Failure. It clings to the soul like a parasite. The Blood Angels know this feeling all too well. They have failed their Emperor and have had to live with the shame of that defeat. Now, however, there is a chance at redemption. A derelict space hulk drifts aimlessly through a graveyard in space. The Sin of Damnation has been infested with the insect-like Genestealers. This is the chance to reclaim victory and restore honor to this group of space marine terminators.
But it’s not going to be easy.
Space Hulk is a turn-based strategy game which originated as a best-selling board game set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. You are put in control of a team of heavily armed mechs and must fight your way through the claustrophobic corridors of an abandoned wreck. Your patience and cunning will be tested as you utilize a variety of weapons from flame throwers and machine guns to super-charged fists and swords. Lurking around every corner is a possible threat. The Genestealers may not have the weaponry you’re afforded, but they’re lethal none the same.
The game is laid out as a series of missions, each with its own set of goals. Some will ask you to rescue a brother terminator in need of assistance while others task you with clearing out enemy encampments. But they all flow in pretty much the same way. The round starts with you placing your units on the board. Then you can cycle through each of the units and choose their actions. Each marine has four action points they can use to either move, attack, or take up a defensive stand. To augment these points, you can also draw from a pool of command points which are shared among the team.
And the points tend to run out quickly. This adds a sense of weight to every choice you make. Sometimes moving even one extra grid space is the difference between life and death. It adds tension to the game, and as I found out, it also creates a lot of frustration.
Space Hulk is interesting in its setup and premise, but there’s one glaring trait that is obvious when playing it on the Vita. This game was designed to be played with a mouse and keyboard on a large screen. That fact is constantly being thrown at you while trying to play it on a handheld, and it’s obvious from the very first screen. The fonts in the menus are extremely small and difficult to read. The touch-points are also tiny and not finger friendly. The menus rely solely on touch and sometimes just trying to hit which mission you want to select can be a chore. And that’s just in the menu screen.
While playing the game, you are given the option to use the physical controls, but things are still optimized for touch. Selecting movements with the sticks is sluggish and a chore. This sluggishness would make it so that I was often inputting incorrect commands, thus forcing me to use the cancel button (which may or may not actually work). This led to me spending action points at times I didn’t want to and unable to undo the mistake.
Inevitably this would be my downfall and the end of the mission. And when the missions take quite a bit of time to complete, and the loading screens are lengthy, it’s not fun being sent back to the beginning again.
Space Hulk is a slow game, both in good and bad ways. Turn-based strategy games are never quick, but here the default settings make things almost unbearably slow. Character animations move at snail’s pace, meaning it takes forever to move your team. Fortunately there is an option to speed things up, which helps tremendously. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help to eliminate the stuttering performance that I often came across.
But when you get past these limitations, you will find a beautiful and haunting experience that very much resembles the board game. The atmosphere is dark and terrifying. The voice over narration is flawless in my opinion. Yes, everything is a bit too small, but the game looks and sounds great… it’s just that it doesn’t play very well. Such a shame.
All is not lost however as there is a game mode which really grounds itself in the board game roots of Space Hulk. There is a local multiplayer mode called “Hotseat.” This mode allows two people to play a mission, one playing as the space marines and the other as the Genestealers. You take turns and pass the Vita back and forth to play. Yes, the controls are still borked (and yes, I just used the word “borked”… my apologies to all my English teachers over the years) but at least both players suffer equally. This actually makes it a lot more fun to play.
Obviously this isn’t a game for everyone, and it left me feeling a bit sour. Even with the difficulty turned all the way down (and you don’t earn trophies when playing on easy), the game was still overly challenging at times. And unlike other games that get me back into the action quickly after a death, here I had to wait quite awhile to get another chance. It really took me out of the flow, making it difficult to want to keep playing.
On the flip side, it does a pretty good job at replicating the board game experience on the Vita. It offers a way for friends to sit together in the same room and play, just without the dice, paper, and pencils.
In the end, not everything is better on the Vita. Some games work on a smaller screen and some do not. Space Hulk is one of those games that probably should have stayed on the PC. It’s a decent recreation of the original game, but its inconsistent controls make it a challenge to enjoy.