When I first started up Stars in Shadow I was immediately impressed by the music in the menu. It has this upbeat futuristic vibe that matches well with the sci-fi theme. That immediate good impression continued past the new game screen where I chose one of six alien races —each of which is strange and unique-looking—then customized the map to my liking, to the game itself, where the U.I. is clean and functional.
Granted, some people won’t be happy about the lack of races customization, but I found the available options to be quite balanced and capable of catering to a variety of play styles. Each race has its own advantages, whether that advantage be earlier unlocks for certain technologies or a passive bonus to specific resources.
The map settings aren’t terribly detailed either, but they allow you to tailor your difficulty, the NPC races, if you choose to, and the size of your galaxy, which can range from 10 to 85 stars. There are some additional advanced options that allow you to change things like how frequently you encounter native species on newly discovered planets and game speed, but I didn’t fiddle with them.
When you start a new game, you’re greeted by your advisor, who will walk you through the easy-to-use interface and teach you how to manage your space empire, expand your borders, research technologies, and the like. You view the playing field from a top-down view and there’s a fog of war that can be dispersed by your scout ships. You also start with one planet and three ships—a scout, a colony ship, and a transport.
Planets come in three sizes—small, medium, and large. They are discoverable by scouts, which you must send to star systems before you can start sending other ships to them. Once you have sent a scout to a star system, it will reveal three of the planets that orbit the star. You will be told if you can colonize these planets or not; if you can, you can send your colony ship to it and, with the click of a button, set down a bustling space colony. Planets have a population capacity as well as fertility level, and mineral concentration. There’s more miscellaneous information like orbital period and climate zones, but these simply serve as flavor text to flesh out the sci-fi feel. Very authentic. The three aspects that I listed will ultimately decide how your planet is best used in terms production. More on that later**.
The final ship—the transport ship—is the beginning of your trade network between planets. It’s important that you keep up a steady number of transport ships (or ships with transport capabilities) as you establish more colonies otherwise your colonists will starve. Ships can be added and removed from your trade network as you see fit, so a military transport can help feed the people then just as easily turn around and rain hellfire upon your enemies.
The majority of gameplay consists of a combination of the following:
Movement is turn-based. When you select a star for your ship/fleet to move to, the ETA is presented in turns. One turn is equivalent to one in-game year. Think strategically when you move—especially if you’re intercepting a crisis.
Colonies allow you to build ships and a variety of structures that will increase your resources. Factories increase your workforce, farms increase your food, mines increase your metal, and labs increase your research points.
**It’s important to note that some planets are better for certain structures than others; i.e, a fertile planet is better for food production whereas a planet with a large population can be put to work so that the planet will work more quickly.
Because your colonies are so vital to your productivity it’s only natural that you need to protect them from marauders. A fighting force of ground units and planetary defenses, which can be built just like a farm or lab once you unlock the technology, should keep your people safe and sound.
Technology makes your galactic conquest proceed more smoothly. These apply to a host of things, including improvements to production structures, new ship blueprints, weaponry, and other science-y things.
Some races are better at certain technologies, naturally, and will complete research at a quicker or slower speed respectively. The warlike Gremak Empire will take centuries when it comes to developing cultivation advancements, but will meanwhile be able to come up with totally new methods of annihilation in a matter of a year or two.
—Interactions with the A.I.
The A.I. acts accordingly with the bio outlined for every race, so you may very well be able to score a diplomatic coup with some while others will require a more forceful approach. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so take care that your aggressive actions don’t have a domino effect that escalates into a full blown war.
You also have the option to trade with races that you have a neutral relationship or better with. This includes planets, metal, and mercenaries, so it’s in your best interest to make powerful allies so that their resources are at your disposal.
You can be as peaceful or as warlike as you wish because there are multiple paths to victory in Stars in Shadow; whether that’s by getting elected the ruler of the galaxy and bending others to your will, winning over all of your A.I. opponents with alliances, or destroying all who oppose you.
Will you be a benevolent leader or a brutal tyrant?
- The sci-fi theme. The atmosphere is well done from the art to the music to the flavor text.
- Clean, intuitive U.I. Your advisor will always let you know if you’re missing something or if a critical situation needs your attention and resolving it is as easy as clicking on the text or alert.
- Turn-based combat option. You can choose to auto-resolve a combat situation or try your hand at the helm… or planet. That’s right: you can fight planet vs. invading ships.
- Several difficulties plus advanced settings for tweaking the gameplay to fit your needs.
- Ship-building. Customization is limited to swapping out preset parts, but that works just fine for me. It was still neat to see the ship physically reflect changes in the blueprint.
- No race customization. This won’t be a big deal to everyone, but for those who are diehard fans of creating your own backstory, I thought this might be important.
- Not a huge variety of random events. Most of them consisted of the A.I. requesting an audience.
Totally worth full price. It’s polished and it’s fun, and if you go by the old 1 dollar: 1 hour rule, you’re guaranteed to get that and more out of this charming 4x. While it may not be as complex as, say, Stellaris, it’s still a great experience that newcomers to the genre can enjoy without being overwhelmed while also possessing the capacity to challenge those looking for a challenge.
If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a no-brainer.