by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
Stars in Shadow releases cold on the heels of what should have been the triumphant return of Master of Orion. My review of the latest addition in that particular franchise ended with the line “There are games out there that are more Master of Orion than this Master of Orion.” Stars in Shadow is solidly among those.
It would be easy to label Stars in Shadow as a “traditional 4X” but I imagine that could turn some players away thinking I meant old fashioned. Sure, it sticks close to the gameplay that made the genre so popular in the 90’s but it also manages a few small innovations that I think will be found in many future 4X’s. No, Stars in Shadows is anything but old fashioned. If anything, it deserves credit for its willingness to be an unadulterated, unapologetic 4X space title - and it oozes with style.
Ebb and flow
You can interpret “leaving everything else intact” exactly the way you think you should. Players choose their race, generate a starmap and are given control over a planet along with a handful of ships. You then conquer a sandbox galaxy step by step. You build factories and farms, you conduct research and trade within and outside of your empire’s borders. As your economy grows, your fleet grows and with it your ability to wage war, defend yourself and expand. Before long, you stumble upon other races that invariably have the exact same agenda, leaving extermination of several of the galaxy’s inhabitants a forgone conclusion.
A game of Stars in Shadow follows that ebb and flow found in all good 4X strategy titles. You struggle to balance your economy, strive to stay at the forefront of technology and work diligently to maintain a strong enough fleet to discourage jealous neighbours from taking a stab at you. At times, the game will make you feel your empire is running like a well oiled machine, only to stomp you in the face a few turns later as you watch your huge fleet - previously thought unbeatable - being eaten up by a handful of technologically superior enemy vessels.
That ebb and flow will feel familiar like a warm bath, until it doesn’t.
Expect the unexpected
Stars in Shadow aims very much to surprise players. Some of those surprises are apparent straight from the get go, others show up many hours into the game. The galaxy, for instance, is not only populated with some of the most stylish races ever to grace the genre but also has quite a bit more backstory than you’d expect. Races, indigenous lifeforms and even planets have a story to tell. None of it goes so deep that you’re spending more time reading than playing but if you felt Master of Orion’s universe was cold and distant, you’ll love the little details scattered throughout Stars in Shadow. Another example: the human faction - apparently led by a young Laurence Fishburne - starts out as refugees. Instead of a home planet, they have an extra colony ship to balance that out a bit. Cool, but unless you start with a good planet in range you’re in for a rough beginning, making humanity one of the most challenging races to play with. And more so than in other games, indigenous life has a profound impact on aspects such as research, production and even defense of their planets.
That leads me to some of the deeper lying surprises. Playing as the Yoral Kagnate (three-eyed polar bears with a rather high cuddly factor) I ended up fighting the Ashdar Imperials (haughty lizards with a penchant for pomp) whose fleet I had somewhat underestimated. I managed to stay in the saddle until they began blocking my main food planets. This caused discontent on less fertile planets where the population relied on monthly food shipments for their survival. Some got so upset that they revolted and split off from my empire, causing me quite a bit of headache. The one planet I could count on was Gaia where the Gaiads helped defend against my own rebellious population. Ultimately, I lost that game. Neglect comes at a price and more and more hungry planets decided they would be better off without me. Half an hour before I had been the uncrowned king of the galaxy.
In another game my race landed in an area rife with promising yellow star systems. My excitement about the excellent prospect for expansion changed into dismay when I learned that the majority of those were riddled with Space Harpies that kept my ships from entering their system. Capable of spitting plasma bile at my ships, it took me 50 turns to build up a fleet large enough to take on one of the smaller groups of Harpies and colonize the planets.
Fortunately, the combat is a blissful, turn-based affair. The game gives you all the control you need during the early stages and as little as you feel is required as the battle progresses. You can give orders to multiple ships - or all for that matter - at the same time and I found this particularly handy when dealing with incoming missiles. By selecting my untargeted anti-missile vessels, I could have them plow through the waves of incoming missiles before committing my main battleships and carriers to the battle. When a battle is almost won, the game cleverly lets you auto-battle turn by turn so you can make adjustments if and when you see the battle going pear shaped.
Unlocked hull types show up in your planetary building options fully configured. In almost all cases the pre-configured ships worked really well for their intended purpose. Configuring your own ships is, of course, much more fun. There is just enough room to tinker with larger ship layouts to make it worth your time but only just. Modules fall into set categories and every hull type has a predetermined number of slots for each category. For example, you can’t give up a shield slot to equip an extra missile launcher.
While Stars in Shadow is a thoroughly enjoyable game, it does have a few wrinkles. Oddly enough almost every wrinkle is offset by something positive.
The review build still has some placeholder tech descriptions in which the developers left reminders to themselves to fix some piece of the text or tech functionality. I also encountered a minor bug when I resolved a battle before talking to the invaders and some of the pictography does not quite align with everything else. The graphics and animations are fairly basic but fortunately the style and ambiance within the game more than make up for that.
I’m missing a bit of depth when it comes to planetary improvements. Planets have a limited number of building slots which can be extended slightly through research. The slots available to power your economy can be occupied by farms, research labs, markets or mines. Period. There are no buildings that boost population growth, you’re not dealing with pollution, and there are no entertainment buildings to keep your population happy. Buildings do get automatic upgrades through technological advances but that’s pretty much it. But there - is - something to be said for this style of play. Many 4X games fail to really make planets unique enough to make specialisation worth your while. Players end up building their planets with a little bit of everything, or even just plain everything. Limiting the options certainly made me look at my planets twice before deciding in which direction to go. There are fewer distractions when a planet fills up quickly so you tend to build more ships.
Diplomacy feels a little basic at first as well but the addition of Influence as a resource more than makes up for this. Influence is gained and spent through diplomatic actions. To request a trade agreement you’ll have to spend some influence for it to happen. Offer financial aid to a needy neighbour and you’ll gain a nice little influence boost in return. Most agreements will yield a small amount of influence every turn which really promotes players to actively seek out their neighbours and maintain good relations. Even resolving a conflict costs influence, which means influence-poor players can end up being in a perpetual state of war - you have been warned.
Is it strange that Stars in Shadows is carving itself a slice of the set-in-space 4X pie by going back to what made 4X games great in the first place? I think it is. I’ll take the depth of turn-based combat over real-time any day and Stars in Shadow does a more than competent job in this area. The simple graphics and animations leave something to be desired but the graphical style is spot on. Besides, shiny baubles don’t make a game - gameplay does and that is rock solid here.
Proper turn-based combat paired with clever innovations
Missing some depth on planetary level