The latest sci-fi 4X game offers tantalizing turn-based combat

Between all the Endless Spaces and GalCivs and Stellarises, the sci-fi 4X has returned from a long sojourn in a distant quadrant of the galaxy to become the 'it' genre for many strategy devs. Stars in Shadow warps onto that scene with a distinct personality and some good ideas, but at least so far, it's not quite going to blow any seasoned star emperors’ hair/feathers/antennae back.

The current Early Access build features five pre-made races (at least two more are to come) with detailed backstories and distinct playstyles. I was pleased to find that they feel more like civs in Civilization, with unique ship types and mechanics. That made them seem more distinct than the sort of flat, boring, “plus some amount to whatever resource output” type stuff that made the races in the new Master of Orion feel samey and bland. The Gremak snake people start with cloaking devices. The space dinosaur Ashdar start with a low-level carrier, enabling them to use strike craft from the get-go without any special technology requirement. The way you expand and fight will definitely be guided by your choice of race.

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Paradoxically, the race that sounds the most interesting ends up being the least so. Stars in Shadow’s rendition of humanity actually starts without a homeworld, having taken refuge for centuries on a Battlestar Galactica-style civilian fleet. Unfortunately, my vagabonding came to an end within five turns when I found a habitable planet, settled down, and became just like any other terrestrial race. The colony ships the humans start with can’t create structures, build other ships, or establish an economy, so staying starside isn’t a viable option. If I had only one wish for the final build, it would be making perpetual nomadism a fully realized path to victory.

Space combat is really where I see the glimmer of something special in Stars in Shadow.

Once I started establishing colonies, things settled into a pretty standard routine: plop down some farms for food, factories to increase production output, and labs to help me progress up the extensive tech tree. One cool twist on this formula is the ability to build civilian ships and add them to the “trade pool,” which will automatically shuttle specific resources from planets with an abundance to those with a deficit. Extra trade ships not in use to reach equilibrium between planets is added to the top of your credit income, which is a more dynamic and interesting way of earning money than zoning for Space Banks and Space Auction Houses on all of your planets.

Shadow boxing

Space combat, however, is really where I see the glimmer of something special in Stars in Shadow. It’s turn-based, and plays out in a manner similar to a tabletop miniatures game like Star Wars: X-Wing. Each ship has a movement allowance, each weapon has a set range, and larger battles can become highly tactical chess matches that eschew a fast pace and flashy graphics to allow timing, positioning, and outmaneuvering to take center stage. The modules available in the ship designer run the range of sci-fi gadgetry, from advanced thrusters, to deflectors, to heavy armor, to point defenses, to boarding shuttles that can be used to capture enemy ships. Unfortunately, so far as I can tell, the only way to upgrade a ship to a new design is currently to use the 'refit' construction option on one of your planets when the ship is in orbit. This can only target one ship at a time, so once you have a large fleet, it can take dozens of turns to get them all kitted out with the latest shield modulator or fusion reactor.

On the more underwhelming side, the interface is currently pretty bare bones, and lacks a certain tactile responsiveness. Buttons don’t have much in the way of animation or sound feedback, which makes a surprising difference if you’re used to modern strategy game interfaces. Sending out a colony ship or selecting a new construction project feels like clicking on a piece of paper, as opposed to a panel on a starship command console. The galaxy map doesn’t have enough levels of zoom or expressive touches, giving the disconnected impression of staring at a picture of space rather than the real thing. The various menus could also stand to be cleaner and better organized. That’s a pretty forgivable problem to have for Early Access, however, as interfaces are often one of the last things to be finalized. Ground combat is also, in its current state, merely an auto-resolve die roll situation, which is deflating given how interesting and layered the space combat is.

It’s hard to say this early if Stars in Shadow will soar above the clouds and become a respected peer in the space 4X renaissance. There are enough genuinely exciting ideas that I can’t wave it off as 'just another space 4X' but it definitely isn’t a shoo-in for Muad’Dib of the genre just yet. To really distinguish itself, it’s going to need to play to its strengths, tend to its weaknesses, and inject the level of creativity into its systems that it already displays in the backstories of its diverse, spacefaring empires.