The space 4X genre competition is becoming rather fierce now. More and more of these titles are cropping up more frequently as Early Access titles or as full releases. Polaris Sector, Stellaris, Galactic Civilizations 3, Endless Space 2, Dawn of Andromeda, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, the list goes on and on. These titles allow would-be emperors to assemble their mighty space armadas for battle, boost their economies and expand their territories. Each of these games mostly adheres to titles that would lay the foundation of space 4X titles: Master of Orion and Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares.
Almost all of the titles have used MOO and MOO 2 as a base while adding their own unique touches to mechanics and visual style to stand out from the crowd and become 4X space strategy top-dog. Now hoping to establish a 4X empire of their own are developers Ashdar Games with their 4X space game: Stars in Shadow. With traditional 4X mechanics complete with a few touches of its own, the developers of Stars in Shadow has thrown their hat in the table to provide 4X fans their own means for players to become galactic emperor.
Stars in Shadow plays like a 4X space strategy game reminiscent of classic 4X games like Galactic Civilizations 1 and Master of Orion 1 and 2. Like games in its field you start off choosing one of seven factions, each with their own characteristics and attributes, customize the size and population of the galaxy you want to rule and you’ll soon begin your quest to subjugate, negotiate, assimilate, even decimate your opponents. You begin with a single planet where you must begin building economic, manufacturing and research structures to get your plans of conquest into motion.
You’ll need to build factories to produce structures faster, mine for precious minerals and other valuables within the planet, setup farming to feed the populace and research ways to improve farming, enable faster production, build a stronger economy and of course, unlock upgrades for your ships and to build new ships to bring some real firepower into battle. All of these aspects play their part in your plans to show your rivals that there’s only room for one ruler of the galaxy.
You’ll probably want to begin colonizing other planets as soon as possible as many of these planets are rich with resources like minerals, rare gems, and artifacts that you’ll want to grab for yourself. Not to mention your hostile neighbors wanting the same planets for themselves who are not exactly in the mood for sharing. When confronting these factions for the first time, you enter diplomatic negotiations with them and here you decide your relationship with your rivals. Do you begin a trade deal and share economic growth and research technologies? Do you wish to form an alliance and build a front together against other factions? Or do you outright declare war on everyone you meet and begin a campaign of destroying anyone that stands in your way?
Combat is in a turn-based fashion, very much like the space 4X games of old. Your fleet is on one side while the enemy on the other and you take turns moving your ships across the arena before unleashing supreme devastation. Your fighters, bombers, cruisers and battleships are all rearing for a fight, awaiting your commands to take the enemy down. Weapon effectiveness depends on the range and position of your ships, so it’s not enough to just point them in one direction and hope for the best. You’re able to rotate your ships in any direction to suit your strategy, be it positioning your fleets for a flanking maneuver, a head-on charge or a tactical retreat.
Engaging in battles is a joy to experience as you grip your armchair tightly planning your next move. As the energetic electronic battle theme is bursting out your speakers, you’re directing your fleet in a daring attack with cunning and skill, counteracting each maneuver your opponent makes before launching a barrage of missiles, lasers and bombs upon your rival’s armada and cheering in victory, showing your opponents what to expect when your armada comes to their borders to pay their colonies a little visit.
The graphics have kept with tradition by sticking to a 2D theme, on par with classic 4X space games like Galactic Civilizations 1. However, the visuals have also been jazzed up with a colorful comic-book style, allowing slick 2D HD visuals complete with bright, vivid designs without looking dated. It goes to show that you don’t need the latest cutting-edge 3D graphics engine to make your game look good.
The sound department has done a good job here also. The electronic sci-fi soundtrack for this game ranging from elegant and tranquil to thumping and energetic putting you in the right mood for exploring the galaxy and blowing apart enemy ships. Thunderous roars of engines, spine-tingling zaps of lasers and the heart-stopping sound of the enemy being blown apart as a result of your successful attack.
Stars in Shadow ticks many of the boxes from the 4X checklist. You’ve got a very streamlined colonizing system, plenty of customization options to shape the galaxy how you want and a very intense and fun combat system to boot. It invokes this feeling that you’re playing a classic 4X game that’s been given a new-gen makeover together with fun, accessible gameplay. While that is a plus for some 4X gamers as well as newcomers, others who prefer their paths to conquest more robust may find some rather implicit issues with this game which prevent it from surpassing some of its 4X competitors.
The game has no multiplayer, so those looking to conquer the galaxy against friends will have no such luck here. The AI opponents are very competent and will put up a fight, but there’s nothing quite like taking part in a good-old-fashioned contest among buddies to see who can conquer the most planets and annihilate the most opposing fleets.
4X enthusiasts who are looking for a more complex 4X strategy game in line with games like Distant Worlds: Universe or Stellaris would probably want to look elsewhere. This game has very simple colony management which admittedly does get slightly more sophisticated later on, but it’s really just a case of build this, build that, build some ships, go here, go there. You don’t have to worry about hiring governors or heroes, managing the economy or resources, politics or any other features found in much deeper 4X games.
At the same time, the game falls into the trap of becoming micromanagement-hell the further you progress. There’s no way to automate structure building for colonies thus finding yourself scrapping through every planet you control to keep production going yourself. You can’t order scout ships to automatically search the galaxy or order colony ships to automatically colonize the nearest hospitable planet and retrofitting ships and stations with the latest upgrades is a chore as you can only upgrade them one at a time, adding to your list of tedious, jarring imperial chores.
Stars in Shadow has the spirit of a 4X game that existed during the early 90s and yet feels new and refreshing with a nice visual style, accessibility and exciting 4X gameplay, enticing both 4X veterans and newcomers to begin an epic conquest of the galaxy however they see fit. Some 4X enthusiasts may be put off by the game’s somewhat simplistic mechanics while others may perhaps be frustrated with some lack of features that could really have made empire building a much smoother task. Yet this game still has plenty of great content to offer and will show you just how fun it can be to lead your faction to glory and triumph. Get Stars in Shadow and make your mark on the galaxy as its new ruler.
This review was based on a digital review copy of Stars in Shadow for the PC provided by Iceberg Interactive.