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Highfleet might be the best game this year I didn’t enjoy. It’s complicated.
Every so often, a game turns up that we have trouble with. Sometimes it’s because of design. Sometimes it’s because of circumstances. It doesn’t often happen for me, but it did with Highfleet. Oh, boy, did it. That’s not me saying Highfleet is a bad game because it’s the complete opposite of that. I’ve rarely played a more unique and engrossing title this year. I really wish I could love it. I’ll admit, I got pretty burnt out on this one, but I’m not going to let that get in the way. I’ve seen quite a few reviews about Highfleet that are…not flattering, to say the least. But is that the game’s fault instead of the reviewer? Let’s see.
What is Highfleet? Made by a single guy Konstantin Koshutin, it’s also published by an old relic in gaming, MicroProse. These guys were giants in the 1980s, focusing on strategy games. After a long and fractured time away from the industry, they’ve made a surprising renaissance this year, releasing Highfleet and another game called Carrier Command 2. They have several other titles in the works, and I’m looking forward to seeing their return to the industry. Releasing on 27th July of this year, Highfleet has built up quite the cult following and solid positive reviews on Steam.
You can buy Highfleet on Steam for £23.79/25 EU/30USD, do so by clicking on the image down below:
An Atmospheric World
What drew me into Highfleet from the get-go was its fantastic visual and sound design. Highfleet is an old-school game drafted from the early times, and this blends rather well. Set in a dieselpunk, war-torn world, the game instantly grabbed my attention. As the Saydai Task Force commander, you’re on the back foot immediately in a rebellion rapidly out of control, in a world where every moment counts. The Kingdom of Gerat is breaking, and the game does a splendid job of bringing you into its grim world. The music does a lot to help out with that too.
The UI gives you the feeling that you’re really commanding them from above, and it does wonders for immersion. With the sound of airships propelling through the dusty, ruined sands of the empire, bombs raining down upon the rebels, and the groaning of rusted metal, everything combines to make this one atmospheric experience. Sure, the art style is simplistic, but it really does its job well.
To Boldly Go where Few Dare Venture
Highfleet is a dedicated strategy game that goes further than many out there. Do you know how many war games focus on the vital parts of it? Very few. I’m talking about logistics, intelligence gathering, deep resource management. They are the lifeblood of war. Fail, and you die. I’ve lost count of the number of video games, films, and shows revolving around war and underlook these things. (Looking at you, Game of Thrones) I forgot about the Iron Fleet, my ass…
In this game, you need to cover your tracks. You have ships to maintain and refuel, and everything counts. The new incredible warship you just made? It’s probably a fuel guzzler, so I hope you’re prepared to handle that! If you run out of fuel en route to your destination, I hope you have someone else who can each in time. Otherwise, you’re toast. I lost many, many campaigns on resource management alone. There’s also reconnaissance. Those death squads sent after you? You’d better learn how to track them. Best avoid them if you can. Traveling the large map gives you many places to raid and land. Unlike many games where you click a button to arrive at the destination, in Highfleet, you have to physically land your ships safely, considering wind resistance and weather. It’s tough, but getting used to the controls is rewarding. If you land safely, you get bonuses to repair times.
There’s also diplomacy in which you need to convince people to support you. This places out like a mini card game, where you recruit people to join your cause. It’s pretty fun, though the story elements in the main campaign aren’t as deep as the prologue. While this is was a minor disappointment to me, the writing and worldbuilding are solid for a game of this type, and the stunning atmosphere adds to the immersion. I really felt like a fleet commander, the lost son trying to hold the kingdom together.
I’ve rarely played a game with this much focus on logistics and intelligence. It’s refreshing. We need more games like this!
A Rough Learning Curve
Let’s make this clear from the start. Highfleet is a difficult game. It’s extremely challenging, deep and the learning curve gets you from the beginning. After a short prologue mini-campaign to help teach you the ropes, you get thrown into the menace of Gerat in a complex, grueling roguelike. You’re going to lose multiple times, but the further you advance, the more money you get for the next campaign where you pick your starting ships. I’ll come to the ships and combat themselves soon.
I highly recommend playing the prologue multiple times. There’s a good story (so much so that I was a little disappointed the main game didn’t expand on it further), and it gets you to grips with the many systems of the game. Fortunately, the game does have several tools to help out with its brutal gameplay. The prologue tutorial is one of these, and Highfleet comes with a dedicated manual PDF. It’s a wonderful read and teaches you a lot. I had to study it as someone would for an exam to understand the game more. Now…I get this might be a problem for some people. The game does teach you stuff in-game, but I’ve always found the idea of needing a dedicated manual strange. The game could do a better job explaining things, but I’ve seen worse.
Combat and Ship Design
Combat is the meat and potatoes of this game, and like everything else in Highfleet, it’s another brutal experience. An arcade-style shooter, it is challenging and fast, with little room for error. There’s no button mashing unless you want your ships to die in a sea of flames, so you need to get to grips with the controls quickly. Resources are important here, too. Your ammunition and fuel are always expendable, so running out is an easy way to die. Pick the fights and pick the way you approach your enemies carefully. Oh, and ramming down enemy ships while effective will piss people off. Something to do with a moral code.
It’s difficult to learn, and you are fighting them at a disadvantage. While you can muster a large fleet, you can only fight with one ship at a time, while your enemies can use multiple at once. I wish the game followed a similar structure to indie gem Starsector, where you can control one ship but give the rest of the fleet AI commands, which they carry out pretty well. It does feel like artificially inflating the difficulty, and I wish there were better ways to approach fleet combat. Despite this, the combat feels rewarding, and I get a rush every time I fight a close battle and come out on top.
Highfleet’s secondary feature is a blessing in this regard. In the ship editor, you have full control over warships, customizing every part of them from scratch. I’d go as far as to say the game’s value is worth it in this mode alone, and it’s a tinkerer’s dream. There are tons of different ship parts, engines, and weapons to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Not only can you make your own ships from scratch in this mode, but you can also test them in combat, free of harm from your suppression campaign. This really helps hone your combat skills in a relatively stress-free environment, and it was a good move by the developer. It’s a fantastic feature, and without it, the game would be a lot harder to stomach. You can even make these custom ships part of your campaign.
Growing Pains and Eventual Burnout
I’ve been relatively positive so far, and this is when some of Highfleet’s less enjoyable quirks begin to kick in. There’s no save feature, for one thing. The game does save when you capture certain locations, but the lack of a reliable saving feature is something from the olden days. And if I’m honest? It doesn’t belong here. This is 2021, not the 1980s. I do understand where it’s coming from. It’s a difficult, old-school game about logistics and civil wars. Should life have a reload button? Perhaps, but it is still a video game at heart. When a single mistake or bad fight can doom your campaign, losing hours of progress is a kick in the teeth when the game is this difficult. Trust me, it happened to me a lot. Sure, you can back up save files manually in the files, but we shouldn’t really have to do that. It’s supposed to be immersive, and I guess it is, but after the 5th or 6th failed campaign? It just gets annoying.
I have to bring up the game’s difficulty curve again. Yes, it’s challenging. It’s really not for a casual audience. I underestimated how much you need to bring into this game. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to do, and if you don’t improve, you’re going to have a difficult time. You need to study the manual and do a lot of trial and error. And I did. I’ve probably done over a dozen campaigns, every one failing. It’s not all bad news. I learned more with every defeat. I learned what ships work best. I learned how to fight better. But my morale and desire to continue was beginning to wane. This is not a game to play when you’re struggling with mental health. Every defeat, despite improving at the game, was beginning to dwell on me.
Highfleet’s design has a few issues. As I write this review, there is no way to change your keybindings, few graphics options, and the framerate is locked to 50FPS. There are a couple of stutters here and there which is surprising for a visually simple game, and the already mentioned saving system is a mess. There are also bugs and quite a few of them. There’s quite a bit of jank in the game, more than I liked and more than I could tolerate over time.
There’s one particularly devastating bug floating around right now which erases save files, and it’s this one that finally broke me. I was doing my best campaign yet. I managed to dodge or defeat several strike groups, learned how to raid bases, and built up a powerful fleet. The resources were good. I was no longer the struggling tiger. After one challenging battle where I think my game saved, I took a break. When I returned to the game, the save was gone. Kaboom. All I had was New Game. To make matters worse, all the gold bonuses I had accumulated were gone as well.
And that’s when I threw up my hands and admitted it. I wasn’t enjoying the game anymore. That was a loss a bit too brutal for me to deal with. I play dozens of games right now, and I needed something else. With that, I put down Highfleet. Patches are coming in which should fix these bugs, including key bindings and a more reliable saving system. This is good news, though it came a bit late for my campaign and many others. It’s good to know it’s actively worked on.
It isn’t easy coming up with scores for a game, particularly one like this. Highfleet is challenging, strategic, immersive, and in many ways brilliant, but it’s challenging to recommend for more casual markets. The bugs drag down its learning curve, making a difficult game even harder to stomach.
And yet, most of my problems with Highfleet aren’t exactly the game’s fault. I don’t blame the game for my hardships with it. Yeah, I find it too difficult, but that’s my problem to solve. I’ve seen many reviews where the game gets bad scores, scores which frankly aren’t deserved. I’m not going to do that. Yeah, I didn’t really enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. Far from it. This is an issue I need to work out for myself. Even if I put away Highfleet, for the time being, it doesn’t mean it’s dead to me. I’m going to return to it. I’m going to see if I can do better. Why? Because the game makes me want to improve. I would love to see everything this game is capable of.
There’s a ton of depth, and it’s a unique experience. There’s no other game like it on the market right now. Sure, it needs more work. I want to see simple things improved, like keybindings and a more competent save system. I wouldn’t mind seeing more options and modes available. Not to cater to all markets because it’s hard to do that without some balance trickery, but a game like this deserves more.
Highfleet is one of the coolest games out there right now, and it might be one of the best games I didn’t enjoy. Just be prepared for the fight of your life if you decide to buy it. I wasn’t prepared, and it bit me hard. That’s okay. There’s always time to get better. If Highfleet keeps getting improvements and fixes, we have a potential GOTY on our hands. It’s already one hell of a cult classic in the making.
I know one thing. MicroProse is back with a vengeance.