Rough like Azura's Star
I’d had my eye on 5089 and its forebears, 3089 and 4089, for the longest time but never got around to giving them a go. I was wary — they sounded like exactly my kind of game but the rudimentary graphics were off-putting (crude graphics aren’t a problem in themselves — if the game is good I don’t care — but they sometimes evince a more general lack of care) and I found it hard to believe that these games, made by a lone developer, could live up to their descriptions.
I spotted 5089 on sale the other day and decided to take the plunge. So, does it live up to its description?
It kinda does, yeah. The graphics even start to grow on you over time.
I’ve been playing this game pretty obsessively over the past few days, it’s even pushed Rocket League aside. It’s undeniably rough around the edges and in some ways crude and even basic. But it also demonstrates a profound understanding on the part of the developer as to why I, at least, play action RPGs in particular and games in general.
The late 90s and early 00s saw several mainstream games that explored those qualities unique to, or at least particularly potent within, games: agency; meaningful, free choice; immersive, convincing worlds explored through a first-person perspective; emergence and deep, open-ended systems. Games like Half-Life, Deus Ex and Morrowind promised a bright future filled with rich, systemic worlds for us to explore and play with.
That future never came — those games still represent the high point of that notion of gaming and are still, in many important ways, unsurpassed. The focus shifted from PCs to consoles and first-person games became shallower, less systemic and far less emergent. Rather than providing direction through a universe of possibilities, the linear narrative became the whole point. First person action games started telling us exactly what to do rather than asking us what we wanted to do, telling us their story rather than giving us the tools to tell our own.
5089 feels like a response to all that. One person’s attempt to show us what we could have had.
I think it no coincidence that 5089 reminds me of three games from that era and I’m going to talk about each in turn.
Firstly, Morrowind. Like Morrowind, 5089 is weird. Its world feels alien, strange and mysterious. Not weird for the sake of weird — its strangeness is not opaque but the result of an imagined culture which the player can piece together and make sense of. This is the dynamic weirdness of Morrowind, not the static weirdness of games with a superficially surreal art style. The weirdness of 5089, like that of Morrowind, is a system, not a style. The culture of Xax, 5089’s world, is explorable through the mechanics of the game’s world, not through static text. We’re not just told that it is weird, we can see that it works in a weird way.
5089 mimics the way a high level Morrowind character moves so perfectly that I think it must be intentional. Your character can run exremely fast, jump extremely high, has incredible air-control and can use momentum to run up steep slopes, even vertical ones. Effectively you can wall-run, but this isn’t a binary control — you don’t press a button to run up a wall for a limited time — it’s entirely physical. Instinctively pulling off acrobatic stunts is intoxicating, the sense of physical freedom delicious. Just moving through the world is a joy.
Morrowind’s world was statically levelled — some areas were easy, some tough. A low-level player could, say, venture inside the Ghostgate and head towards Red Mountain but they had two choices — they either had to work to become strong enough to take on the enemies within or, alternatively, use the game’s systems in a clever way to give themselves an edge. Areas aren’t narratively gated — if you want to go see Dagoth Ur immediately after leaving the census office at Seyda Neen, you can, if you can find a way to survive. At any particular time you had the choice as to what level of challenge (and thus reward) you wanted — you didn’t have to work your way, linearly, through the easy stuff to get to the hard stuff. 5089 is structured such that the further you travel from your starting location the harder the enemies get so, again, you can choose your challenge. If you want to skip past all the level 5 stuff and head straight into a level 15 base, where there’ll be level 15 gear, you can.
Like Morrowind, gear in 5089 is augmented with a variety of buffs and bonuses which you can mix and match freely allowing you to tailor your character to be exactly as you want. There are no level restrictions on gear and no skills to activate, there are just weapons, armour and tools. If you manage to get your hands on a level 20 gun then you can use it at any time. 5089 doesn’t have character levels, just skill points which are rewarded for completing quests and which can be spent at any time directly on what would in Morrowind be called your attributes — stamina, agility, melee, programming, guns, stealing and so on. This doesn’t work like Morrowind’s level-up-what-you-use system but the result is the same — a character that is good at exactly what you want them to be good at.
5089 doesn’t require balance in your approach to defining your character. It’s free and open. If you want to make an ultimate glass-cannon character designed entirely around sneaky back-stabs then you’re free to do that. You can break down gear to its components and then re-assemble it freely allowing you to choose exactly the buffs you want. You are, like in Morrowind, encouraged to experiment and play.
Quests in 5089 are not contextualised by narrative as they were in Morrowind, they are just procedurally generated tasks which allow you to get skill points. There is no sense of moving through a hierarchy and developing relationships as there was in Morrowind nor is there anything like the same narrative or cultural richness — its the systemic, emergent aspects of Morrowind boiled down to their mechanical essence.
The second game 5089 reminds me of is Deus Ex. Like Deus Ex, 5089 is about approaching the situation at hand with the tools you currently have and finding a way to make that work. It’s about combining your abilities and equipment in clever ways to achieve your goal. Say you want to take over that enemy building because you want access to the gun shop on the top floor. You’re low on health though, and this area is a bit tough for you. The bottom floor is packed with enemies you’re in no condition to take on and you’re not a stealthy character so sneaking past them isn’t an option. But you notice a window on the top floor and you do have that teleport gun you looted from the last boss… maybe with some well timed jumps and a shot through that window… just maybe…
5089 forces you to get creative with what you have. Not because you’re told to go somewhere and given a selection of tools to use but because you want to and these are the tools you currently have. Beside your weapons and basic movement controls you have access to hoverboards, pilotable ships, teleportation guns, decoy guns, grappling hooks and quite probably other stuff I’ve forgotten or not yet encountered.
Sneaking into enemy territory to capture a base, take down a headquarters or just to look around and sneakily use buildings has that same sense of being somewhere you don’t belong, somewhere hostile and forbidden, as sneaking into a secret research facility in Deus Ex. And you have the same choice between stealth, combat or any blend of the two, It’s reactive and emergent — when things go wrong, and they will, you have to deal with that. How you deal with it will depend on where you are, what you’re doing and what you have access to. Sometimes you’ll improvise with the tools at your disposal in a clever way, sometimes you’ll retreat and return later when you’re stronger or better-supplied.
Unlike both Morrowind and Deus Ex there’s no quick-saving. When you commit to an action, you are committing. If things spiral out of control and you die, you will respawn at the last safe place you set as home and possibly lose an item (including those equipped) from your inventory. It’s often a game of weighing up your options, strategising as to when to press your luck and when to retreat to safety with what you’ve gained.
The third game is an odd one — Delta Force 2 from 1999. What Delta Force 2 got right, in common with 5089, is terrain. Delta Force 2’s terrain was fractally generated and rendered with voxels making it far more fluid and interesting than terrain in other games of the time. Unlike in contemporary shooters where the terrain was just a playing surface on which the game took place, the terrain in Delta Force 2 was a tool to be used by the player. Its ravines, gulleys, canyons, hills and plateaus each afforded tactical possibilities, making the landscape a mechanical part of the game, not just a backdrop. Delta Force 2’s terrain, like that of 5089, while organic, was never convincing as such, never realistic — it wasn’t striving to look exactly like our own world, but it had a far more important quality; readability. The land was knowable — as you learned to read it, you learned to recognise where there’d be a gulley, for example, without actually being able to see the gulley. The land made sense, increasing its usefulness to the player, allowing it to be utilised in a skillful way. 5089’s terrain is far more extreme than that of Delta Force 2 with immense drops, overhangs, caves, cliffs, lakes and seas in unlikely and alien combinations, but it shares that readability, that knowableness which makes it a useful part of the game’s mechanics rather than just a fantastical setting — a thing to be exploited for advantage rather than just, y’know, a surface to walk on.
I’ve not talked much about the specifics of 5089’s broader mechanics nor its narrative because, for those of us who enjoy games like this, discovering those things for ourselves is often part of the joy. I’ll lightly touch on all that in the following short paragraph so, if you’d rather discover all this yourself, skip over it.
5089 is set on a procedurally generated planet called Xax. Two robot factions, the gold and the violet, are vying for control of the planet in a seemingly endless and obviously pointless war. You are a member of the gold but you’re special in some way, the Master can’t seem to track you. It’s up to you to find out what’s going on. Killing a series of progressively harder bosses unlocks narrative events where you get to uncover Xax’s past and make decisions regarding its future. Your character gains strength through capturing enemy bases, attacking enemy headquarters and performing quests, none of which is mandatory, you can pick and choose what to engage with at any point.
5089 is, to say the least, rough around the edges. It’s almost all edges and they’re not so much rough as sharp. Its graphics are rudimentary, its interface utterly clunky and it comes with all the down-sides of Java. It is, in a lot of ways, basic. It’s the work of a single person and there are many places where that shows.
But it’s also wonderful.
5089 is pretty much unique. A deeply systemic and emergent, first person, open-world action sandbox RPG. “Rough gem” doesn’t describe it because it’s both rougher and simultaneously more special than that implies — gems are fairly common, this is unique. It cuts right down to the nub of those games I’m reminded of — a lone developer can’t possibly hope to fill in all the narrative, structure and other niceties a large team can create, so they’ve concentrated on the essence of what made those games special, those things that are unique to our medium.
They’ve taken that essence, polished it, and held it up to ask: Why aren’t we making first person action games like this? What happened? What the fuck are the mainstream studios doing?
It’s an echo of the games we could have had, had things gone a little differently.
If that sounds like your cup of tea then it’s well worth its price. And it’s currently on sale on Steam!