Starship Rubicon

A game by Wick Studios for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2014.
Starship Rubicon begins with the destruction of Earth by an alien race. An AI-driven ship manages to recover the cryopod of a fighter pilot and places her at the helm, tasking her with becoming humanity’s avenger. But the AI is a bit… strange. It seems hellbent on destroying the alien civilization that turned Earth into a lifeless husk, while picking up any other human survivors along the way and eventually relocating the remnants of humanity to a new home.

In this roguelike actioner, the player may select from one of three ships. Each ship has a different speed, armor, primary weapon, and special abilities, allowing the player to start with something that best suits his play style.

A number of additional ships and modifications may be unlocked by gathering currency dropped by destroyed enemy craft during the campaign. Per roguelike conventions, currency and unlockables are all that carry over between gameplay sessions; otherwise, the player returns to the start of the game each time his ship is destroyed.

As the game begins, the player is given a star map with a number of preset coordinates, allowing for two or three choices between possible paths. Each point along the map is peppered with enemy ships, as well as potential bonuses, including ship upgrades and currency.

The player must continue to push forward along his chosen path and is not able to return to previous nodes nor explore alternate paths. Per roguelike conventions, the layout of the nodes and the enemies within are randomized, although there is a steady escalation of difficulty.

Between missions, the player is free to perform ship repairs (if he has enough money available) as well as modify his ship’s weapons, armor, and special abilities, including the installation of new items uncovered during his mission. The presence of predetermined points on a star map and the menu-driven interface are reminiscent of FTL, by which this game is heavily influenced. However, the player is given full control of his vessel in combat, which is in contrast to FTL's realtime strategy interface.

While random elements are still in place – and it is distinctly possible for a battle to turn from possible victory to certain death in a matter of seconds – placing the action in the player’s hands reduces the effects of chance on the game's outcome. This also leads to fewer instances where players find themselves limping from one encounter to the next, as they may opt to take a more cautious tack in the next battle in hopes of earning enough currency to effect repairs.

Combat in Starship Rubicon is very similar to that found in Asteroids. The player has the ability to fire, thrust, and rotate the ship, and the only way to slow down is to spin around 180 degrees and accelerate. The ship starts with a weak shield that can absorb some damage, although shields are dropped temporarily whenever the player uses his weapon or engages his special ability. This design increases the stakes during combat as the player’s energy may be drained quickly in the midst of a heavy firefight. Players may flee from enemies, and an afterburner increases the ship's speed, but they must still be careful not to run into nearby asteroids, lest they take damage in the process.

The player’s weapons and special abilities have a significant impact on how the game is played. Regular bullets and homing missiles are weak but effective at a distance, while weapons like flamethrowers and lasers allow for up-close heavy damage. The player’s primary weapon may be fired continuously, while special weapons must recharge between uses. Players may also upgrade the range and effectiveness of their offensive ordinance by unlocking new items between sessions.

As players make progress, new and more dangerous enemy ships are introduced, some of which have lasers and other heavy armaments that can drain energy quickly, and others have shields that require a great deal of damage to take down. There are occasional boss encounters as well, and bosses are often flanked by strong enemies that offer protection.

New environmental dangers appear throughout the game as well, such as occasional meteor showers that move across the playfield quickly, neuron-looking organic creatures that sap your ship’s energy if you get too close, and gravitational anomalies that repel your ship or pull you toward their center mass, ejecting you (and enemy ships) to another location on the playfield.

Occasionally, the player will encounter a human survivor. In these missions, the player must locate and protect the survivor, at which point he or she will be added to your ranks. These survivors may then be brought with you on future missions where they will fight alongside you and destroy enemy ships. They operate well on their own and do not require any input from the player. However, they must also recover for several turns between missions (or longer if their ships are critically damaged), making them best reserved for big missions. Players may bring multiple wingmen into missions at a time.

At the start of each new area, the player encounters a shop, with upgrades available for purchase based on the number of humans rescued. New items may also be found by completing certain missions. These upgrades may be attached to the ship via a Tetris-style interface where the size and shape of the upgrades may only be installed if there is enough space physically available aboard the ship. Players may need to move components around in order to get them all to fit properly, and unwanted items may be recycled in exchange for currency.

Upgrades include new special abilities, stronger armor, and some useful items such as the ankh, which allows the ship to regenerate once after it is destroyed (at which point the ankh is also destroyed). In a nice touch, moving the ship’s primary weapon off-center will also cause it to fire off-center in the game. The stats of allied ships may be upgraded via the shop system as well.

Currency – which is left floating when an enemy ship is destroyed – is the primary method by which the player makes progress, as it is needed to buy most upgrades and to make repairs aboard the ship. Ship repairs are all or nothing, so the player must determine whether it is best to risk failure or try to survive one more mission without making repairs in order to get the most out of of the expense. If the player’s ship is destroyed, he must return to the start of the game, or spend a significant amount of currency for another shot at the most recent mission. Spending the money may give you another shot at victory, but it also may lead to failure and loss of currency needed to unlock new upgrades between sessions.

The game’s visuals are quite minimal, with blocky designs for ships, projectiles, and other graphical effects. Backgrounds consist of public domain photographs of space and various planets… In fact, the introductory destruction of Earth replaces the planet with a desaturated view of Mars with the Valles Marineris clearly visible.

The game’s narrative is also light, with an odd computer AI and more than a few references to science fiction films and other video games. However, while the player’s actions are generally under the command of the ship’s AI, an important choice lies in the player’s hands toward the end of the game. The campaign is lengthy, particularly for one meant to be completed in a single sitting, but future sessions will see players making their way more quickly through early areas.

Modding is also supported an encouraged by the developer as the game’s install incudes files that control all aspects of player and enemy ships, including health, armor, shields, and weaponry. Players need only make use of a text editor to change important statistics and significantly alter gameplay… or cheat in the most grand manner imaginable by maxing out every weapon and reducing recharge times.

Starship Rubicon was developed by Joseph “Wick” Perry under his Wick Studios label. Joseph is a neuroscientist, and he started working on the game as a weekend project, developing it slowly over the course of two years This was his first commercial release. Joseph is responsible for all facets of the game’s development, aside from the soundtrack, which was composed by Beatscribe. The game was published by Cheerful Ghost.