Stars in Shadow (SiS) released to only a minor amount of fanfare in late 2016. Developed by Ashdar Games, a small development studio of two people, Stars in Shadow was meant to be a conglomeration of the best of the genre: a little bit of Master of Orion 1, a sprinkle of Master of Orion 2, a healthy dose of Sword of the Stars and some other classic ingredients. All of that mixed in with Jim Francis’ (Arioch) unique art style:
It was a bit bare bones when it first released, but Ashdar has continued to plug away at it and even released a DLC, Legacies (with The Tinkers faction), last year. I want to take a look at how it stands today and break down what I like and don’t like about Stars in Shadow and consider areas for improvement.
What I Like:
- The Art Style: Stars in Shadow has reminded me just how subjective art styles can be. I’m a huge fan of the comic-book-like aesthetic that SiS employs, but since the game has released, I’ve noticed that most 4X fans are pretty split on it. I’d say most 4X fans either like it or don’t really have an opinion, but there’s a vocal minority that really dislike the “cartoon-ish” look.
That being said, I really, really like it and appreciate that it’s consistent along every facet of the game. It really does have a comic-like feel (which makes sense, as Jim Francis, aka Arioch, is a webcomic illustrator and has a comic calledOutsider), and I think it makes SiS stand out with a unique look and feel. There’s just one minor (MAJOR TO ME) thing that I don’t like aesthetically and I’ll explain that later.
- Colony Management: I’ve mentioned in my Dawn of Andromeda review that I love the colony management system from Master of Orion 1 over Master of Orion 2. SiS manages to combine elements from both games for easily one of the best colony management systems in the entire 4X genre.
Each colony has a limited number of slots available for infrastructure improvements, depending on the size of the planet. These limited slots require the player to preplan their colony builds and also creates some cool opportunities for focused output from colonies with unique modifiers. For instance, a planet with a special resource of rare metals would be a great planet to make a bunch of mines on, as that would greatly add to your overall metal production.
It gives way to some hard choices and does away with the “build everything, everywhere” mentality that too many 4X games fall victim to and that I personally despise.
- Turn-Based Tactical Combat: I don’t care what other developers try to tell me, turn-based tactical combat, especially when it’s fast and frantic, is FUN. I truly believe that some of the best moments I had in games like Master of Orion and Master of Magic were when I barely led my fleet or army to a narrow victory on the battlefield, despite how much I love the grander strategy layer of 4X.
That being said, Stars in Shadow has done a fantastic job of bringing back turn-based tactical combat to space 4X:
- Combat, Continued: It’s fast paced, (usually) quickly resolved, and meaningful to your war efforts. Not only that, but it’s fun to see how your new ships function in battle and being able to control them in this way feels satisfying. I have been told too many times by 4X developers that I don’t really want turn-based tactical combat. Well, yes, yes I do. Especially when it’s balanced as well as Stars in Shadow’s combat in its speed of completion and its level of tactical requirements.
So, please, if two guys can do it (mainly just one programmer, really), then you can, too, other 4X developers! (cough Amplitude Studios cough cough)
These borders were added after players requested them.
- The Developers’ Responsiveness: They’re not exactly the quickest to respond (I’m pretty sure they have full-time jobs), but Ashdar games has been incredibly open to making changes to their game at the behest of their fans, even if it’s just adding options. Two things that I’ve campaigned hard for, the option to right click to close menus and the option to remove fleet destination lines, were both accommodated and genuinely make the game better for me.
I’m not the only one they’ve listened to, either (and hell, it may not just have been me complaining), as they’ve received good, constructive feedback about a few of their design choices and have legitimately improved the game based of that feedback. It’s not often that you see this level of interaction and it’s freakin’ great to see and witness the benefits of. Well done, Ashdar!
- Race Asymmetry: As anyone who knows me and what I like in a 4X game can tell you, I appreciate faction/race asymmetry more than most. I really want each faction to feel distinct and each play through to feel radically different, depending on the faction chosen. SiS does a great job of this.
One of the factions, the Ashdar Imperials get access to a hyperspace gate from Turn 1, which allows their ships to get anywhere in their range within one turn. Or, you have the Phidi that have exclusive access to a mercenary market that allows them to buy combat ships, but they’re limited in other ways. As another example, the Humans don’t start with any colonies, but instead are given better ships to start with and a colony ship. All of these asymmetric starts are explained through their backstories and it does wonder for the game.
That sort of asymmetry gets me really excited and encourages me to play as many different factions, thus increasing replayability beyond your normal 4X game. Few games have done it better than SiS and I hope to see more of it as they introduce new races.
- Story Elements: Sure, they’re a bit hidden, but there’s some really cool story elements present in the Star Harpy encounters. I won’t say much more, but I do hope to see more of this in SiS. Here’s hoping that there’s a bit more added in whatever DLC comes next.
What I Don’t Like:
- Diplomacy: While there is certainly an attempt made here to be “different”, the diplomacy is, at best, wonky, and at worst, broken. Diplomatic exchanges focus primarily around the use of influence. Influence is used to establish embassies, make research pacts, and create alliances. Once you have the influence required to suggest any of these agreements, one simple click is all that’s required to make it so. The AI player cannot deny you.
All too often, it makes me feel very little investment in the process, as you can just spam these requests once you’ve accumulated enough influence. You can actually go from normal relations to as far as allied in one turn. It feels very detached for me.
Also, you can use influence to sue for peace during war. However, it doesn’t stop your AI enemy from immediately attacking you again next turn. There’s no cool down, there’s no minimum length to the peace treaty, etc. Sure, there might be a diplomatic penalty, but that has little bearing on the grand scheme of the game. It feels jarring and decidedly not fun.
All of these issues are compounded by how easy influence is to accumulate and how it’s not used outside of diplomacy, save for buying slaves and ships as two of the factions, so there’s little to balance my decisions with. Frankly, the whole system feels like it needs a serious overhaul. The good news is that Ashdar Games is well aware of it and is currently hard at work tackling it. I’ll certainly report on it further when that update is released.
- The Color Blue: Yeah, I know, this seems a bit petty, but GOOD GOD does SiS rely too much on the color blue, aesthetically speaking. So much so that I really feel it takes away from an otherwise fantastic-looking game. The menus are blue, the strategic map is blue with some more blue, the tactical maps are mostly blue, and the whole damn UI is blue. SiS could really use some variety to its strategic maps, much like Endless Space 2, where there’s about 10 different maps and some mesmerizing color choices to boot.
It sounds a bit strange until you consider just how long you look at that same blue strategy map in a 4X game. I’ve put some 50 hours in to it since release (and probably another 20 before that) and it just starts to turn me off.
This is such an easy fix that I can’t imagine that it won’t be done. Eventually. Hopefully soon.
- The Mid- to Late-Game Grind: Imagine that, a 4X game with a late-game problem. As you may know, and as I’ve documented in my opinion piece, “The End Game and Its Follies”, the 4X late game is usually a mess. Stars in Shadow suffers here, too, as the tech tree tends to dry up a little earlier than most games and there’s not much excitement in the end game, either. No super units, nothing new to discover, no changes to gameplay, or anything to keep you interested.
It’s something that definitely needs a hard look after diplomacy, so I’m hoping that either DLC or future content additions will address this. I sure hope so, because I think I’ve only ever finished one or two games that went beyond a couple hours in SiS as my interest begins to wane. Bait me with a carrot, please, Ashdar!
It’s hard to believe that those are my only real complaints right now, but the game hits a lot of the right notes for me. The game length is perfect for me, as I prefer shorter games, and it can be adjusted – by generating bigger maps and adding more AI players – to most players’ desires. Sure, bigger games will probably lead to getting through the research tree a little too quickly, but it still allows for longer games as needed.
If Ashdar can properly shore up diplomacy and continue tweaking weapon and ship balance, SiS could be a game that I play for a good long while. It’s great for shorter play sessions and I love the turn-based battles. The great thing, too, is just how consistently Ashdar has worked to improve the game, so I can see it being even better 2, 6, 12 months from now.
If you haven’t already picked this game up, it’s an easy recommendation for me. It’s perfect for space 4X fans that love asymmetric factions and good combat. It’s not expensive and is still being supported. A game like this should be selling gangbusters, but unfortunately, it didn’t sell a whole lot of copies. Still, the devs have stuck with it and have made it one of my favorite 4X games to date.
Give it a shot. It might just be one of yours, too!