Doublespeak Games' A Dark Room was a smash-hit for a lot of good reasons, being an amazingly deep and epic simulation that revealed itself a bit at a time to patient players, and even eventually got a mobile port from Amirali Rajan. So when fans like myself are surprised by an iOS prequel like The Ensign, the reaction is, predictably, ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh, but also hmmmm, because unlike the original game, The Ensign is actually a roguelike adventure. When your commanding officer gives up, you refuse to, and with only a few sups of water and scraps of food you set out into a hostile world to try to find and activate your ship. All you can do is follow your compass. The catch is that when you die, and you will die, a time paradox occurs and sends you back to the start of the game. At first it may appear like you're just beating your head against a brick wall, but as you try and try again, you'll begin to notice subtle changes in yourself and the world around you, though the world map will be randomized...
The Ensign is entirely text-based, and even the game field is represented with numbers and letters, with bolded icons being places you can interact with. Don't worry that you don't know what any of these letters and numbers are actually supposed to represent in the beginning... like any good roguelike, The Ensign is about learning the game's rules as you play, and you'll get the hang of things quickly. Just tap the screen to make choices, and on the world map screen tap the compass directions to move around. Every step you take depletes your water by one, and your food goes down with every other step, and if either of those run out, you'll die. As such, managing your food and water is extremely important, and even challenging since food counts towards your maximum weight limit, and you'll need to learn how to replenish both... don't worry, you'll eventually be able to carry more of each. You can also die from combat, too, which can happen randomly as you explore both the world map and in places like caves, towns, houses, and so forth.
Combat, as it happens, is real-time in a very old-school Final Fantasy sort of way, in that you can attack when your action bar fills up, and so can your enemy. All the icons beneath those bars represent your equipment, and though all you have initially are your fists for punchin', eventually you can find knives and other weapons to add to your arsenal. Tap each weapon's name to attack with it as its bar fills up... that's right, every weapon has its own action bar, so if you have, for example, a knife, a katana, and your fists, you can attack with each one in quick succession and wait for them all to recharge. The catch is that all weapons have durability, and once that's gone, you either can't attack with them, or they'll only do a single point in damage, so make sure to keep your eyes out for replacements in loot as you travel. Food heals your hit points by ten, so make sure you use it wisely both in and out of combat!
Analysis: I admit, at first I wasn't entirely sold on The Ensign. Not because it was so drastically different from A Dark Room and not made by the originally creators, but because it operates on "supposed to lose" principals. If you've played a JRPG in your life, you probably know what I mean... those battles that are impossible, and when you fail, you find out you were supposed to lose because it was part of the plot. Without spoiling too much, The Ensign does essentially the same thing through the use of its death/time paradox mechanic, and what that winds up meaning is that you literally cannot win the game until you've ground your way past enough deaths at specific points. It's a little frustrating in the same way that it would be if, say, every time you tried to do a certain yoga pose, the instructor actually walked over and knocked you on your butt, over and over, until they decided you'd tried enough to actually succeed according to their terms. It's an uphill struggle, and not only can deaths be unexpected and brutal, but the game actively mocks you as well. Fortunately, just as I was about to make a rude gesture at the app and shut it down, something changed, and I was intrigued again.
Like A Dark Room, The Ensign is difficult to talk about without spoiling the sense of discovery as you unlock its secrets, but what I can do is tell you that the longer you play it, and the farther you get, the more impressive the world building becomes. It takes what seems like a fairly straight-forward objective (find this thing, try not to die) and then slowly unfolds its narrative and choices around you in surprising ways. It isn't, of course, perfect. As simple as its interface is, it still feels a little clunky, only allowing you to pick up a single item at a time no matter how big the stack is. Even if you're carrying multiple copies of an item (for example, several knives with different durabilities), you can't choose which you have equipped, and the only way to drop items is at a looting screen. Despite these quibbles, however, The Ensign is a captivating experience once it gets going, though admittedly "it gets better later on" is a rough pill for some players to swallow. Though its design may little resemble the bulk of A Dark Room, the spirit is there in spades, and The Ensign offers secrets, mystery, atmosphere and more with just a few lines of text at a time.