Between the Stars is an Early Access title that has really shown itself to be quite ambitious. It has a lot going for it, although at present, it is a bit repetitive. That can be forgiven since it is still in development. As it stands right now, it’s a pretty decent game and I look forward to seeing where it ultimately ends up after it has had a bit more work.
Genre: Action, Adventure,
RPG, Simulation, Strategy
Developer: Isolated Games
Publisher: Isolated Games
Release Date: 28 May, 2019
As Between the Stars is in Early Access, I’m not going to give it an official ranking. At the moment it is likely a coin toss between a Save or a Save for Later type of deal but I don’t like pinning a label on something that isn’t finished yet. If this game left development as it is right now, I’d likely say Save for Later due to the fairly repetitive side quests and the somewhat annoyingly unfair dice mechanic. It does have a lot of redeeming features though such as the consequence system where your choices and actions can cause you to gain positive and negative perks as well as possibly getting your crew hurt or killed. You also have a number of ships to choose from and the ability to kit them out with almost any configuration of weapons and auxiliary systems you want. It has a somewhat organic feeling story where an innocent act such as going to an amusement park can unexpectedly lead to a crew member being abducted. The story also has a few points that feel like choice points. While I admittedly didn’t have enough time with my posting deadline to try out more than one path through the story, it does feel like your choices could matter and will potentially branch the story out quite a bit. The Developer does mention on the store page that your choices can potentially alter the “evolution of the entire story” so that is always welcome in these sorts of game as worthwhile replay-ability is something I look for in games I enjoy. There is nothing worse for me than wanting more of a game I enjoy, starting a replay and getting bored because all the exciting twists I enjoyed the first time around are known the second time.
Between the Stars is a blend of Action RPG, Simulation, Adventure games with some Strategic elements mixed in for good measure. You play as a Captain of mostly your own design in your choice of starting ships and loadouts. You will start with some attributes associated with you, but it’s nothing to really get hung up on due to the fact they tend to change a lot as you play. As you play through the game, you will earn experience points that you can spend to upgrade your Captain. Your crew also comes with their own attributes and can be leveled as well to suit your needs for them. Even your ship’s equipment can be upgraded if you find your self fond of a certain weapon or device. There are plenty of layers of customization available for you in order to make your ship and crew appear however you want them to be.
The gameplay manages to keep itself interesting despite being repetitive. As you cruise around, random encounters and events will occur. For the random encounters, you may get attacked by a few enemy ships as you speed towards your destination, or an event might trigger that depending on your choices and/or luck will result in you being impacted in some way. It could be that you get a new attribute title associated with your Captain that may or may not be positive, or it could have something else happen. These random elements help keep the repetitive parts interesting. Assuming you are not planning on just flying around aimlessly, you will have a few destinations showing on your screen at any given time. Some of them are randomly generated, some of them are optional quests you accepted from the stations you have visited or other sources and the last one is the main quest. The randomly generated ones come in a few different flavours and are good for a few resources but eventually I stopped being as passionate about visiting each of the destinations before leaving a sector of space. The optional quest-based ones have a few different themes and variations upon those themes including the potential of it being the start of a quest chain. I tended to give these quests more attention just because a few of them amused me, such as the Dr. Chaos mini-arc, but I tried to focus on the main quest just because I wanted to experience as much of the game as I could before writing about it. The main quest has you caught in the middle between the Republic and the other factions out there. You have to choose what course of action you believe will lead to the best outcome. Regardless of the quest type you are on, sometimes your best laid plans go awry simply because the random number generator dice hated you.
One of the more unique elements of this game is that random is more in your face. If you need to get into a gun battle outside of your ship, it’s handled by dice. If you choose to take certain actions, one or more dice are thrown there as well. The thing is, most of these dice throws early on require you to throw a high number in order to be successful. Most of the time, you roll too low and things backfire, either painfully for you and your crew or simply costing you a new attribute or something else of value. I don’t honestly know if I like this system or if I hate it. As you level your Captain, the dice throws become easier as you have spent points in the various attributes so the throws don’t appear to need to be as high in order to be successful. I suppose if you save often you could always reload your save and try again if you fail, but if it was a random event that just happened to pop up, it might not show itself again any time soon.
Proper combat in this game is ship to ship and doesn’t involve the dreaded dice. It’s you versus them, typically you are outnumbered. This is where the two game modes come in to play. If you are like me, who can be a little reckless but, in the end, you tend to make it through the fray and come out the other side streaming flames from your burning systems, then you likely would prefer the normal mode. In normal mode if you end up getting yourself turned into brilliant flaming explosion, you will end up respawning at your last save point and are able to keep on space trucking. However, if you want a touch more realism and a healthy dose of paranoia there is also permadeath mode. Here if you make one mistake that costs you your ship your adventure is over and you have to restart from the beginning.
Combat involves you positioning your ship so that you are able to unload your weapons on the enemies effectively while at the same time keeping your weaker shields away from the enemy in order for them to regenerate a bit. Your weapons come in a number of flavours and I found myself partial to the guided missiles. While the space lasers, space guns and other unguided weapons were fun, they involved you finding a balance between shield damage and hull damage. Some weapons were better than others at taking care of either of those problems. The guided missiles on the other hand could just punch through the shields and impact the hull. Sure some of them would get taken out by the enemy’s anti-missile defense systems, but when you are unloading five or more salvos in rapid succession while carefully timing your shots to avoid the overheat cooldown, you can make short work of almost anything. There isn’t an ammo supply to worry about. Just spam them and blam them. I will admit though, the one two punch of a shield breaker weapon and a heavy weapon hull blast could really rip holes through my hull (and conversely the enemy’s hull if I used that loadout), I still found myself favouring my missiles. I have to say that the first ship I chose to fly, was actually the cheapest in the game, and I chose it because it had the shield rebalance ability. The shield rebalance ability I knew would be very useful from my experience with these sorts of games. It reduces the power of the shields that are strong and reinforces your weaker shields with that energy. When I eventually upgraded to my heavier ship, I found myself missing that ability. It could fire weapons without worrying about energy costs, but still, I liked my shield rebalance better to the point I downgraded back to my starter ship for a while.
Controls and User Interface
Let’s skip ahead in the review and talk about the Controls and User Interface right here. I know typically I have this as the last paragraph before the Verdict is cast, but I am taking poetic license here and shaking things up a bit. When I first started playing this game, I honestly thought I was going to hate it. I even avoided playing it for a day just because I hated it so much. The controls were a nightmare to me. The ship handled like an overloaded shopping cart with a wobbly wheel and don’t get me started on aiming! Worst game ever! Rage Quit! No! New classification! Super Rage Quit! However, I am not a quitter and eventually I sucked it up and decided to try my best. I gave up trying to use my gamepad and switched to good old-fashioned keyboard and mouse. I have a certain reputation here that I like to play a game to the end (or as close as I can) before I have to review it and like to share as many aspects as I can without spoilers. I also force myself to play with the default controls just because it’s the only way to truly talk about the UI/Controls properly because if you heavily rebind everything your standard experience will not be the same as your readers. Here is the thing, the controls work. In fact, the controls work incredibly well and now that I am countless hours in, I really like the controls! Talk about a 360! Actually, let’s not talk about the 360, the 360 pad is still terrible for this game in its current state without rebinding. Sure, the ship still has a bit of that shopping cart feel, but due to flying different ships, and having some Captain’s attributes that enhance maneuverability it worked well. Now that heavy feeling comes from the ship itself being heavy. The smaller peppier ships can definitely maneuver better, but can’t take a punch as well. It’s a tradeoff and one that makes sense. Weapons on the other hand had a bit of learning curve. Admittedly, I am more used to guns that shoot out of the front of your ship, so you point your ship at what you want to explode.
In Between the Stars, your aiming and piloting are two separate things. You could be flying in one direction and firing in another. This independent control gives you far more control over your ship due to allowing you to maneuver while maintaining your ability to target and fire upon your enemies. This leads you to feel like you are flying a large battleship with a decent sized crew rather than a single pilot in star fighter. It took me a while to wrap my head around it, but eventually it felt right and I am worried when I go back to the star fighter style games they will feel wrong now. The user interface in general is mostly intuitive. There are a few elements that could be tweaked to work better, but on the whole it works well. The one element that I dislike is time being a factor. If you have injured crew, you can only heal them one by one. This means you will often have to sit idle for long periods of time waiting for your crew to slowly heal up. This also applies to the crafting and other similar systems. You need to sit idle and let them finish or explore the base, but most of the bases have nothing to really explore. When landing on a planet you need to scroll around the planet quite a bit to ensure you find all the interactive spots on it, which can be a little annoying at times, but not really worth complaining about.
Graphically, this game is a mix of beautiful visuals and basic visuals. When you are in your ship, cruising through the universe with your quantum drive burning, the game looks fantastic. The amount of detail the game has even on lower graphics settings is quite amazing all things considered. It’s even better when maxed out, but that goes without saying. The fire, engulfing an exploding ship as the oxygen escapes and ignites, is something that never gets old (just like the crews of those ships you just destroyed). As your ship takes damage, the user interface begins to spark and show other signs of damage. Damaged ships are clearly indicated with burned out engines, sparks jumping around the hull and the trail of sparks in the wake of the ship as it flies to a base for repairs. In combat the weapons all have fairly unique visuals and they really help with the feeling you are in a space battle. The other ships and even the space stations all are a pleasure to look at. The rest of the visuals are little less refined, but they serve their purposes well. When docked at a station, a planet or basically any interactions outside of space combat, you have basically a blue/black background and clickable icons. It doesn’t really matter what you are doing, it’s the same kind of primitive interface with low detail. That isn’t meant as a negative, it works fine and since it isn’t the main focus of the game it’s understandably less interesting to look at. The dice toss animation looks realistic enough although the physics are a little squirrelly.
The sound in this game is decent. With much of the text outside of choice options and side-quest story being voice acted, it makes it feel like the characters are more alive. Some of the voice actors do a particularly good job, such as making the character who is meant to be annoying also sound annoying too. The sound effects and music work quite well. The sound of your hull being pulverized by enemy fire once your shields drop can be unnerving because you know your fiery death may soon be at hand. One thing that I particularly liked was when there was a random event happening on board the ship, you often hear your Captain being paged to report to whatever part of the ship the event is taking place on. Overall the music and sound effects are quite satisfying and I can only imagine they will get better with time.
So, should you pick up Between the Stars? If you are looking for a decently made space shooter with plenty of customization options and an expansive story to tie it all together, then Between the Stars might be worth checking out even though it is still in Early Access. The game almost feels ready to launch, outside of some awkward dialogue and choice points that don’t seem to actually be related to the text displayed on screen. It certainly could use more variety when it comes to the on-map optional events and that is likely something that is being worked on as we speak. If you can get past the learning curve the controls throw at you, this game is actually quite enjoyable. The game can have rather hefty difficulty spikes at times but if you are careful, you can survive everything the game throws at you. I’m not going to give this game a rating at this time but it certainly has promise and is definitely one I will keep my eye on.