Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

Voyage of the Marigold, by Andrew Stephen

I was into a lot of the standard nerdy stuff when I was a kid in the late 80s – DnD, Star Wars, Asimov, Tolkein, you name it. But the one that stood above all others, the one that really made my heart sing, was Star Trek. Even now there’s something about those ships, those uniforms, that idealistic mission of exploration, that deactivates my critical faculties and makes me just hum along with the theme: dum-dum-dum, dum-dumedy-dum… So when I realized that despite being a sci-fi roguelike about getting your ship from one side of a sector to another with limited crew, weapons, and fuel, Voyage of the Marigold owes a much bigger debt to Star Trek than it does to FTL, I squirmed with glee.

Even as a 43 year old, commanding a starship on a mission of mercy is an irresistible draw – and what makes it even better is the way you get to command it. I’ve played plenty of Star Trek games in my time, and enjoyed them, but hunching over a laptop and clicking the comm badge to open hailing frequencies or flailing the mouse around to try to shake an enemy warbird don’t have much gravitas. No, the actual fantasy is to command the way Kirk or Picard did, snapping off a cool “on screen, Lieutenant” or ordering “evasive maneuvers, bearing oh-three-six mark five.” Turning a marvel of sci-fi engineering and its highly-trained crew into an extension of your intellect just through language – that’s the dream, and it’s one Voyage of the Marigold completely nails.

To help you succeed in your mission of ferrying much-needed medical supplies through a nebula in the neutral zone, you’ve got a nicely graphical star-map and a status screen to show you your resources (we’re a long way from default Ink styling), the game itself is played exclusively via your captain’s log, which chronicles your exploits in note-perfect first-person narration, and drops into dialogue mode whenever it’s time to issue an order and make a decision. Your bridge crew aren’t deeply characterized – they aren’t given names, just addressed by their position – but they play their roles well, and I found the vagueness presented a blank slate onto which to project my positive associations of Sulu, Spock, Data, and the rest. The rhythm of warping into a new sector, scanning to see what’s around, planning how to avoid its dangers or take advantage of its opportunities, and then moving on to the next one, provides a pleasing gameplay loop but also nicely apes the show.

It isn’t just the trappings that reminded me of Star Trek, I should add; the game has an earnest, idealistic streak to it and plays with similar kinds of moral dilemmas. Your progress is dogged by not-Klingons and in some cases fighting is inevitable, and supplies are always tight, but throughout, you’re rewarded for seeing the humanity in even the most frightening aliens, not letting your need for resources push you to desperate measures, taking time for exploration and discovery even in the midst of an urgent mission, and respecting the Prime Directive.

That isn’t to say that it’s easy to win just playing as a goody-two-shoes, though – as befits a roguelike, the difficulty is such that I had to play three or four times before victory. That’s par for the course for the genre, and since each run is only fifteen or twenty minutes, it’s well worth giving it a few tries. But while overall I think the challenge is fair enough, there are a series of interlocking design decisions that occasionally can edge on frustration, and create some tension with the otherwise-consistent mood. Success hinges on navigating from one corner of a five-by-five grid to the other, with limited time and limited fuel, and the randomly-generated maps tend to be constricted, rather than open, with a few specific bottleneck sectors offering the only ways to make forward progress. I found it was very easy to make a wrong turn but only realize I was in a dead-end four or five warp jumps later, requiring me to burn significant resources retracing my steps. What’s worse, revisiting sectors you’ve been to before imposes a steadily-increasing morale penalty; I lost my first playthrough when the crew mutinied over being denied shore leave with only two days remaining before the plague killed millions of colonists. This morale hit feels unnecessary, since the thin margins on fuel and time are already punishment enough for backtracking, and it also jars with the professionalism of the Starfleet crews the game’s clearly trying to evoke.

My other complaint is that the deck of possible events is relatively thin; it’ll probably only take one and a half playthroughs to see just about everything except the endgame. This is fine for some of the more open-ended encounters, but some of them are closer to puzzles, offering clear correct decisions rather than context-dependent tradeoffs. As a result my engagement with the narrative layer started to erode in repeat playthroughs, impatiently clicking past descriptions of ancient civilizations and god-like energy beings since I already knew their deal.

Obviously, though, it’s not a harsh a criticism of a game to wish there was more of it. I heartily enjoyed my time with Voyage of the Marigold and was sad when my time with it came to an end – though learning I was the only Federation citizen for decades to come who received the Glexx Crown of Honor (second glass) for my humanitarian efforts helped take the sting off it. This is a gripping but feel-good game that’s precision-engineered to appeal to me, but even for folks who don’t dream about wormholes and bumpy-headed aliens and low-velocity space battles, there’s a lot here to enjoy.