by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Stars in Shadow was the second 4X title on show at Iceberg Interactive. The game had caught my eye some time ago for its unusual, cartoony and very attractive aesthetics. The artist behind the gorgeous visuals is Jim Francis, creator of the webcomic Outsider. Brought on board by lead programmer Sven Olsen to draw him a spaceship for the game, things got out of hand quickly. Jim is now responsible for much of the writing, contributes to the design and apparently fiddles with the code on occasion too. But beauty, of course, is only skin deep. It was good to sit down with Sven - quite literally half of the development team - and learn about what lies underneath the pretty surface.
Sven knows his 4X games and was keen to point out where his game improves and innovates. Gameplay wise, Stars in Shadow most resembles Master of Orion 2 but it also borrows the exploration and adventure elements found in games like Star Control 2. It is this combination that got me excited.
That the game does things a little different immediately becomes apparent when the races are introduced. The Gremak eat their young, the Humans are a scattered race of thieves and scavengers and something of an enigma to the rest of the galaxy, and the Ashdar are a divided and fallen race that has split up into two rival factions with opposing philosophies. Besides the usual racial traits and bonuses, each race also has something truly unique to set them apart from the others. Humans receive two colony ships but start without a planet and the Ashdar Imperials have early access to Stargate technology. The pill bug resembling Orthin start their game with a siege gunship which Sven described as “basically a gigantic gun with an engine strapped to it”. With such big differences, the start for each race will be very different.
Sven picked the Orthin for the demonstration and almost immediately lucked in discovering Gaia, a lush rich world inhabited by a race calling themselves Gaiads and are nothing short of eco-terrorists. Gain their cooperation and they will give you access to the planet’s hidden wealth. Piss them off and you have a revolt on your hands. The Gaiads are just one example of many surprises which are hidden throughout the galaxy, and every time you discover something new, there is an interesting little backstory to go along with it.
Colonizing the planet, the game revealed only six slots in which you can build labs, factories farms or mines. This is the same for every planet and while it may seem a little underwhelming I imagine players will be far more involved with planet specialization than they would be in most 4X games where you have so many choices that it is hard to stick to a single path. There is less to worry about, so more time to focus.
Stars in Shadow’s tactical combat is reminiscent of the combat found in Master of Orion. You design your own ships and test them against others during turn-based battles in which you apply every ounce of your tactical prowess. Turn based combat in 4X games can often be a lengthy affair. In Master of Orion, 30 minute battles were no exception. To alleviate this, the dev team has implemented a simple but effective “trick”, allowing players to select multiple ships and have them play out their turn simultaneously. A group of ships can target enemy ships, move forward and even combine ship defenses to destroy incoming missiles. It’s a wonderful way of shortening battles without losing depth. And if you cannot destroy a ship, you can always attempt to capture it - there is an entire branch in the tech tree that lets you specialize in this area.
Few things are more satisfying in a strategy title than going into a battle against impossible odds but still come out on top using your brain and smartly designed ships. If you like that type of gameplay Stars in Shadow has your back. If you would like your universe to have a strong backstory, to feel alive and filled with wonders: Stars in Shadow has your back. If you cannot stand the wait to try this game out, then Stars in Shadow has your back too - look for the game in September when it goes into Early Access on Steam.