A Hardcore Asteroids/Star Control/Mount & Blade Mashup IN PROGRESS
Starsector is the truest form of harmony between a hardcore RPG, a 4X strategy game, and a skill based action shooter. Rarely have I picked up a game where the difficulty did not feel cheap and made me want to ‘get gud’ against the computer. Playing through the tutorial missions gives one a feeling of squeezing Mount and Blade: Warband, Asteroids, and Battletech into a sci-fi corset. Then once that’s achieved, shades of Space Rangers HD: A War Apart mixed with a bit of its own originality, all coalesced into a rich space opera intensity! Starsector is a strategy RPG fan’s wet dream realized!
Hyperbole aside, Starsector is a full course meal of sci-fi greatness. You are a mercenary thrown into a star saga filled with space pirates, independent traders, factions at war with each other, and even exploration as well. Your mission is to find your way in the universe and survive by building up your fleet and even your empire. In a way, it feels as if Starsector is the evolution of the somewhat stale 4X genre that has spawned so many different games. Oftentimes in that genre, games would place so much time and energy into the depth of the tech and lore and options that they forgot that the combat is what keeps many fans coming back for more. Starsector manages to make the combat a strategic core of the gameplay without forsaking the rest of the game’s features AND depth.
The information that floods your senses upon starting this game is somewhat overwhelming at times, but it is oddly comforting. With all of the small text and bars and stats, there is the sense that you need to become an expert at it all, and yet the pacing eases you into it. At least, until you jump into your first battle that is…
Regardless of what option you choose to start as, the combat has a pretty steep learning curve. Almost like a hardcore version of the classic arcade game Asteroids, Starsector uses a top down momentum thruster styled control to set up the action. Where the difficulty comes in is how you use that control’s dynamic to counter a dizzying roster of weapon systems like fighter squadrons, lasers, missiles, ballistic weapons, and more. Add in the fact that a majority of ships only have front facing shields and you have a near nightmare scenario for casuals. Without a doubt, to survive this game on almost any difficulty, one must be at least proficient at combat.
To further the complexity that this game offers, the game penalizes each ship for how long the battle carries on as well. Missile racks run out of ammo. Weapon systems get damaged and destroyed. Engines get damaged or knocked out completely. All manner of “oh S%^$” can and will happen in combat. Some intelligent enemies will even send in reinforcements at a certain point of the battle if they have the numbers.
Like a true 4X strategy game, Starsector allows you to set up and build colonies to fund your empire building dreams. You build space stations and planetary defense. You raid enemy colonies. You battle factions and pirates both in space and on planets. You make alliances and war. You hire mercenary captains to fly your best ships. You set up trade routes. You explore and survey star systems. All the while you manage, repair, and build your core fleet.
Old school fans of the Space Rangers franchise will get a kick out of this deep and challenging game. Just as you get settled and think that you have the right size or equipped fleet, a new challenge is thrown your way. At that point, you have to strategize how to best respond. You’ll balance between supplies, fuel, and money for your fleet at all times. Given almost every decision costs you in each category, saves and reloads will be plentiful. If this game was a true roguelike with no saves, the difficulty would certainly be beyond the likes of Dark Souls, Cuphead, and Super Meat Boy.
While it seems that the possibilities are endless for this game, there are a few drawbacks. When it comes to a focused story, there isn’t much here. Much like a playthrough of the similar medieval styled RPG Mount & Blade, the premise is to build up your size and strength and conquer as much as possible. In the meantime, the little bits and pieces of ‘story’ are based upon your reactions to those you meet and help along the way. These encounters are basically little small fetch quests or jobs.
Graphically, Starsector leaves a bit to be desired as well. Most ships look like a hulking mass of grey clumps with details too small to really be able to appreciate. With no gloss or pop, there isn’t much in the ‘appeal’ category at first glance. Mods will probably change this a little bit, but in general, the game isn’t much of a looker. Thankfully, the substance makes up for this in spades as most players who frequent this genre are looking more for a challenge than a pretty shooter.
Starsector has so much for you to pick up and master that the tutorial still feels as if it leaves some of the quality of life details out. While some players do appreciate learning by ‘jumping in the deep end’, there are some actions in menus or related to starting colonies that could use a bit of early guidance.
Even with all that is presented here, the game is still in development by a four man team! Obviously a labor of love and amazing skill, Starsector has been painstakingly crafted for the past 10 years into a package that is well worth the alpha version price of $15.