2016 was a great year for fans of the 4X strategy genre. With releases like Stellaris, Civilization VI, and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars there was a good amount of choice when it came to a genre that can sometimes be desolate for years at a time. For those that don’t know, 4X games are sprawling, often complex, strategy games that have to do with the player controlling an empire and trying to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate in order to win. Stars in Shadow is an indie title with classic 4X features made all the more impressive given its independent development.
Like most 4X titles, you start Stars in Shadow by picking a race and jumping into a randomly generated map. From there the goal is to explore the map and either be a diplomatic or destructive resident of the galaxy. What follows is a balancing act of managing your fleet, exploring and expanding into new worlds, and taking care of neighboring factions and races however you choose. The balance between exploration, combat, diplomacy, and technological advancement is handled in a way that feels faster than most 4X titles yet is still well balanced. I never felt like I was running into too many battles before I was ready or that I was having too many diplomatic meetings when all I wanted to do was blow my enemies to smithereens. Instead, the balance of combat and diplomacy felt great overall as I bounced between taking out enemies I didn’t like and making delicate partnerships with those I feared, at least until I was strong enough to overthrow them.
Diplomacy is handled in Stars in Shadow differently than in other 4x titles. Players accrue influence points by participating in diplomatic actions such as offering help to another faction you encounter. Once you have enough of these points you can utilize them in discussions to influence other factions to keep peace or, my personal choice, have allies help take down enemy factions while you sit back and watch. There isn’t a ton to Stars in Shadow that hasn’t been done before in 4X titles, but what is here is polished and well made.
For an independent game it runs smoothly and without any glitches. The menus and HUD reminded me of the original Masters of Orion, but the art style has a colorful, cartoon look to it that gives the game a vibe all its own. While a lot of the races in the game will have you scratching your head as to how they became spacefaring, such as the dinosaurs and yetis, its all in good fun and makes for some great instances of dinosaurs working together to take down the evil snow-beasts.
4X purists will probably be disappointed to find that you can’t customize your own race in Stars in Shadow as you can in many other 4X titles. However, I found the race selection to be diverse enough for that to not be too big of an issue. Another interesting choice is that the humans, often an all-around race in 4X games or one with good buffs, is one of the harder races to play given their lack of a home world. Other races have different perks and weaknesses depending on their home world and technological focus and playing through a game with a different race brings with it a unique set of circumstances and challenges that lead to a good amount of replay value.
Combat, just like the gameplay, in Stars in Shadow is handled in a turn-based manor that is easy to control no matter how many units are on screen. As ships battle and your race advances you can upgrade your ships’ armor and weapons. The first few times I played I found myself sticking with the recommended layouts but overtime I found layouts that worked for me. A nice feature in Stars in Shadow is the ability to send out orders and layouts to ships across the galaxy, making it much easier to control and customize your fleet as it grows to epic sizes. Much like the main gameplay loop of combat, diplomacy, and exploration, I found the fleet management system to be well balanced and enjoyable.
It’s worth noting that while I’ve heard and read about some technical issues relating to the text being small, the game blinking out, and other technical hiccups, I ran into none of these problems during my time with the game.
Stars in Shadow is a fun 4X title that makes for a great game for newcomers of the genre to dip their toes into. Likewise, rabid 4X lovers will find a familiar experience here that offers some new, interesting design choices along with a set of systems that are well-polished and well made. The fact that Stars in Shadow was made by a small team is all the more impressive when you look at how smooth it runs and the great deal of polish that went into this title. While it won’t set the standard for new and interesting 4X gameplay, Stars in Shadow offers a great 4X experience that is well balanced and a great deal of fun.