BEACON is the stylistic roguelike debut of MONOTHETIC, a team helmed by Kremator_/Taychin Dunn. Taychin got his start - as is par for the course with our reviews - in modding, and as also appears to be a running theme, with the horror total conversion mod BLACK SNOW. Read on for our review of another modder's success story in jumping into indie development!
Die, Die, and Die Again
A crash landing on an alien world results in the death of interstellar mercenary Freja Akiyama - the first of many, as one of the bits of the ship to survive the crash was a cloning bay now stuck on auto-pilot. You awake from this process, a clone of the original template, and read a message from one of your past selves. Apparently, Freja has been trying to escape for quite some time - finding the lost distress beacon will let her finally call for aid and spell the end of her infinite journey. With mutations to hoard on the road to victory, the question becomes - how much of Freja will remain by the time she finally leaves the planet?
BEACON is a roguelike with an emphasis on unlocking new gear, exploring a variety of gameplay builds, and steadily building a repository of knowledge about your environment to get just a little further each time. In that way, it's a comfortable fit for fans of the genre, with its own twists on the idea of permanent upgrades and plenty of room both for speedrunners (who can dig up timed secrets if they're quick enough) and completionists (with tons of optional side content to explore). BEACON is an astounding debut into the world of indie for a modder so accustomed to totally unique concepts, so let's dive in!
Mutate Yourself To Victory
The world of Kovus-18 is hostile as can be, rife and teeming with alien life, corporate robotic enforcers, and environmental hazards that will quite easily put down inattentive players. Many of them have quirks that only become apparent with repeated engagement, and the degree to which you prioritise equipment upgrades and possible side routes over surviving the guards of that loot varies from playthrough to playthrough. You'll need every edge, and some of them can only properly be cashed in upon Freja's death, so buckle up, and embrace the mortality that comes with the roguelike genre.
BEACON is a strong follower of much of the roguelike genre's conventions, complete with weapon upgrades that persist from run to run, changes to the player character that open up additional build, and randomised encounters favouring memorising enemy capabilities over the layouts of specific levels. I've played more than a few roguelikes - once you get into indie games it's hard to stay away from that genre - but generally didn't engage with the genre as the feeling of losing a run often is what spells the end of a play session for me. Not so in BEACON, which reserves much of the character upgrading and payoff for your hard work for the "genetic reset" of a death. In that way, a death is still a setback, but also an opportunity to try something totally new, and expand your character's capabilities. These mutations can take the form of a gigantic crab arm overtaking one of Freja's own, a growth that allows her to burrow like an insect, or mechanical replacements for fleshy parts that give her greatly increased durability. BEACON's function directly influences its form, and chances are you'll never have two Frejas that look the same.
The emphasis in BEACON's combat is on gunplay, but within that loop is a wide arsenal of varied weapons and alternate firing modes. Sonic weapons are slow but pack a punch; your usual automatics are effective at zapping small fry; and a series of more esoteric weapons like the explosive glob launcher, which regenerates ammo but cannot be manually reloaded, add further variety to the mix. Each of these weapons has an upgraded variant created by Freja herself and unlocked through game progression (and occasionally a loot pickup) which plays to the weapon's strengths whilst introducing a drawback. Less confident players might prefer the vanilla counterpart, but if you've begun to master BEACON's loop, the homebrew alternate modes will reward experienced play. Enemy variety is great too, with the obvious caveat that you'll be seeing some of the same enemies quite a bit as you replay levels hoping to get further each time.
Guns aren't the only way you can wreak havoc on the world, though, with grenades that come in all sorts of flavours and secondary equipment that ranges from stat increases to other triggerable abilities. A melee attack also features, which initially is a decent enough way to finish off weaker enemies, but can be turned via mutations into a central component of your sandbox. Of all of the gameplay features here, I'd have to say I've engaged with the throwables the least, partially because the gunplay is just that solid that I rarely felt the need to, but also because of the 2.5D-ish, isometric perspective, which makes aiming grenades a bit tough. I'm accustomed to this perspective from my time with RTS and Gameboy games of old and so navigation around the world came naturally to me, but if you're not familiar with this kind of environment, it might take you a bit to get used to it. Some of this is user error - I probably just need to get better at timing my throws - but some is intrinsic to the design of the game's world, so your mileage may vary.
Freja's story is delivered tongue-in-cheek, with her making light of her situation where possible and providing ample moments of gentle humour. The concept of dying and reviving is one explored in more serious (and traumatising) titles like Returnal, but here it's used to further the gameplay and the ethical conundrum is generally left with a light-touch. I'd be remiss not to mention the appropriately techno-sci-fi soundtrack and my standout favourite is that of the Master Scavenger's lair. If you want to experience the beats of this world for yourself out-of-game, there's luckily a Soundcloud link available here. Last but not least, daily and weekly challenges give you a preset loadout and challenge you to beat the scores of other players, with rewards for your main quest depending on your results. There's not a lot of competition on the leaderboards right now, but singleplayer bonuses make these worth doing even if you're neck-deep in a promising run.
BEACON is a great debut, at any rate, but fans familiar with Taychin's prior work may not be surprised at this game's capacity for creativity - so let's dive into one of the mods that built Taychin's experience base, Black Snow!
Black Snow is a name those familiar with Half-Life 2 total conversions of yesteryear likely remember well as an arctic horror channelling the atmosphere of contemporary horror games at the time with a cold setting that would be right at home in The Thing. You're a fish out of water - or perhaps out of ice would be more accurate - sent to investigate a research facility gone quiet. All hell breaks loose as a creature wondering the labs toasts your teammates and then flees before finishing the job with yourself. Environmental puzzles and the presence of the monster in the deeper parts of the facility keep you thinking and looking out for danger, even as any kind of prolonged exposure to the cold threatens you as much as any foe.
Black Snow is a little challenging to compare to BEACON, given their totally different genres, art styles, even perspectives in gameplay, but what is comparable is the innate creativity within both. Taychin in both cases took an established basis - first Half-Life 2, then the roguelike genre - and found his own ways to innovate within the format. The story of horror-to-action is mimicked by another indie review we did - Wadaholic's Turbo Overkill, which was his follow-up project to DOOM II horror total conversion, Total Chaos. Horror, time and time again, seems to be where modders can sharpen their teeth and their craft, ready for a plunge into the commercial world.
A few other once-modders worked with Taychin and Monothetic on BEACON, and whilst their mods may not have achieved the same success as Black Snow, it's proof-positive that BEACON is a game built on the lessons learned from modding and the creativity that turning one game into another always breeds.
Coming Around For Another Run
For a debut title - as a lot of our reviews have been - BEACON is remarkable. It's a confident leap into the indie world with an inspired take on roguelike mechanics and an art style that is impeccably minimalist. It's a game full of charm, full of fun, and best of all, full of replayability. It's currently available on Steam for £14.99 GBP/$19.99 USD which, as far as I'm concerned, is an absolute steal. Having come out in a full release late last year, BEACON has had a handful of content updates since then which mean even if you caught the news at the time, you might well want to take another look.
74 achievements. 100 mutations. Dozens of weapons. I've got plenty more to master before I leave the planet of Kovus-18 behind.