Stars in Shadow: Initial Impressions [VIDEO!!!]
Stars in Shadow is a new 4X game by independent developer Ashdar Games. It has your typical 4x elements. You select a race from a number of interstellar denizens, strike out from your home planet, and set out to explore and colonize the stars. The graphic presentation is a bit cartoony, and does not come at you with the grit of a game like Galactic Civilizations. But it is no less complex or nuanced. I have not even gotten into the diplomacy engine yet. You research technology through Ashdar's own brand of tech tree. As you would expect, the design pulls from other 4X games in the deep history of video games, including the Civilization series, Masters of Orion, and others.
The game is well-paced and there are a few elements that I specifically like, even if they were a bit tough for me to get a handle on in the early goings. One thing is that trade vessels can carry colonists as cargo, which, for the time they are on board, negate your ability to carry anything else in your cargo hold. But you cannot initially colonize a planet with a trade ship. All of the equipment, terraforming capability, etc, is on an actual colony ship, so you need to land those colonists and all of the associated gear first. Then you can add to the population from the trade ship. All vessels can be individually named. There is also a ship designer, which I have not played with yet, so I cannot comment on it. Suffice it to say that the game is deep enough that I do not see ever playing with the ship designer until I have built at least one of every ship that is already in a given race's inventory, so it may be quite some time before I ever play with that specific customization tool.
One weakness of Stars in Shadow is in the area of in-game tutorials. It feels like the game does not sufficiently guide you when there is a specific kind of alert presented for the first time. When I built my first colony, there was insufficient food to support the colonists. There was a message that told me to accelerate production of a farm, which, as is the case in most strategy games, you can do by spending cash to complete that construction immediately. But I missed that message the first time, dismissing it quickly without really paying attention to it. In the follow-up alerts, the game just told me they were starving; it didn't really repeat that I needed to pay cash and get that farm done.
The game is a bit punishing and really slow at the outset. You can encounter whole systems that do not have any inhabitable planets on them. Production is god-awful slow on your first colonies. And ship travel to nearby systems can take 6 turns or more. These things are sort of the norm for the initial few hours of a 4x game. Mostly. But it is arguable that maybe the game could use some tuning of these opening stages. Maybe. For now, that design choice is noticeable, but not a deal-breaker.
From my first hour in the game, this is a keeper, although it did not immediately addict me like GalCiv II did the first time I booted it on my PC. There is a lot to like here, but you're going to need to put some time in to get to that creamy middle.
The game was released on January 19th and is available on Steam. You can catch the archive of my livestreamed FIRST BOOT! episode below.