I’m a sucker for an underdog story. So when Stars in Shadow tasked me choosing from one of its seven playable factions, I naturally sided with a small group of nomad drifters known as the human race. With only a small fleet consisting of colony ships, scouts and transport cruisers at my disposal and no home planet to speak of, the promise of venturing where no one had gone before was already beginning to look like a monumental struggle.
Having been in development since 2002, Stars in Shadow is a throwback to the classic 4X strategy formula that rose to prominence during the nineties. Developed by Ashdar Games, this turn-based sci-fi sim bears more than a passing resemblance to genre staples such as Master of Orion and Imperium Galactica. Your objective is to guide one of the game’s seven races to victory through empire expansion, militaristic might and diplomatic dealings in order to prove yourself as the dominant race in a hostile galaxy.
The game board is randomly generated in accordance with the parameters preselected in the main menu, such as map size, difficulty and number of competing races. Players start the game from their faction’s home planet, with little more than a few resources and a small fleet of ships at their disposal. From there, they must take to the stars, colonise desolate planets and pump whatever supplies they can find into bolstering technological upgrades and increasing production in order to grow their civilization one turn at a time.
Colonies will require careful micromanagement if they are to provide for both themselves and the faction as a whole. Each of the game’s resources feed into one another creating a simple yet effective economy that must be maintained if your faction is to flourish. Food, for example will increase your population and in turn generate a faster production rate when building structures and ships. Should your colony fall short in generating resource revenue, then you’ll have to build the appropriate structure in order to satisfy demand.
Depending on their size, each planet comes with a preallocated number of development slots on which you can construct factories, farms, markets and other necessities for running a successful galactic empire. Should your mineral resource count take a tumble, then building a mine will give you a boost in numbers. If that’s not enough, or you’ve run out of land to build on, then trading with neighbouring colonies or rethinking the landscape of your colonies are just some of the options you can consider.
The other alternative is to look for new worlds to conquer, in the hope that they can supply the demands of your ever-growing populace. Sending your scouts into uncharted territory will reveal the benefits and flaws that each unconquered planet has to offer. A tundra world may tempt you with its promise of rare minerals or alien artifacts, but given the nature of its cold, unfruitful landscape, attempting to grow a colony there in the early stages of the game may be a futile effort. Should you have the surplus resources at your disposal, then it may be worth taking the risk. Otherwise, you may have to look elsewhere for new place to call home for the time being.
Eventually, your expansion efforts will be picked up on the radar of rival factions. Diplomatic channels will open revealing that you are not alone and that these alien species have the same goals of galactic domination as you. First contact is defined by a combination of the game’s lore and your progress to date. For example, one race may have beef with another based on age old legends, but it seems they’ll set all that aside if they’re impressed with the technological breakthroughs or with how far their empire stretches. They may also frown upon the size of your military fleet. It seems like, if nothing else, the galaxy is a very judgemental place. After all, we all know it’s not about the size but what you do with it that counts.
Entering into talks with other players reveals all the usual options we’ve seen before in other 4X games. You can negotiate a trade, enter into an alliance and even declare war from the limited yet sufficient diplomacy screen. However, not all of these options will be available from the get go and you’ll have to earn the trust of your alien neighbours if you want to forge an alliance or work together on a research project. Much like the other resources in the game, influence is a bankable asset that comes in the form of points just like food, minerals and gold, and in turn can be spent to enter into trade pacts, research agreements and alliances of your new intergalactic best friends.
Despite its best efforts to create vibrant, colourful exchanges between two factions, diplomacy is arguably one of the weakest features in Stars in Shadow. While unprecedented declarations of war aren’t uncommon in strategy games, it seems that rival factions in this game will think it nothing to simply turn against you at the drop of a hat, generally in the name of expanding their empire. Accumulating influence points is a difficult enough task as it is, but it seems like all that effort into building relationships can be quickly forgotten if you have a juicy planet on the fringes of their territory just waiting to be plucked.
The only positive that comes from expecting the unexpected is that it gives you the perfect opportunity to have a fleet of warships primed and at the ready. As with the structures, ships can be built using collected resources and upgraded thanks to scientific breakthroughs. While each race has access to similar vessel types, there is also the option to create your own custom unit. Using the blueprints of the basic units available, you’ll be able to mix and match upgraded weapon, armour, and engine types depending on how far advanced your civilization is on a technological scale. While the aesthetics of these units are still in keeping with the game's basic sprites, it’s a nice addition for those who like to experiment their way to victory.
Players have the option to partake in combat or allow the computer to automatically determine the outcome instead, based upon fleet strength and size. Choosing the former option is ultimately the more logical approach as not only does it at least give you a fighting chance, but it’s more fun as well. When the combat screen launches each player takes it in turn to move their ships individually or collectively within a grid arrangement and attack the enemy if in range. You can also retreat if the odds aren’t in your favour, or self-destruct a vessel and take nearby enemy ships down with you.
The mechanics may be simple, but winning is anything but, particularly given how notorious the enemies are for declaring wars willy nilly. It all comes down to tactics and even if you’re heavily outnumbered, it’s still possible to pull off a David and Goliath type scenario if you play your cards right. Armchair generals will enjoy just how much can be gained from a basic combat system while the addition of a playback feature, that lets you rewind gameplay in order to take your turn again, makes it much more accessible to those of a more passive nature.
Combat does bring an element of frustration, but at least that often comes down to ill-preparedness or just simply being outnumbered. Unfortunately, many of the other frustrations stem from the game’s lack of overall information. While it’s admirable that Stars in Shadow was created by just two developers, and in many respects is a rather polished debut game, it lacks the fluidity and accessibility of other 4X games. If anyone was coming into the genre fresh, the lack of tutorial would instantly turn you off. The option to include advisor tips does little more than provide some insight into what to say or do during diplomacy sequences or the occasional prompt to tell you that you have forgotten to perform a task.
Furthermore, the game’s layout comprises a series of windows that are incredibly tedious to navigate. While other parts of the in-game navigation and fluid, others are difficult and confusing to maneuver around. Clicking on anything on the map, whether it be a ship or planet will open a window providing you with all the relevant information associated with it. However, in order to move away from the screen, you’ll have to close it again manually by clicking on an X in the top right hand corner of the screen. There’s no simple way to flick between your assets other than going in and out of each one.
What Stars in Shadow lacks in elegance it makes up for with creativity and homage. Given the DIY nature of the game’s development, it’s hard not to find charm and humour in the game’s colourful approach to the traditionally bleak genre. Each of the factions could have been copied and pasted from other 4X outings, but their deep backstories, unique units and colourful appearances mean that no two games are ever the same, ensuring that there’s plenty of replayability in this budget Master of Orion wannabe.
Which brings us back to our experiences playing as the Human race. As arguably the most difficult faction in the game to master, you’ll begin the game with no home planet, and instead an additional few colony ships and transport vessels. It adds an extra level of difficulty to the game and while there’s no story-led campaign mode as such, this is the closest that Stars in Shadows will probably get for the time being.
Overall, in the face of some clumsy layout flaws and an irritatingly sporadic diplomacy system, Stars in Shadow beams a smile as a competent homage to the 4X simulator. But while it may be keen to show off its influences with a wink and nudge throughout, it should perhaps take more pride in the fact that by taking risks with played out gameplay tropes, it has in fact managed to push the gently forward into uncharted territory.