Ash from Odin Gaming was kind enough to provide this guest post: an in-depth review of StellarHub. This is his first post to IndieWatch, but we hope to have him back soon. Visit his site for some epic gaming and mod content.
StellarHub is, on first appearances, reminiscent of the glory days of Bullfrog Productions titles, with the likes of Theme Hospital, Theme Park, and even the legendary Dungeon Keeper occasionally springing to mind.
This is an excellent company to be keeping, no doubt, but StellarHub seems to experience an identity crisis that prevents it from reaching its full potential. Should it be a light management sim that the player can dip in and out of at his or her leisure, or something more intricate?
A seasoned player of strategy and simulation gaming will already have a good grasp of what StellarHub might be about, given the comparison already drawn. It's a "starbase management game"; you have space crew and space tourists and you must cater for their needs.
Gameplay includes construction of starbase modules, extraction of resources to build those modules, acquiring additional crew to operate those modules, trade and tourism management to fund the crew, construction of defences for your expanding starbase (from asteroids and pirates)... rinse and repeat ad infinitum.
There are, of course, some more detailed mechanisms, such as needing to build some starbase modules in certain places, physical presence of goods (rather than having them all lumped into a generic resource pool), a tech tree, and crew skills and personality. These mechanisms give StellarHub some of its depth and give the player the opportunity to drill into the game a little.
A Light Touch
Right off the bat, I noticed that StellarHub tapped into some of the tongue-in-cheek humour that made some of the aforementioned Bullfrog games popular. Particularly entertaining were remarks from the crew about their present situation.
Other riveting titbits include "What am I doing here?" and "What a wonderful day... Or is it night?". It's not quite on the same level as "One of your imps does a great impression of you. He can even do the ears" a la Dungeon Keeper II, but it's a nice touch, nonetheless.
There were also the tantrums. Oh yes, if your crew were upset, you'd know about it.
Gameplay is brisk and mostly lends itself to a "lighter" management game, if such a thing is possible, though I'm not convinced this sits well with me. Already mentioned were a few mechanisms that bring depth to the game...
I would only really say there are two particularly deep mechanisms that the player can master. Everything else is simple or superficial enough that anyone who's played a management game before will understand them.
The first mechanism is crew management. Every crew member has a personality, some skills, and some other sliding attributes. These can all be determiners of how your crew might behave at any given moment and how good they might be at a particular job.
This is quite clearly a nod to Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, and their ilk, but it seems like it was bolted onto a game that wasn't well-suited for it. Everything else in StellarHub seems to favour a more casual gameplay experience, but for the crew-member depth.
Further, there's little engagement with the crew beyond these basic stats. Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld at least provide a backstory that makes you care about your crew members. I never felt such a kinship with my crew in StellarHub.
Mistakes can happen if you assign an unskilled worker to a particular task, but they quickly skill up, and the "punishment" for daring to want to improve one of your crew never seemed quite serious enough to not do it. And an unskilled worker never seemed especially inferior to a skilled one, though perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention. (They all sort of blended in in the end, despite the different colours of their jumpsuits...)
Pharaoh, Zeus and Poseidon, Children of the Nile, Anno, Dungeon Keeper... they all do "physical goods". What I mean is - once you've produced some good (such as minerals in StellarHub) - it doesn't magically make its way into a resource pool. In StellarHub, it's packed into a crate and actually appears in the game world. It takes up space and can only be useful if it's moved from a "source" to a "sink".
It's a fairly simple mechanism, though it has far-reaching implications. I'm glad it exists in StellarHub because it requires that the player think a little about module placement, which is otherwise something you don't have to think too much about. You can optimise resource routes by placing sinks and sources close together or, failing that, have sinks close to resource storage.
The implementation of physical goods could have more detail, but I think it's actually ideal as it stands. There's generic resource storage, and it's plentiful. It's just enough to support the casual gameplay that I think StellarHub should be aiming for and, indeed, I think could potentially pull off well.
Management for Management's Sake
StellarHub requires that you manage your starbase well. Why? So that you may manage a bigger starbase. It's management for its own sake. This is a play-style I'm quite fond of, as it happens; I'd happily tinker away for hours in Dungeon Keeper II's "My Pet Dungeon" mode. I enjoy sandbox scenarios and games that explore exponential economic growth. I'm one of those RTS players that falls into the "boomer" meta quite happily.
There are two big things, though, that puts a stranglehold on this type of play upon which StellarHub unfortunately relies.
Lack of Incentive
The first failure of StellarHub, in my humble opinion, is the lack of drip-feeding of rewards that makes it worthwhile continuing to invest in your starbase. The tech tree seems expansive, but you work your way through it quickly, meaning you unlock all starbase modules quickly, too. Perhaps I'm being a little unfair, since one of the things I like about the game is its pace. That said, I've enjoyed the pace in other games, and not run out of things to unlock in a few short hours - without hammering research particularly hard, I might add.
Most of the game mechanisms are accessible from the start which means that there's a lack of any late-game features that keep you digging for more.
I've already mentioned the Bullfrog Productions games, and perhaps it's not entirely fair to hold an indie title up to those standards, but I can't help but compare. Dungeon Keeper II had a tech tree, of sorts, accessible through research at the library. (It was probably more of a tech-stick, in that it was entirely linear, but no matter.) Eventually, the player would be able to build prisons, for example, which open up a new way of dealing with defeated heroes and generating creatures in the form of skeletons. Further options are opened up to the player as they unlock torture chambers (to indenture tortured heroes) and graveyards (to raise vampires).
There's unfortunately not much to explore in this regard in StellarHub; "tourism" is pretty much it. I feel like you can explore most of this game - tutorials included - in 4-6 hours. If this were taken alone, I wouldn't say it was bad, given the price tag, but for the other major failure of the game.
What I mean by "aggressive constraints" is that I never felt like I was able to just... fly off the rails.
Most players of colony/economy management games will reach that point in the game where they fulfil most of their colony's needs (be that in the form of an actual colony as in Banished, or something more bustling like in Cities: Skylines), and they're able to turn to more creative endeavours. Building a giant pyramid in Pharaoh (or its spiritual successor, Children of the Nile), for example, or one of the end-game monuments in the Anno series. This becomes the "end-game", if you like. You can sprawl and pour resources into this monument at your leisure and, once it's complete, you might consider it a job well done.
There's no "end-game" monument in StellarHub and, worse, no real reason to sprawl. As I've already said, you unlock everything pretty quickly (with most techs just improving existing modules slightly), and you manage to build them all relatively soon, too. (Admittedly, there is some challenge in adapting to the switch-over when you run out of your starting resources and need to start fending for yourself.) Once all of the maybe two dozen modules have been built, there doesn't feel like much need to go on.
In fact, there are few goals that the player can latch upon at all, self-imposed or otherwise. At least in Dungeon Keeper II's My Pet Dungeons, there were a series of accomplishments the player could attempt to complete for each scenario. StellarHub is entirely open-ended, without even the option for choosing your own goal. Perhaps it's to fill the map with inconsequential additional modules?
Speaking of filling the map... Each starbase module occupies a space in a basic square grid. The square grid has an artificial limit, which is small, even on the large maps, in my opinion.
It didn't take long to realise that the "tile" is the only meaningful atomic designation. What I mean by that is, even though your crew can move on a sub-module level, you don't actually gain any meaning from this. If you redirect one of your crew-members en route to some module, they'll finish moving to the centre of the next tile before re-routing. The motion of the colonists is a distraction; there is no extra level of detail. The tile is all there is.
Some tiles in the grid will be more meaningful than others. They'll contain an oxygen-rich gas cloud, or an asteroid that can be mined. But beyond this, there's not much in this meta-game. There aren't any adjacency bonuses for your modules (though it might make sense to put your ports near the storage), nor strict requirements that you build some modules adjacent to other modules. There was an opportunity for a "planning" dimension to your starbase, but it's current guise is really quite shallow, and not impressed upon at all by the game.
The tiles further subtract from the game experience. Every starbase module could potentially join to four other modules by a corridor. But the graphics don't adapt to whether or not a module is actually present, which makes for an ugly starbase with non-functional corridors at the starbase extremities. This seems a little lazy to me, and much could have been made of having some marginally-adaptive module graphics.
As it stands, I didn't much feel the need to zoom out and admire my creation. There wasn't much to admire, and it never felt complete enough to pull back and look at.
I should add that I'm not against tile-based games in the slightest, but the finesse of execution is lacking in StellarHub.
I enjoyed StellarHub for a few hours, but I quickly became disappointed with the later stages of the game. I hesitate to call it "end-game" because it arrives and exits without much fanfare. The game just sort of... peters out.
StellarHub almost gains a place at the table; like a social climber from days gone by, it puts on the airs and graces necessary to at least sit in good company for a time. However, it fails to execute, and is left in a sort of management sim purgatory, not sure if it wants to be deep and complex or shallow and casual. If it had decided one over the other, it may have made a name for itself, but drifting between the two has not done itself any favours.