mento's The Starship Damrey (Nintendo 3DS eShop) review

In space, no-one can hear you scream, nor can they help you out with inventory puzzles.

Level-5's The Starship Damrey is a perfect example of a doing a lot with a little. Part of Level-5's Guild 02 series of smaller 3DS eShop downloadable games from prominent veteran game designers, The Starship Damrey was conceived by writer Takemaru Abiko and designer Kazuya Asano, the duo responsible for many of Chunsoft's series of "sound novels" - 16-bit horror-themed visual novels such as Kamaitachi no Yoru (recently localized as Banshee's Last Cry) that made excellent use of ambient sound. Originally part of a compilation package, it's rather sparse as a standalone product, but still manages to use its minimal running time and limited assets to their fullest effect.

A horror-themed sci-fi adventure game, the Starship Damrey puts the player inside the space boots of an unknown spaceship crewmember currently trapped in a coffin-esque "Cold Sleep" cryostasis unit who can only interact with the outside world through an AR - a remote-controlled Assist Robot. Of the eight ARs on the ship, only two are actually functional, and this creates the first sense of dread - not only that you're dependent on a few working (and quite limited) robotic companions to free you and discover what happened to the ship and its crew, but that the six others are mysteriously offline. It's soon after this that you discover the first body - each crew member has an ID card that allows the player to access additional parts of the ship, and each new corpse brings with it more places to explore. Still, the game's use of the occasional ambient noise and almost total darkness makes these cadaver discoveries something of a shock every time, even if you fully expect to run across one. Likewise, the game tampers around with a few supernatural elements, like a spectral girl in a straw boater who makes a few appearances, and at least one other AR that has unexpectedly somehow turned hostile.

The game presents several mysteries all at once: what happened to the ship? What happened to its crew? Where are the other AR units? What kind of mission was this ship performing? And the game's chief impetus is to solve puzzles to open up new areas of ship so you can piece together more of what's going on. I found myself taking notes while playing - entirely inessential, but I did so anyway - so I could get a better sense of the wheres and whys and hows whenever I discovered something. The game deliberately takes a stance of zero tutorials and hints, going as far as to tell you as much in a disclaimer upon starting the game, and so there's a pleasing amount of poking around and figuring out elements on your own. (Conversely to what its disclaimer says, it does at least tell you how the AR units function, and their limitations.) Some of the puzzles can be a little abstruse, so you need to pay attention to clues in the environment, but given how few moving parts there are in the game nothing's likely to stymie you for long. It's usually little details like neglecting to check a corpse's pocket for their ID card, or forgetting to examine an object enough times before the prompt to pick it up appears.

The Starship Damrey is an exercise in taking a small amount of gameplay, of graphical assets and of actual plot and utilizing them in the most effective means possible. The mostly empty ship is eerie, the dim lights and distant creaks of the ship's hull adroitly set the mood and the game has jump scares that don't feel cheap or unearned - in most cases you instigate them by walking up and having something suddenly enter the limited cone of vision. The game's all in first-person, using the AR's camera for the top screen and your own helpless prone form in the locked Cold Sleep unit on the bottom screen, which does nothing but elevate the disquieting nature of your situation.

It's definitely a very short game and probably won't take most players a couple hours or so, excepting the occasional roadblock, but it's also very effective at what it does: it sets a creepy tone, creates mysteries that are fun to solve, has puzzles that range from obvious to requiring a little bit of lateral thinking and presents a brief but engrossing story from a couple of developers that have been creating spooky visual novels for a long time and have gotten pretty good at it. Play it in a dark room with the volume up and you won't go far wrong.

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