Indie Impressions: Starfarer

Trying to come to grips with games released in alpha is often a daunting task. It works better for some games than others; certain games have a core mechanic that compels you to keep playing regardless of any lack of polish, while other games feels like naked experiences that are more good ideas than good games. Minecraft, for instance, is the gold standard of the former: a game whose mechanics were compelling enough to make us ignore how content starved it was at launch.

Starfarer, at the moment, falls into the latter group, but only just. The core mechanic is here, and it is solid. The game is a space combat sim that presents itself in a manner both more action packed and more complex than most. In each battle, you are placed in control of one ship, your flagship, while also being able to pause and give orders to the rest of your fleet at any time. Your mission, as it is, is to capture points on the map and defeat the opposing fleet.

When the game works, it works. The ship battles feel incredible. Piloting is a rock solid experience, full of nerve wracking split second decisions that also feel eminently tactical. Which one of your four weapons do you use in the present situation? Do you save ammo but risk taking more damage? Do you divert another ship from its own important task to help you take down this target, knowing the enemy could take advantage of your new tactics? These are the kind of difficult tactical decisions you could make in Starfarer.

Unfortunately, these are the decisions you could be making, not the ones you will be. At the moment there’s just not that much here, which is such a shame. In terms of modes, the game has a half dozen or so isolated missions in a score attack format, and none offer you much choice of customizing your fleet, which feels like it could become the most interesting part of the game. There’s an option for campaign that isn’t there yet (though the developers say it’s next on the docket), an option which would serve to make the missions more compelling. Right now, the issue is one of difficulty: missions are all either way too easy or way too hard. Some missions require no effort whatsoever and can be solved by driving your flagship right into any area of combat, while others were too difficult for this plebian reviewer to actually survive.

There’s no good method to overcome this difficulty besides painful trial and error, as well. The game features a (buggy) tutorial, which came with numerous documented graphical glitches, and when it did work it only taught me how to fly my flagship and not how to give orders to my fleet, something which seems to be much more the meat of the game. It’s a disappointing oversight, as it makes it much harder to get into an already difficult game. A campaign could perhaps mitigate these problems by having more less difficult missions for you to become acclimated to the different, complex controls, but at present this is not present in the game.

On that note, the lack of campaign obscures what I feel would be the best feature, which would be building your own fleet. While the website blatantly advertises it as a “single player sandbox style space role playing game”, but none of these elements, especially the role playing ones, are there yet. At this point all you get in the way of customization is choosing which of your prepared fleet to deploy during a mission. As anyone who’s ever played games like Mechwarrior will attest, the best part of the game, bar none, was tricking out your fancy mech or ship to use it in combat. According to the development blog, the campaign mode will feature elements of this, of assembling your crew and building your ships, but it’s not here now, and that’s the problem: you can’t enjoy elements of a game that aren’t there.

My time with Starfarer hasn’t been the best, but I want to stress that this is not a bad game, but one that has released too early. Obsessed fans of games like Freespace and older PC space gems might be able to get significantly more enjoyment from the game than I did, and I plan to keep an eye on it and revisit it once it becomes more feature rich in a couple months.

At the moment, however, it’s hard to recommend to anyone but the hardest of hardcore. We’ll come back to the game once it’s moved further down the Alpha path to keep you updated, but right now it’s not worth your dollars except as an investment in its potential and in that it would enable you to support the developers, who seem like stellar chaps.