It was 2016 when we last previewed Beacon, and so by now, Monothetic has been working on this isometric roguelite for a number of years. Now the sci-fi shooter is out in the wild, although it's still not quite finished and the development process is going to conclude in Early Access on Steam at some point in the next year (you can read more about the studio's plans here). However, you can still buy the game, and so we thought we'd dive in and take a closer look at what it has to offer and dig into the DNA-based mechanics.
We've seen roguelikes utilise soft progression many times before, but we've spent less time with games that bake that progression into the theme. Roguelike games traditionally have you starting from scratch with every run, but roguelites let you take a bit of your progress with you into the next attempt. Beacon takes that idea and runs with it, building the concept around the idea of each new run being a new incarnation of yourself. Rogue Legacy pulled a similar trick, passing down traits between characters, but here it's a bit more immediate with clones.
The scenario has your ship in ruins on the surface of a hostile planet. Upon emerging you find a note from yourself, explaining your dire situation. Then it's a case of exploring the local area, dispatching anything you meet along the way, grabbing any DNA you find, and heading to the next objective marker as part of your wider search for the beacon you need to tell the folks back home about your predicament. In theory that sounds like a fine concept, and there are some really nice design ideas in there, but the execution is far from flawless and despite the game being long in development, there's still plenty more to be done.
The biggest issue we encountered was the movement. At times there's a disconnect between your avatar and the surface she's walking on, which means that sometimes your character can look like she's floating just above the surface of the ground, and at other times her feet will clip through the floor. The isometric perspective can oftentimes be misleading and sometimes we found moving around the place to be most frustrating and even detrimental to our health, especially when attempting the many narrow walkways. It doesn't help that exploration can be a bit bewildering thanks to hard-to-read environments and more than once we lost our way and had to spend a fair while trying to figure out where we needed to go next.
Falling off the map happens all the time, especially when you're dodging and rolling away from incoming attacks. Short falls don't cause damage, longer falls eat a small amount of health, and falling into oblivion sees you returned to the game by a flying robot but with a more substantial health penalty. Perhaps it's not in keeping with the roguelike roots of the game to drop you back in the action like that, but we appreciated this slightly less punishing design choice, even if we didn't like falling off the levels all the time.
The art style is rather eye-catching, and exploring this alien world is certainly interesting. The enemies we've encountered so far are varied enough and range from robotic soldiers armed with various weapons through to slime-filled critters that chase you around the place and jump at you to obscure your vision. There's lots of strafing and dodging as you try and stay alive long enough to find something interesting to collect, be that a new weapon or some other device to help you on your way. Most of the things you encounter that move need to be shot at, and this is done in true twin-stick shooter style, but the gunplay isn't quite as accurate as we'd have liked given the punishing nature of the genre.
One of the things you might discover when exploring is DNA, and upon death, this DNA can be used to change your starting stats for the next run, although it's not as simple as just getting stronger as many of the mutations have negative side-effects too. Our first experiment with this system is a good example, as some DNA we found let us mutate our arm into a bionic one, a change which persisted over future runs and improved our melee abilities but at the cost of half our health. There are a bunch of slots that can be filled with different DNA strands and these can mean different mutations - it's a deep system and we've only scratched the surface. In fact, we wanted to see more of these abilities sooner so we could experiment with different playstyles and really get to the good stuff that's waiting underneath the surface.
We've had an eye on Beacon for some time, and it's clear that the developer has been adding tremendous depth to the progression system and the mutations, but these excellent design ideas aren't helped by the fact that there's a disconnect between the player and the environment and at times the controls can feel a little unresponsive (especially in the menus, when you sometimes have to click things three or four times before they work). We're suckers for a good roguelike though, and Beacon still has a lot of promise, but there's plenty of work to be done over the next 6-10 months if Monothetic is going to deliver a game that truly stands out from the roguelike crowd.