INTO EACH LIFE SOME HE MUST FALL
Unlike Elite’s 400 billion systems, or however many quintillions of stars there are filling No Man’s Sky, the entirety of Helium Rain revolves around a single beacon of light and its huddled collection of lifeless moons. In the grand scheme of space gaming, even against the curated backdrops of Star Citizen and the X series, it’s a curiously tiny space - and a bleak one - in a genre where size always seems to matter.
But then, of course, it’s what you do with it that counts. Without an evolutionary seed or any obvious signs of procedural generation at work, the creation of Helium Rain has had to rely on intelligent design; its celestial light fittings and sparse furniture cleverly arranged to ensure its sectors feel simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, highlighted by the intense contrast of light and shadow cast from the game’s single star. Furthermore, there are compelling contrasts and contradictions throughout the game; presentation that is mundane yet refined, automated gameplay that requires close attention, ship designs that seem as ungainly as they are elegant, and dog-eat-dog gameplay that hints that, maybe, a human outpost on the edge of extinction could somehow thrive in spite of itself.
The storyline goes that after having declared the moons of Nema a potential future home, the powers that be on Earth sanction an expedition to seed a system that's some 24 light-years away. Unfortunately, after 123 spent in transit, the 9,000 hand-picked pioneers aboard the Daedalus discover that the science upon which their journey was based wasn't entirely accurate - Nema's moons being about as ripe for human habitation as the gas giant harbouring them. Somewhat deflated - excuse the pun - the colonists are quickly divided over what to do next, with one faction determined to make the best of things and another keen to head back. The matter is decided, appropriately enough, during a ruckus in which the Daedalus becomes of little use other than for scrap and spare parts. The fragile colony then fractures into competing corporate tribes, each group interested only in narrow profiteering in spite of the precariousness of the situation. With no hope of ever making it back home, or making much of one among the rings of Nema, it's all a bit grim, to say the least.
Thankfully, if there's one thing that humanity does well, it's making a quick buck and not worrying too much about the consequences, which is precisely what Helium Rain is all about. You start this journey as you might expect, in receipt of a basic ship and enough credits to engage in a bit of light trading and haulage, with the ultimate aim to be among the leading corporations in the game. To get there you need to undertake standard-issue missions for money and Research Points, ultimately to be able to build and manage your own network of resource stations, production facilities and logistics fleets. But first, you must get to grips with the basics.
The tutorial that greets you at the start of the game is little more than a series of panels that sit neatly in the bottom corner of the screen. They are sparse and succinct and set the tone remarkably well, thanks in part to the suitably minimalist score and subtle audio effects. This sense of making do is maintained throughout the game's presentation, from the main game menu to the simple-but-effective sector map, the chunky in-flight panels and the text-heavy Contracts screen. The layout seems more attuned to a tablet screen at times, but all your information, options and interactions are immediately accessible to you regardless of where you are in the game.
You quickly realise too that controlling your ship is remarkably easy, as the game utilises the standard FPS controls, with just the right amount of inertia lag for a mouse and keyboard to feel like a perfectly normal way to fly a spaceship. The game does support gamepad and joystick, but despite having both being within easy reach, I felt no compulsion to change from the default settings, given how practical and immersive they already are. Even the bare-bones space combat (there's no target switching or any systems management to worry about) is about as unfussy as it gets.
It's when you start to rely less upon the direct control of your ship and begin planning routes for your expanding fleet that the UI starts to creak and groan a little, with shuffling ships between fleets, finding your semi-built assets and setting up trade routes being particularly irksome. It's at this point too that you start to question the game's economic foundations, or rather, the NPCs' ability to build on them. Order a new ship, for instance, and invariably there won't be the resources in place to build it, prompting you to have to ship in the materials yourself. On one level it's a way to study the simulation while waiting for the means of production to move along, and if - like me - you're an overly-cautious entrepreneur, it does keep the competition from getting too far ahead and causing you to give up. Perhaps it's because the game's economic foundations are not easy to relate to for a layperson like me, but even accounting for it being underdeveloped due to resource scarcity and sporadic demand, one would expect the AI to be more dynamic.
Just as there are gameplay elements that are perhaps too basic, there is a slow pace to Helium Rain that some will find infuriating. Thankfully, the more you loosen your grip on the game's controls (which you must), the more bound up in the world outside your viewscreen you become; idly trading, studying supply and demand, but often just watching the world go by and treating the game as an elaborate screensaver. In that sense, Helium Rain is perhaps one of the accessible and forgiving games in the space trading genre, one with a uniquely compelling sci-fi aesthetic that evokes the hi-contrast look of No Man's Sky.
Like Hello's grand procedural experiment, however, there is a creeping coldness that sometimes sets in, radiating not from the depths of space, but from within. You notice it first with the lack of interaction and with your position on the corporate leaderboard being the only real prime motivation to progress. Some background chatter of NPCs and space traffic controllers would have been welcome, but, more than that, there's a need for... I don't know what to call it, hope? A sense that humans, when reduced to a few thousand souls in the harshest of environments, might somehow thrive other than at one another's expense. But perhaps it's all part of the game's calculated design, highlighting that no matter how small and fragile humanity's prospects become, at least there's always a profit to be made.
Helium Rain is a solidly-built, handsome and absorbing game built atop distinct economic foundations. For sure, it's highly saturated backdrop could've been the canvas for something more ambitious, but if you're in the market for an accessible, low-maintenance take on the type of space logistics gameplay cultivated by the X series, Helium Rain's galactic cul-de-sac is worth backing into.
SUMMARY: Inspired chiefly by the #Xseries, #HeliumRain (developed by #DiemosGames) is an #economy-based #singleplayer-only game set in #interplanetary #deepspace. It features commodity #trading, #stationbuilding, #procedurallygenerated #missions, #shipupgrades and basic first-person #shipcombat. It gets #3stars for being a very fine game.
PLAYED: #PC version 1.3.6 - Feb 2019 (originally #released2018)
LINKS: helium-rain.com, Steam, GOG, itch.io