If you played last year's lauded indie PC game FTL: Faster Than Light, then it's almost impossible to play this other Kickstarter-funded title, Star Command, without drawing comparisons. Like that earlier game, this is an adventure that's peppered with retro-flavored crew members, 2D galactic battles, and upgrades galore. But despite these similarities, Star Command offers up more than enough in its own right to step out of that earlier game's shadow.
There's less a sense of assured failure for a start, with the fate of your crew resting more firmly in your hands as you embark upon a storyline of treachery, exploration and alliances. Tokens acquired from victories can be used to enhance your crew skills, weapons systems and defenses with a little more player agency. It adds a genuine sense of freshness to the game, while at the same time ensuring that success feels a little more within your control.
You start by building the very basics of your interstellar craft, hiring new crew members and assigning them to various parts of the ship. Weapons rooms can only accommodate so many gunnery specialists, for example, while healing medi-bays allow injured crewman to receive a boost to their health meter. Engineers can cook up some defensive assistance, by arming a shield that evaporates any enemy missiles that get a little too close.
Once set loose on the seas of space, the game moves briskly onwards from its opening act of mistaken treachery, and towards free intergalactic exploration. There are traders to be encountered, new species to assist or ignore, and everywhere you turn there are potential dangers as you progress the overarching story. The decisions you make as you progress through that story might just come back to haunt you, and the allegiances you make are key.
Find yourself on the wrong end of a species at any point in the game, and you'll be straight into Star Command's battle mode, where pixellated ships sit wonderfully on top of crisper, elaborate galactic backdrops. Both your enemy's weapons and your own take a little while to charge up, allowing you to prepare for battle and ensure everyone is suitably positioned.
Once both sides are fully armed, the game becomes one of terrifying attrition as each side attempts to whittle down the other's shield until that juicy, fragile hull becomes exposed. Sporadic ship invasions represent a dilemma all of their own - do you send out your weapons specialists to rain phaser-fire upon them, or leave them in their combat room room so as to accelerate the recharge of your next shot?
Firing weapons isn't as simple as hitting a cooldown button either. To ratchet the tension up even further, you'll have to cope with performing well in a mini-game that's specific to each weapon. You might have to tap on the screen as an orbiting dot passes through a circle, or tap weapon nodes in a specific order. Mess things up and you'll ruin your precious firing opportunity - and that recharge wait can feel like a very long time indeed when the enemy's raining hell down upon you.
You'll learn and master all of this wonderful stuff largely through your own initiative - a plus or a minus depending on your viewpoint. There is a tutorial of sorts for the most basic elements of the game, but you're left to your own when it comes to understanding even core essentials - engineers can be repositioned to repair fires and explosions, for example, and defensive ammo can be cooked up at any point. We actually found it quite enjoyable to blindly explore the game's systems, but the more impatient gamer should be aware that this inquisitive experience is also accompanied by a certain sense of frustration.
With those concerns out of the way, we're really impressed with what the developers have managed to cook up with Star Command. It's absorbing, and it's incredibly satisfying to explore. It is a genuinely tense game that will leave you with a frozen grin of terror on your face as you desperately try to preserve the last remaining wisps of your hull, while fighting to deliver the final blow yourself. In short, there's nothing else quite like it on the App Store.
What's Hot:A hugely enjoyable game of strategic space exploration with satisfying upgrade systems, a fantastic art style, and the freedom to create your very own space opera.
What's Not:Dealing with invasions can be very fiddly, particularly on smaller screens, and a deeper tutorial would have removed the majority of the game's frustrations.