Posted on September 29, 2009 by spikexan
Eclipse Phase is a new sci-fi setting from Catalyst Labs, which immediately raises the question of why I’m reviewing it for a website dedicated towards horror. Between the fall of humanity and the chaos in rebuilding (where the story takes place) a great many horrors occur.
This is sci-fi with a thick black coat of ichor slapped onto it. While some game masters may be excited about the many, many thoughtful advances in this setting, other game masters will pounce upon the hints of Cthulhu and other horrors. When my review copy for this book came in, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The title of the book has an eclipse behind it that looks similar to the same artwork used on Heroes. I thought perhaps someone had taken the effort to make a game on that series. The truth is that an Eclipse just looks like an eclipse no matter how you draw it. While there are fantastic elements to this game, there are no super heroes. After delving into the four hundred and two pages without coming up for much air, I had an amazing handle on this excellent universe.
Right out of the gate, this book’s style becomes evident. The cover art by Stephan Martiniere possesses hints of Frank Quitely’s style as we see a doomed astronaut being impaled by a space station’s tentacle. The PDF’s second and third pages are a reworking of the cover, which I’ll include here. First, it’s in widescreen. That gives it cool points even if it is a printer-hating move. In the upper right corner, is a little mantra to get you started:
Your mind is software. Program it.
Your Body is a shell. Change it.
Death is a disease. Cure it.
Extinction is approaching. Fight it.
The commands–programs, change, cure, and fight–are also hidden in the black parts of the “widescreen” for added effect. The actual image shows a space station just beyond a planet’s atmosphere. Beyond all of this is an eclipse in motion. The main image is the astronaut being eliminated. This stylist cover sets the mood for what’s to come.
The artwork in the game comes from an impressive stable of artists. The artwork scattered throughout the book takes on an interesting stance. It’s mostly mix of water colors and splatterpunk (yeah, I know). The crudeness of the artwork lends itself to the violence and desperation of the game. At first, I didn’t like it. Not. At. All. After moving through the book though, the direction made a great deal more sense. I ended up changing my mind fully. It’s the absolute right artwork for this game. There are more “standard” looks in the book as well. For example, there is a layering of characters on page twenty that is neat (though a bit too dark . . .actual lack of color dark). I think my favorite single piece of free-floating artwork is on page forty-two. It depicts a synthetic morph striding down a busy street with an air of a reaper around it. Some of the people on the street gawk, others ignore it, and a few don’t want to look at it.
There is also the character artwork assigned to a few of the character examples available in this game (there are quite a few). Here we find humans, Slitheroid (snake-shaped robots), Infomorphs (digital life form), Octomorphs (Uplifted Octopus lifeforms), and even a Pleasure Pod (think Jude Law from AI).
I’ll talk about the layout a little bit now. I normally hit this first, but the layout of this game was so impressive that I held off on it. The borders and fonts prove eye-catching throughout the entire book. Smart sidebars never distract and aren’t too common. Chapter headings have bullets that resemble targeting systems. These bullets outline key parts to the chapter and where they can be found. There is a detailed index and table of contents. These chapter bullets just work as a micro-index. There are four pages of reference materials in the back that half character creation and half conflict resolution. Reference materials is one aspect that needs to be addressed.
Newbie Players will need a kit to get started. I’d recommend these four pages, the pages of jargon, and the time line. A ten-page primer should get players going. I know I condemned this with the LARP; however, a tabletop game can pull this off by sending out the primers a week prior to making characters.
If there is anything about this game that runs the risk of being negative is that the volume of material may turn off some players. I don’t think this is a fair condemnation; however, I think it is feasible. The writers have created a wealth of materials that drowns any other corebook I’ve ever read. It’s not just page count either. The writing is smart. The flavor-text at the beginning of the game starts things. Did you know that William Faulker wanted The Sound and the Fury to have different inks for each of the different characters so that readers could tell when the voice changed? This is exactly how they open up the book as we see the narrative from one perspective. In this game, privacy (even privacy of thought) is a rare commodity. It takes little time for a flurry of characters to share the narrative.
There are so many aspects to cover when running an Eclipse Phase game. There are aliens, clones, viruses, relic-searching, Muses, and so much more possible. This is the kind of game that demands a long campaign just in order to scratch the surface.
I would like to suggest a tweak to the game to enliven it. Most characters in the game will have a Muse. This is basically an awesome version of the paperclip from Microsoft Word.
A Muse a semi-intelligent program that monitors your entertainment demands, provides firewall security from hacks, does research for you, scans the news, offers GPS functions, and more. My tweak’s inspiration comes from Wraith: the Oblivion. After everyone makes their characters, figure out who has a Muse. Then assign Muses to different players in order to allow for a more dynamic personality to each Muse. One, this lets off some of the GM’s pressure. Two, it’s just a fun thing to do. I don’t think the game suggests this and I really think it should.
A somewhat strange thing the creators offered with this game is its creative commons license. Anyone is free to copy, share, and remix the text and artwork as long as they meet some criteria mostly found on page five of the book. I say “mostly” because it cuts off in mid-sentence never to appear again. This freedom should create some intriguing spin-offs on websites and forums rather quickly. I look forward to seeing what becomes of this.
A final word about the writing. The sci-fi is so defined that you expect these things to pass. The thought put into all the advances makes me want to run this game yesterday. A lot of people put a tremendous amount of work into making a beautiful book and succeeded.
My scores for this game are:
Layout: Five out of Five (You’ll find what you need to find and it’ll look good when you
Artwork: Five out of Five (Varied tastes that taste great together. Somebody will want to
be an uplifted octopoid)
Writing: Five out of Five (Addictive. I gave it to a friend just to test its danger and got
him hooked with one taste as well)
Overall: Five out of Five (Unless you just hate Sci-Fi, try out this new world)
Review Todd Cash