This week I played around with the upcoming PC game, Between the Stars, which was successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign in October 2018 with the game intended for full release sometime in early 2019. The game is described as “a Non-Linear Space Faring Roguelike ARPG with a heavy focus on events and player choice”.
Here’s my thoughts on the roughly 1-hour long demo experience:
Between the Stars – The basics
You jump into the shoes of a space captain overseeing your crew, assisted by your trusty ship AI, and travel across the galaxy to uphold law and order against various interstellar foes. Between the Stars follows the classic 3D space sim formula – get mission at point A, fly to point B, fight/investigate ships, fly back to point A – however the demo teases a few ways that missions can escalate and get a bit more interesting.
There isn’t a great deal of story shown in the demo – you are Captain Scott (Jane or James) of the Interstellar Republic. You are tasked with commanding a crew of engineers, scientists, and specialists in the fight against extraterrestrial injustice and dangerous buggers attacking friendly vessels. Your ship has been badly damaged during a recent skirmish and have to get yourself repaired, offering to carry out some fetch quests for a nearby space station to pay for the work. Towards the end of the demo, you’ll meet the “big bad” of the main story (but the demo cuts off before too much is revealed). These slight hints at a wider story play out through occasional cutscenes but also through dialogue nestled within the gameplay.
The game is described as procedural – providing random crew, locations, and events for more variety with each playthrough – although I feel that we might need more than the hand-holding tutorial section to fully experience the procedural aspects. Each time I played the demo, events unfolded in exactly the same way – even when I tried my hardest to shake things up! The stellar map was suitably large – and did appear to be randomised – with plenty of different systems to explore and potentially save from disaster, or loot for goodies. The areas visited in the demo were shiny and beautiful, although lacking a little visual distinction: once you’ve seen one big asteroid field above a giant planet, you’ve seen them all.
The demo doesn’t offer much variety as you are playing through the “introduction” to the game, so it would have been nice to try a later section to see a different type of system, and also how the action changes depending on decisions you have taken. The limited choices you could make in the demo will eventually lead to the same outcome. A mission where you have to sacrifice a crew member would give the short demo a bit more impact… does that make me a bad person?
Your continuing mission
The mission gameplay was standard enough, following waypoints and shooting targeted enemies, leaving you in control for the majority of the time. The menus for ship and crew management were only briefly introduced but seem to include a number of options for customising your ship to suit your playstyle. It’s not entirely clear if you will get much choice in how you approach later objectives but the early missions were fairly constrained – some shootin’ then some lootin’ (and a little speakin’). Given that there are skill trees for the captain to upgrade – charisma, aptitude, leadership, and luck – it seems likely that there will be more flexibility as you progress in the full game.
There are a few different weapons and abilities which might help turn the tide of battle, depending on how you customise your ship, as well as bonuses for levelling up crew members and spending their experience points on your preferred upgrades. Some of these upgrades didn’t have a massive impact during my playthroughs, such as charisma for the captain, but perhaps that needs a dialogue-heavy mission to become really useful. During my short time with the game I managed to upgrade my crew and buy some new parts for our ship, which gave a slight feeling of freedom, although the really good stuff was too expensive to afford after those few available short missions. One minor downside was finding limitations with some weapons layouts, such as being prevented from placing a second nuclear missile into a free weapon slot. This was slightly annoying – after buying another nuke from the store – however nothing in the interface tells me the reason for not being allowed this weapon layout.
The missions were quite generic, although the demo doesn’t offer many to try out. They all involved scanning or boarding ships, sometimes with a little dialogue tree or gaining some information along the way, then usually a dogfight to finish off. Nothing too sensational along the way… except for one objective to arrange funerals for dead crew members. It felt like an odd early mission topic but perhaps was simply trying to show more of the backstory for the crew’s misadventures. Maybe the game is trying to prepare you for the fact that carrying the corpses of dead crew will feature heavily in your main story experience.
Otherwise there were multi-stage missions where resources were gathered and parts crafted, as well as some docking and searching through stations to find survivors or get information. There were some interesting possibilities on offer – but not really explored in the demo. I could see missions branching out depending on the success of dialogue, or your engineer’s skills, but that hardly came into play. It was slightly unclear how the campaign will progress, offering bigger and tougher missions as you make your way through the galaxy – I’m hoping the missions will scale nicely to offer a well-rounded playthrough with the procedural effects.
You don’t need eyes to see
The graphics on show here are pretty enough – lasers flash past your hull, shields shimmer as they absorb incoming fire and visible damage to your ship provides some added realism to the chaos of planetary combat. Space battles can get pretty heated – balancing your shields, engines and weapons energy to protect yourself and blast big holes in your enemies – however there were only a few “special” weapons available to see how they could shake things up. The nuclear missile was suitably explosive, sometimes wiping out a couple of baddies at once who were foolish enough to fly close to each other.
The controls and dogfighting gameplay are functional but might take some adjustment. The weapons aiming seemed a little erratic (using the mouse to aim with a slight lag to the camera), while using the engine boost was slightly confusing to learn and use properly when the story takes over and cuts the engines to play dialogue. It took the first couple of tutorial sections to get a feel for the handling and movement of the ship, especially when speeding up and slowing down, however once you get into the flow with the power and turning at the right level it feels far more fluid.
You are able to whizz around in any direction with customisable engine power but the game doesn’t seem to punish you too harshly for lazy navigation. Your skills are tested when docking at a space station – carefully aligning yourself with the docking arm takes a steady hand and precise use of the directional controls – but there is a fairly forgiving tutorial early on to practice docking like a true space professional.
The section you play through in the demo is titled “Prologue” which offers a glimpse at how the game will play out – but it also has a “Hard Mode” which is the same introduction but brutally difficult. Seriously, I can hardly even get through the initial skirmish! The offensive capabilities of the enemies increases to face-melting levels and requires adept dogfighting skills. I managed to get through the first “easy” playthrough without breaking a sweat, so perhaps I needed to up my game.
After a few more attempts I managed to survive for a whole 5 minutes before being destroyed in the second mission. Hard mode is certainly a tougher challenge and combined with the game’s permadeath you can see this being popular with masochistic gamers (think FTL, only in 3D and no pausing to plan out your strategy). The satisfaction in progressing against such stacked odds might be appealing to others but for me, I would prefer a full playthrough against easier enemies before punishing myself with a Hard campaign.
The developers say they toned down the difficulty for the main part of the demo, so perhaps “Hard Mode” is the normal campaign! A trial-by-fire introduction to the mechanics and features of the game – although new players could just play the “Prologue” on easy wimp mode first.
On the whole the game was perfectly functional – no major problems or glitches that some fine tuning can’t fix before final release. What was disappointing was the demo itself – providing only a tutorial on the main mechanics rather than showing any kind of depth – seeing how choices play out, how different crew/ship setups can affect gameplay, what other types of missions are possible to give some variety to your campaign. It was hard to see how the procedural aspect worked – even after several replays of the demo my experience was largely identical – and I’m not even sure that procedural events would appeal to me as much as well-crafted scenarios for this type of game.
The biggest choice I made during the demo was whether to be “James” or “Jane”, and that simply changed the avatar and voice for my captain! These are clearly limitations of the demo experience, which the devs acknowledge on their Kickstarter page, but I couldn’t necessarily recommend the game to an avid space sim fan without knowing what they will be getting for their money. The advertised “heavy focus” on player choice was not present even though the dialogue trees, customisation and mission choices had potential – let’s kill off a few crew members as we go through.The advertised “heavy focus” on player choice was not present even though the dialogue trees, customisation and mission choices had potential – let’s kill off a few crew members as we go through to spice things up.
With the structure shown in the demo, you could easily get bored of the standard fetch-quest fare in a few hours, and no amount of fine-tuning your crew or exploring dozens of procedurally-generated systems and space stations will relieve that tedium. The full game could be fantastic: there is plenty of functionality in the systems briefly shown, with the procedural events and bigger missions possibly providing more depth to the gameplay. Chuck an overarching storyline with a major threat to the order of the galaxy and this could be a truly epic space saga.
Between the Stars is a standard setup for modern crowdfunded games – a space sim with procedural elements and permadeath. Whether it offers enough depth for budding galactic adventurers remains to be seen…
Check out the Kickstarter trailer below for even more Between the Stars.
Matt Tiernan – Eclectic App Development