story on occasions where text flowed off the bottom of the screen.
Glitching? Oh yes, we've got that too. At the end of a particularly bloody mission, the loot-select screen began blinking in and out, resetting my choices each time until (after several tries) I finally managed to grab two and hit "continue". Tales immediately blurred two after-action reports together, complete with accompanying audio from both. One had to do with the oscillator cannon, the other with the ship's food situation. Two separate campaign triggers had apparently fired simultaneously, rather than in sequence, after which subsequent mission endings then had the same problem. This effectively destroyed Tales' narrative altogether, forcing a campaign restart. Bad form, Porta Play, bad form!
All of these are hallmarks of a rushed job. And it's a damned pity because not only is the gameplay itself fun, but it's a goofy-cool concept of the likes no one else is rolling with. Where else are you going to get screenshots like this?
Back here on Planet Earth, the wreck of the real HMS E18 was discovered in 2009, its main hatch open. It's thought that it may have struck a mine while cruising on the surface. Or, perhaps... that hatch was left open by ALIENS?! The world may never know the entire truth. But should you wish to explore that question for yourself, Tales From The Void - in all its broken, potential glory - will be available on Steam for the Windows and Mac OS X platforms on May 20th.
This game was reviewed on a PC via Steam using a review code provided by the publisher.
If you like classic sci-fi adventure schlock, this game may be what you're looking for. You should probably hold off until patches can fix some serious campaign-killing bugs, though.