Heat Signature is an action/strategy/infiltration/roguelite game released in 2017. It was created by the same group of people responsible for Gunpoint, which was released 4 years prior. The two games are vastly different, but Heat Signature improves on many fronts while remaining unique.
The Man Who Went Inside Spaceships
The game takes place in a part of the galaxy which is controlled by four factions; Glitchers, Offworld Security, Foundry, and Sovereign. Your job as a player is to take on various contracts around that system, gaining acid (the game’s currency) and fame. With enough fame you can liberate occupied stations, and with enough independent stations, you can drive the all four factions out of your system, which is the ultimate goal of the game. Backstory and lore are delivered by different NPCs sprinkled across stations, telling you more about the different factions and their respective goals. The past is the past, but the future is up to you. Will you jump from ship to ship, killing everyone in sight? Will you sneak around enemies, steal a prototype, and escape unseen? Will you get thrown out into the vacuum of space and suffocate? Player choice is the name of the game. Story apart, the world of Heat Signature is a well built one. Spaceships will look different depending on who’s flying it. Sovereign ships are clean, tightly packed, with white floors and black polygonal walls, whereas Glitcher ships are generally wider, neon-colored, and with junk all over the floor. Without getting into the gameplay too much yet, the world is also believable. Enemies will panic when they comrades go on patrol to only to never come back, and should the player trigger an alarm, the captain will either call for reinforcements, or dock at the nearest station.
Hotline Miami in space.
Hotline Miami was one of 2012’s biggest video game hits, and is remembered for its top down view, one hit kills, and giving the player plenty of room for improvisation. Heat Signature features all of those things, but leaves die-and-retry behind, instead giving the player ample room for strategy and planning. One of the game’s most interesting mechanics is being able to pause the game. Seriously. At any time, the player can pause the game, and take time to analyse the room ahead of them. How many enemies, do they have shields, do they explode on death, etc. The player can then unpause the game, enter the room, and this is where the fun begins; the player can pause again, choose a weapon, target an enemy, unpause, and in an instant and the enemy will be on the floor, and the player ready to pause again, taking on the enemies one by one. Pause/unpausing cost a very slight amount of time, making sure the player can’t just clean a room in the blink of an eye. Another important part of the pausing mechanic is being able to switch items while paused. Every item has a cool-down period,, so in order to clear a room with three enemies, a player would need to either have three separate guns/swords, or need to unpause, wait out the cool-down, and get shot. Speaking of items, the choice is vast. There are two main categories, weapons and utilities, each having their own sub-categories. Weapons can be lethal or not lethal, melee or projectile, loud or suppressed, armor-piercing or not, and the list goes on. Utilities are things like traps, teleporters and key cloners to name a few. Those can be single-use or rechargeable, low or high-capacity, low or extreme range, etc. The better an item’s stats, the rarer/more expensive they will be. Items can be bought at allies stations, or found in crates in enemy ships. Ships fly randomly across the system, but the main reason to be on one is because of a contract. Contracts are the meat of the game, and the only way to gain reputation and to liberate stations. Every friendly station has a contract board, and the player can pick whichever contract best fits them. They all revolve around the same idea; fly your pod, board the ship, do something on the ship then get out, or hijack the ship. As the game progresses, the player will unlock new clauses, which spice up the gameplay by failing the mission when spotted, or by requiring all witnesses to be killed. All missions are unique, no ship is quite the same, and the enemy roster changes depending on difficulty and factions. This makes for gameplay that never truly feels repetitive. However, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Certain enemies are unkillable depending on which play style you’ve chosen. Armored enemies require armor-piercing weapons, and shielded enemies require a tool to deactivate their shields. On some of the most difficult missions, I had to run back to an allied station multiple times during the same contract just to recharge my subverter so I could deal with the twenty-something shielded guards on board.
Heroes die, legends retire.
At the start of a new game (or new save file), the player will have the choice between five characters, all with different flaws, perks, and starting inventory. At any point in time, the player can go back to a bar in an allied station, sit down, and pick a new character, while the first waits for their turn again. This mechanic serves two purposes: allowing for different characters will diversify the available play styles, as different characters can have opposed play styles and inventories. Characters also have their own fame, which brings us to the second purpose. The more famous a character becomes, the more difficult the contracts will need to be in order to increase reputation and therefore story progress, forcing the player to start thinking about retiring. Player characters have two possible endings: death or retirement. Heat Signature features something which can only be described as “perma-death but not really”. If an explosion propels you into space or mistake leaves you bleeding to death on the bridge of an empty ship, that’s it. Retirement is often a more agreeable ending. When a character has accrued plenty of reputation and a nice inventory, they can choose to retire. Doing so will put their name on the Hall of Fame next to the bar, and will let the player choose an item from their inventory, making it a legendary item with a unique name. With some luck, a future character can find it while out looting enemy ships. This progress mechanic is a nice touch; it allows for progress to carry on through death, but still makes dying impactful as you’re still losing a character you’ve grown attached to along with their inventory.
Another game by Tom Francis
The game’s visuals are forgettable, hallways start looking similar very quickly and the top-down view is an acquired taste, but the gameplay vastly makes up for it. Heat Signature is an addictive game best enjoyed in two-hour sessions, for its ultimate goal takes a sizeable amount of time to reach, and death usually happens when you start getting comfortable. Pausing and planning for minutes at a time usually results in satisfying and rewarding gameplay, but improvisation is required when your plan inevitably goes wrong.