Star Command Preview

Star Command lets you run your own starship. With its Kickstarter heritage and pixel art styling, comparisons with Indie game darling FTL seem less avoidable than a death star travelling at light speed. The iOS version is out soon, with the Mac (and Windows) version to follow sometime later. Having had a chance to play through the feature-complete iOS version for the past few days, the game currently seems to have the potential to claim FTL’s throne, but suffers from some design choices that could lead to an otherwise forgettable game if its translation to the desktop doesn’t address them.

I died during the tutorial.

At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was down to the game being much tougher than I’d given it credit for, or simply that it was a bad tutorial. Sometime later, I became convinced that it was at least partially the latter, as I realised I had no idea what to do during the weapons system minigame.

There are a lot of timer-based UI elements. Build a dodge room for your ship, and you’ll then need to set it to “build” a dodge token before you can use it. Building said tokens takes time. This gameplay mechanism is typically indicative of a free-to-play game, as in “buy a token with actual cash to speed this up”. It’s a mechanic I utterly loathe, and it’s present in Star Command to some extent, although with no apparent cynical purpose (there doesn’t seem to be any way to actually spend real money in the game), it seems as though it has been repurposed here to deliberately limit your options during the game.

There are other awkward parts that don’t gel very well either. The aforementioned weapons minigame is essentially a quicktime event, and not a particularly interesting one, especially given that it’s one you’ll play endlessly. Simply put, you have to tap on each of three points on the enemy ship at the correct time. Whilst it does become something that improves with practice, at no point is it ever much fun. Also a sore point are the character designs. Although very cute, the seemingly limited number of identikit combinations of hair type and skin colour mean you’ll end up running into characters that look the same, over and over (the fact that they are each only a few pixels tall doesn’t help in this regard either).

Then there are the endless problems with the interface. Getting your tiny crew to the correct position on the ship can be a painful experience. Tap once on a crew member, and then tap a location to move her there. Sounds simple enough but in reality this is what happens: tap once on a character, realise the wrong character is now selected, tap on the original character again, watch in annoyance as second character now moves towards the first one. Things like that. Lots of the time. The screen is often crowded as it is, and positioning is really important. You can zoom in but then the large pixels make the screen unfathomable.

When your ship gets boarded, you need to move your red-shirted crew into position in order to return fire. Annoyingly, whilst they are en route, they will not open fire on any enemies encountered along the way. This is really problematic when you consider that you don’t know exactly where you need to move them to for them to be within range of enemies. In a similar manner, moving engineers to the appropriate positions to make repairs or put out fires led most of them to be killed rather than perform the appropriate action. Characters gain levels, and associated skills (although during the entirety of my playthrough, I could not fathom just how this system works; it seems to require no input from the player in terms of choosing new skills that I can see. Crew can therefore gain activated abilities, but these have to be activated by the player, through the same “tap and hope for the best” selection metagame. I suspect in the long run it will be a good thing that individual characters can be micromanaged, I just wish they weren’t so stupid the rest of the time.

On a related note, any crew member can fill any of the three roles (loosely, weapons, engineering, and support), but only one at a time, and they need to be “assigned” to a room of a specific type in order to switch them around. What this means is that if you get boarded and need more crew to fend off the invaders, you’ll need to select each engineer, assign them to a weapons room (assuming there are free slots available) and wait for them to slowly trudge over there and change into a red outfit, before selecting them again and ordering them to open fire. At which point everyone is probably dead already. In this regard at least, I’m convinced that the FTL mechanic of crew simply improving at whatever they happen to be doing works best.

So let’s talk about the good stuff. The art style works (when zoomed far enough out), and elicits memories of Theme Hospital most of all (although the game does tend to pale in comparison to that game in almost every regard). The game is also surprisingly challenging, and doesn’t pull any punches or make any effort to dumb itself down. The variety of rooms and the progression of crew members is decent, and might provide enough in the long-term.

What’s comforting is that many of the problems here could well be resolved simply through the use of a mouse (tooltips and other hover indicators, as well as the better precision afforded by a mouse, could resolve all of the interface gripes I have with the touch version). The developers haven’t finalised exactly what will be different in the desktop version, so we’ll have to revisit the game once it’s ready for consumption on the Mac. Arguably, many of its faults are things that traditionally don’t bother the iOS gaming crowd, and so maybe these will get reworked specifically for the desktop version, although it seems unlikely we’ll be able to get the degree of building and furnishing options we’ve seen in the likes of Theme Hospital.

Star Command is available now on iOS, from the app store. A Mac version is under development.