I’m of two minds when it comes to Stars in Shadow. On one hand, it is a fairly fun and accessible strategy game. I spent a good few hours playing it and mostly enjoyed myself. On the other, its claim to be a 4x game is tenuous at best, all the trapping with very little meat.
Stars in Shadow
Developer: Iceberg Interactive
Monstervine was provided with a code for Review
I’ll start off with what I think the game does well. As advertised the story is actually pretty interesting and all the factions have fairly neat personas even if they are just ultimately your standard archetypes dressed up for the occasion. To not spoil too much, the basics are that thousands of years ago there were the great races that ruled the galaxy; the dinosaur like Ashdar, the weird snake monsters Gremaks, and Humans. They were all light years ahead of where you start out, but then the Great War happened. It is pretty sparse on details, which is probably in their favor, but this war hit the galactic reset button. You play as one of the varied races that are vying for dominance as interstellar empires begin to emerge once more.
I generally liked all the playable races even though I only played a full game with The Ashdar Imperials. When setting up a game you have the info dump of backstory on each race and get the lowdown on their archetype mechanics wise. There are also various non-playable minor factions, usually pirates or slavers of human or gremak origin. There are also native races though they seem to serve as very little function outside of planet flavor.
The other main thing that I found really well done was the turn based combat. While the way it is set up doesn’t make much sense science wise, it sort of ends up playing as a multi layered chess game. How you outfit your ships and the balance of ships included in your fleet is super important and can decide whether you win or lose a battle before you even begin. Once in combat, you have to think strategically with your movement and how and when you use your ship’s abilities. For example, if you are fighting a ship that uses a lot of missiles, you aren’t going to want to full broadside them on your turn or there will be no defenses to stop their missiles on their turn. This matters a lot more in the early game sadly, as the ’super laser’ tech branch eventually makes all other types of weapons ineffective.
A quick caveat on the tech tree as this kind of falls in the middle for me. I really like the way it is structured. It is very Civilization-like in its structure with the added bonus of having some techs have multiple unlock technologies, so if you don’t want to bother with infrastructure you can just barrel down and get capital ships through a different tree. Unfortunately, you also don’t have much direction and can’t really plan ahead. For example, I played my first game as humans because the game said they were the hardest and I am a super elite 4x game reviewer (spoilers, I got wrecked even on medium).
During this game I got into a big war with the Yoral (space yeti dwarves). We had pretty much equal size fleets and roughly equal tech (they were a tad ahead). My fleets of pirate killing veteran light cruisers splashed helplessly like a galactic magikarp against their battlecruisers and heavy carriers. Every turn they would kill multiple ships of mine with their railguns, weapons I had access to but had no ships on which to put them. This was because the game offered no guidance on what leads to what. I ended up finding out, as my empire crumbled around me, that you must first research bombers and fighters, before you get access to the capital ship tech line. These sorts of problems I feel are indicative of the big problem with this game across the board, there isn’t enough there. There is some customization, but not enough. There is some economy and internal politics stuff, but not enough. There is some galactic politics between factions, but there not enough. There is some resource management, but not enough. You get the point.
I often found myself clicking next turn over and over as much when I had a vast galaxy spanning empire late game as when I had one planet taking 8 turns to build a factory. In a 4x game there should simply be more to do. You have natives that pretty much do nothing but make you sit a tank on them until they stop being unhappy. You have a resource management system that is so poorly balanced that the only thing you ever run out of is metal and no matter how many millions of mines you build you’ll never have enough. Contrast this with the fact that no matter how big my empire got, I couldn’t run out of food or money even when I tried. I spent multiple hours trying to starve and run out of money. I couldn’t. There isn’t the depth there to make any of your choices feel like they matter much. You can literally go all Empire, build a ’Dredd Star’, and start blowing up planets and it doesn’t make your people unhappy or affect your diplomatic relations with other factions at all.
Speaking of the Dredd Star, I feel that is kind of the perfect example of the other problem I had, especially starting out, this game feels derivative as hell. Mechanics and design wise it seems very much like a game that has taken parts of various other 4x games and sprinkled pop culture references on top. This even applies to its much touted ‘unique’ art style. The ship design is a poorly disguised knock off of FTL and even some of the races look very similar to things from other games (e.g The Yoral look like the snow things from Borderlands, while the Orthin look rather similar to a Stellaris playable race model).
The Final Word
Overall, this is a serviceable game and fun to play. Veterans of 4x games will likely walk away disappointed, especially considering other recent fair. However, people new to 4x gaming or who want less ’menu porn’ will likely get a lot out of this game. It’s fun but could be so much more.
– MonsterVine Rating: 2.5 out of 5 – Mediocre