After my post on Astrox Imperium was published, I got a Tweet from The Uncanny @Dusty_Monk.
Dusty_Monk and I have talked about our shared love of sci-fi games, and I’m pleased to have been thought of when 4robertanderson and he stumbled upon this Early Access game. According to SteamDB, the game averages only a handful of players a day, is pretty much absent from the minds of Twitch viewers, but has a Very Positive rating on Steam itself. So for $19.99, I couldn’t say no to taking the game for a spin, and so far I am extremely happy that I did.
Chocolate and Peanut Butter
As the title suggests, Stellar Tactics is a tactics-based game with all that entails. If you’re familiar with X-COM or Age of Wonders: Planetfall, then you’ll be right at home with this title. You control a team of four, armed with ranged, melee, and AOE weapons, and take to the battlefield in turn-based combat. Settings range from claustrophobic space stations to spooky alien caverns to planetary landscapes and you’ll fight a wide array of enemies like genetic mutants, giant spiders, and pirates.
As if that wasn’t enough, once you’re done on foot you can climb aboard your ship and head off into space. Stellar Tactics boasts over 160,000 star systems to visit. Although there is a narrative at hand, you are free to take bounties, be a pirate, trade commodities, mine, refine, and craft goods, scan planets for unique attributes, explore ruins of ancient civilizations or modern day colonies, and duke it out in ship-to-ship combat.
This is exactly what electronic crack looks like to me, folks.
Starting at the start, you awaken on a colony ship in the middle of a crisis. You and your team are a genetically enhanced response team created in the wake of what is called the Phage, a hard-to-kill virus that has eradicated most of humanity. In a bid to outrun this miniscule foe, four ark ships are launched into space to reach a new and distant home. Obviously, things go wrong: the virus is aboard your ship, and is somehow mutating the cryogenically frozen crew members. Your initial job is to deal with these zombie-esque mutations, find out how the Phage got aboard your ship, and save the colonists.
Going beyond this prologue would include spoilers, so I won’t go into detail. I am happy with this storyline, because although it seems old hat, it’s presented in a way that doesn’t just hand-wave the specifics with technobabble. There’s a fair amount of “Crichtonising” — one character asks a loaded question of another just so that NPC can spew an encyclopedia of exposition, as Michael Crichton is famous for employing — but as this is the prologue, it’s forgivable, and because I found the exposition fairly compelling and well conceived.
The intro to the story serves as a kind of tutorial, although it’s all ground-combat so we’re only getting a slice of information on what the game offers.
Ground Movement and Combat
Stellar Tactics runs on a familiar turn-based mechanic. When out of combat you’re free to move your party as a group or as individuals. Clicking on glowing points of interest will disengage your currently selected party member for interaction, which allows players to select a member with an appropriate skill, the best survivability, or the closest to deal with the object. There doesn’t seem to be a way to re-arrange your party’s formation, so you’re always moving in a diamond pattern. I also haven’t seen any up-front way to re-order your party. Sometimes this means your player avatar is the tip of the spear, but you might about-face the formation so that another character is now on point, but that seems to be accidental or arbitrary at best.
When in combat, each participant has AP — action points — that govern how many actions they can take. Shooting or stabbing, reloading, moving, or using a consumable take AP, with combat actions taking a variable amount based on the weapon, the mode, and the skill of the character in using that weapon. Ending a character’s turn with at least 2AP allows for the option of defensive mode which can mitigate damage should that character come under attack.
Combat feels pretty good; specific body parts can be targeted (head, torso, arms, legs, etc) and each have their own percent-to-hit value informed by the distance, the weapon, any cover mechanics, and the attacker’s skill. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a bead on a particular hit zone, however, especially against small enemies, so it’s beneficial to carefully click when choosing a target. As of the writing of this post, there seems to be an occasional bug where clicking on an enemy to attack uses AP, but doesn’t carry out the attack. I have experienced this and have seen that this had been reported on the Steam forums.
Space Movement and Combat
In space, your ship can move in six degrees of freedom, although most movement takes place on a flat plane unless your autopilot destination moves you beyond that. You can select a destination from a list of known objects in-system, automatically orient yourself to that POI, and fly there, or you can use the A and D keys to rotate, and W and S for throttle. When moving, you can either use basic thrust or micro-warp which moves you faster. If you get too close to a stellar body and enter a gravity well, you can only use basic thrusters until you leave the well. Although you do not start the game with an FTL drive, you can move between star systems using jump points once you obtain one..
Unlike ground combat, space combat is real-time with pause capability. If I were to compare it to other systems, I’d say it’s closest to Star Trek Online. You have four shield quadrants to consider, and you can redirect power to any one of these. Weapons can be automated to cycle and fire when charged and each weapon installed can target a different ship. In combat, you have three bars to manage: thrust, shields, and armor. In addition, there is an overall “capacitor” pool to keep an eye on. Thrust and shields gain a threshold slider in combat, allowing you to mete out the capacitor power as you see fit to balance your power usage. At this point, combat is a matter of keeping your most powerful shield facing your enemy while your weapons pound away; So far I’ve only had one ship-to-ship combat situation (specifically for this post, in fact) against a single pirate ship, so there might be more to it.
Your avatar and your party are not lacking in stats. You have seven common attributes, a host of skills, and downstream percentages. Your attributes govern your melee combat, ranged combat, health, mitigation, skill advancement speed, conversation options, and hacking abilities. Skills are divided into three main groups: combat, application (first aid, hacking, crafting, etc.), and ship operation. As skills progress, you’ll unlock perks for that skill which can assist you in your actions. Downstream percentages are the result values of things like your armor, damage types according to your current weapon and/or skill, and resistances.
There are two parties in Stellar Tactics: ground crew and flight crew, and you can maintain a roster of several NPCs in the wings. This is reminiscent of both X-COM and STO, allowing you to specialize characters for different roles.
The character management screen is a two-part display. The first is the equipment screen, and the second is the character screen. Equipment is handled as a pool that is instantly shared between all party members. When in combat, med kits and grenades are held here and can be used by any party member at any time without the need to divide items between members. There is also a “stash” which is always accessible and serves as a long-term, larger quantity storage. There is also a less-visible crafting material storage which holds deconstructed item stuff. Finally, there’s a roster of ammo types which is also a universally shared pool. Really, this is the absolute best and most player-forward system I could imagine as it takes away all of the agony of having to determine who carries what, and how far the party might be from the nearest equipment bank. Sales and salvaging can access both the shared and stash storage, so there’s no need to move items between the two in order to use these operations.
The character screen is where points are assigned to attributes on level up, and where skill progress is monitored. Skills increase on their own through use. Progress is a two-tiered system: you must have a full XP bar and you must have 5 skill improvements in order to reach the next level. I’m not sure why this is aside from slowing down leveling progress, but considering that skill values increase through use, and seemingly at a decent rate, and are what determine ability as well as the levels of items that can be used, leveling up is mainly for gaining attribute points. I suppose this system manages the rate of attribute point gain so NPCs aren’t quickly maxed out.
Stellar Tactics is ambitious. Like Astrox Imperium, this seems to be the work of a single individual. The game has been in EA since 2016 which I know is going to be a “red flag” for many people. The developer is very active, however, posting on Steam forums and keeping a dev blog on the game’s official site. The most recent post is only 6 days prior to this post, and the latest roadmap update according to Steam was amended on 3/13/2020. This update anticipates the last amount of work needed before the game officially enters “alpha” status.
For some reason, this game gives me “old school” vibes when on the ground. I am reminded of the first two Fallout games for some reason. The rather chunky UI gives me flashbacks to console games like the original Shadowrun RPG that I played on my Sega Genesis.
During the first fight on board the Dauntless ark ship, I quickly became concerned that even on “normal” difficulty combat would be painfully unforgiving of mistakes, but going forward, combat seems tense but fair. When party members are downed, they are “KO’d” and not killed, and all vitals regenerate naturally between fights. The dev mentions that there will be a mode in beta where non-story NPCs can die, if that’s your thing. He also wants an “Iron Man” mode for the masochist crowd.
TBH, I haven’t yet found any super critical issues with the game. There’s the “wasted AP” bug which, despite the nail-biting scenarios I’ve encountered, is frustrating but manageable. Also, the game slows down often; enemy movement sometimes takes a few seconds to spin up and wind down, but again, it’s not a game-breaker.
There are a few systems I have yet to really dive into, like mining, salvaging (which I have used, but not religiously), scanning and exploring, landing on planets, taking one-off missions, inter-system travel (you don’t have a FTL drive to start), crafting, or drone use. Quite honestly, I’ve had my hands full just getting to this point.
I am overwhelmed with excitement about Stellar Tactics, even though I think I’m currently privy to only half of what the game offers. This game is quickly approaching almost everything I claim to have wanted in a space-faring game: ground action, space action, exploration, exploitation, crafting, and a pretty decent story as a bonus. Even though the game has been in EA for 4 years now which would be forgivable for a large studio yet which is all the more impressive for a one-man (or so I am lead to believe) operation, there’s a lot of what’s right going on here in the game’s current state. I’ll pen some additional posts regarding other systems as I come to use them, for a more complete picture of Stellar Tactics.