Lords of the Black Sun is the first major release from Portuguese indie dev company, Arkavi Studios. The developers describe their game as an “epic-sized complex and dense 4X strategy game,” so I was naturally thrilled to have the opportunity to review the title and put it to the test.
Before delving into the depths of this review, it is probably prudent to note that Lords of the Black Sun is not an entirely new release. Released to Steam Early Access late 2013, the final version of the title initially hit Steam in full release on September 12th of last year.
Unfortunately, it didn’t do so without hitting some significant snags along the way.
From the outset, Lords of the Black Sun was hit with intense criticism from its player base, primarily over reported stability issues and, as such, has garnered a significant amount of negative feedback on Steam. In late November, Arkavi released its biggest update to the game, focusing mostly on ensuring the game’s stability during play. I mention this at this juncture in order to clarify that the remainder of the review will focus solely on the gameplay of Lords of the Black Sun. As I did not play the game until after the aforementioned update, I cannot attest to any of the stability issues that were present. I can, however, attest that I have experienced only minor issues with the playability of the game from a hardware standpoint.
On we go, then!
Lords of the Black Sun is highly reminiscent of a few other 4X space titles (Horizon; Ascendancy) but has a few features not offered in either of those titles. All the typical features of a 4X are present (eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation and eXtermination), along with research and diplomacy. Generals and ministers represent the “heroes” of the game, influencing your empire in unique ways. Some of the game’s more interesting features include intelligence agents, pirates and what I shall call empire policies. More on these later.
In my initial playthrough of Lords of the Black Sun, I chose to play as the Humans. We’re such a bunch of lovable rogues, aren’t we? As it turned out, after our sun began to die and our world was plagued with all the effects a dying sun can be expected to cause, a friendly group of roaming aliens found us. Gathering up the remnant of Earth’s population, the aliens transported humanity to another dimension where, along with the help of advanced alien technology, our species rebuilt on a new world, which they christened Terra.
Although I haven’t yet played every race available, of those that I have, the humans proved no exception when it came to how their background was communicated: a graphically dull cut scene with bland voice over. Couple that with a litany of grammatical errors in both race descriptions and the initial in-game news feed, and I have to admit my skepticism about the title was rising. Nitpicking? Perhaps, but I’m a stickler for high quality in an end product being sold to consumers, and these types of errors can be indicative of a lack of polish/finish to a game.
Let’s break it down further.
eXplore: As is typical in the genre, exploration of the galaxy around you is the first order of the day and the game utilizes an easy to master, intuitive point-and-click system for movement, avoiding the complex menu actions that are often seen in other titles. Ships can travel independently for quite a distance before they must have another colony nearby in order to refuel, which is usually far enough for players to find a suitable planet for colonization or a world with a native population that can be conquered.
Your first encounter with others in the early stages will most likely not be other empires, however, but a band of pirates. Well-armed and well-funded pirates, I might add. Upon contact with their ships or with their home system, the pirate groups will usually begin by offering your empire the opportunity to pay them a sum of money in order to receive their protection (yes, racketeering at its finest). Choosing not to pay can result in the pirates more easily developing an unfavorable attitude toward you that’s less than ideal in the early game, because most of the pirate groups start out quite strong.
In time, you’ll discover other alien races in the galaxy around you.
The diplomatic options available are actually quite reasonable, include several options, and can be very useful, especially as the AI reacts well most of the time in response to your actions. Diplomatic victory is certainly achievable through careful and deliberate manipulation of this aspect of the game. More on that later, too.
In conclusion, exploration in Lords of the Black Sun is on par with other titles, but has a few drawbacks of its own. The game lacks truly rich, diverse star systems (such as special planets or game-changing bonuses), resulting in the discovery of new systems being mostly uninteresting. In addition, there were even times when I had no possible colonization/conquer options within range of my ships. Thus, forced to wait until my research advanced far enough to have appropriate technology, I was swiftly crippled by the far superior empires of my opponents. Coupled with the fact that it takes an obscene amount of time to build your first colony ship and a part of the excitement of exploration is lost in the early game.
eXpand: As your empire grows and you colonize new worlds, you’ll have the option to begin to specialize different colonies for different tasks. Each planet only has a set number of spaces for buildings, as in Ascendancy, so careful planning is needed to best maximize your resources. The benefit here, and one of my favorite aspects of the game, is that the planet’s output is not restricted only to that colony, but combines to form a general pool of all resources for your empire. Thus, industry and research are conducted efficiently across your entire empire based on the total number of facilities supporting them throughout your colonies. This adds a lot to the flavor of the game, and definitely improves expansion speed, as players need not build ships on one side of the galaxy and wait several turns for them to cross it. Rather, players can have several planets with shipyards all benefiting from the same empire-wide industrial output.
The empire management system also allows players to adjust their empire in a way that suits their personal style, albeit very gradually. Allowing and restricting certain laws; delivering speeches; establishing trade routes; hiring/firing ministers and generals, and establishing espionage operations are all part of the system the player has access to in order to ensure their empire stays on top. These features represent some of the best potential features of the game, but lack the depth that would make their use truly meaningful.
Take trade routes, for example. Freighters (more specifically, the module needed for cargo) first need to be researched, fitted to the largest size of hull available in ship designs (also requiring the most industry to build) and then assigned to a planet. A long, laborious process if there ever was one. Trade routes are also capped (although technological advancements allow some increase later in the game), and players are left wondering if all their hard work was worth the minor benefit.
Even if a player is happy to specialize in one research strand, it doesn’t take long to discover that the discoveries lack any flavor and do little to enhance the game. Most simply offer the standard “+1 to X” affair, but still others are even confusing in exactly how their effects correlate directly to gameplay. This makes determining what’s worth researching at any given time difficult, and provides little reward for the massive investment of time in the player’s research facilities.
As I discovered with many facets of the game, the mechanics for good gameplay are in place. They just fail to deliver anything beyond the basics, and the eXpansion mechanics are no exception.
eXploit: The eXploitation of resources/special items in the game is mostly non-existent. Find a planet with good living conditions and decent resources, and you’re good to go. Some planets have innate benefits (such as a boost to health, or industry) that affect strategic decisions as to which buildings should be placed there, but not to an extent that the feature provides much interest.
The diplomacy system of Lords of the Black Sun is reasonably fleshed-out. A range of options for interactions with both pirate clans and other empires is available, and provides for unique dynamics that, with careful manipulation, can lead to player victory. Trades, embargoes, exchanges of technology, declarations of war, alliances and all the familiar aspects are present, but players looking for something beyond “I give you this, you give me that” will be disappointed.
What the diplomacy system lacks, though, is flavor or personality. Every empire has exactly the same options and will respond in exactly the same ways (with the small exception of the “likeability” component for some races). Eventually, this leads to stale, boring interactions that become very repetitive.
eXterminate: The one saving grace of Lords of the Black Sun should be the turn-based combat system. In a “fast-paced” 4X like this one, with simplified controls and management, the door to providing enjoyable combat experiences is wide open. Sadly, the game just does not deliver.
Although the system itself works well mechanically, battles are just plain boring and outcomes are easily predicted. Graphically, these encounters look horrendous and remind me very much of Horizon – another title whose combat system fell woefully short.
Unlike Horizon, however, the auto-resolve option in Lords of the Black Sun appears to be the equivalent of a suicide button, as I regularly had extremely wide ranging differences in how manual battles versus auto-resolve battles would turn out against similar opponents and fleet sizes. As with other aspects of the game, combat can be enhanced somewhat by technology, but the complete lack of any real distinguishing traits or differences between races means that ships mostly look and behave identically throughout every painstaking encounter.
In one scenario, a pirate group declared war on me in the early stages of the game. I didn’t become aware of this, however, until they dutifully attacked my homeworld, eliminating my one combat-capable ship: my general. Generals, the game’s heroes, cannot be recruited directly. Rather, from time to time, your advisors will suggest the promotion of one of these fine individuals to your ranks. You are limited, as with ministers (who provide boosts to empire management), to one general at a time until later stage research allows. Thus, losing a general is a huge blow.
Nevertheless, I pushed on. My military was non-existent, so I surmised they wouldn’t be overly distraught over losing a general they never served under. I queued my first ship design: a behemoth of weapons fit to defeat any petty pirate attack force. Seventeen turns. Yes, you read correctly: seventeen turns.
With each passing turn, the pirates destroyed yet more infrastructure (increasing my build time for that behemoth all the more) and finally left, but not until also destroying my shipyard. Forced to cancel my entire build queue (another annoying feature), I set to work on the shipyard again.
After a laughable amount of turns, in which I had done nothing but focus on building more ships, I had a fleet of one general and 10 of these behemoths. It was time to hunt down those pirates. As it turns out, they found me first. Confident I would defeat their 4 ships (remember I had 10 ships with the best weaponry I had available, plus my general), I auto-resolved. The result? I won the battle, but at the expense of 9 of my units. The pirates returned to mop up the remainder of my forces (I have no idea how they were able to rebuild so quickly) shortly thereafter and wipe out my buildings again. I called it quits at that point.
This type of encounter was typical of my experience with Lords of the Black Sun and is indicative of the lack of polish to fundamental systems in an otherwise hopeful title.
eXperience: Put simply, Lords of the Black Sun is a mechanically sound game (i.e. all the pieces, although not flashy, work and serve their purpose) that fails to blend together to create a harmonious whole. The game often feels disjointed, lacks real depth or innovation, and is mediocre even in what it tries to do differently from others (i.e. espionage, empire-wide management).
While it might be worth a few hours of gameplay, Lords of the Black Sun lacks the fine detail and substance that make players return to games over and over again. This will likely be played once by most and then gather proverbial dust in the Steam library, especially fans of the genre who have come to expect much more from 4X titles.
Lords of the Black Sun has some positives, as noted, but they don’t come close to outweighing the negatives. The limited graphics, lack of flavor (races, diplomacy, planets) and unfinished edges make for an experience I have no interest in repeating again. The current price tag of $29.99 on Steam is exorbitant for a game that could easily be mistaken for a title designed for a browser or mobile platform.
If you’re looking for an “epic-sized complex and dense 4X strategy game,” this game is most certainly not it.
TL;DR: While mechanically sound, LotBS lacks anything special to set it apart and often feels disjointed and uninspired. Arkavi Studios’s inaugural effort is just barely good enough to warrant watching them if they try again/survive this, but this one is certainly not worth full price.
You might like this game if:
- A clean, sharp presentation without flashy graphics is your thing.
- You enjoy 4X titles that have decent diplomatic options.
- You like a simplistic empire management system with some unique options.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You like your research to come in flavors other than ‘bland’.
- You prefer a game that focuses on deep, interesting tactical combat.
- Wide variety of options in customization of races, ships etc is important to you.
- You want a 4X game that offers anything more than the bare minimum requirements to consider itself 4X. There’s nothing new or innovative worth talking about here.
Davey played 23 hours of Lords of the Black Sun on an AMD A10-6700 3.7 GHz processor with 16GB DDR3 RAM and AMD HD8670D graphics on Windows 8.1 64-bit.