Blind Mind Studios’ Star Ruler 2 is a grand-scale 4X RTS that places players at the helm of building a complex sprawling empire, forged from the metaphorical space fires of rampant expansion, dominating conquest, and cunning diplomacy.
Does that description sound appropriately epic enough for a game titled Star Ruler 2?
From the game’s outset, players are challenged to take to the task of expanding out from their home system in search of coveted resources. These resources are then funneled back home (and later to other colony systems) to establish thriving worlds that solidify the player’s expansion. Before long, contact with other empires will be made, each with unique flavor and dynamics, and players must utilize trade, diplomacy, and combat to gain the advantage and, ultimately, rule the galaxy.
Appropriately fitting to the mood of the gigantic galaxy (some maps can be ridiculously large – limited in practicality only by what the player’s system can handle), Star Ruler 2 boasts an excellent soundtrack that blends the themes of somber and victorious neatly into one package. Couple that with a visually intriguing interface and players will truly see the grandiosity of Star Ruler 2 even before jumping fully into their first playthrough.
Before moving on to unpack the title further in relation to its 4X components, I feel it prudent to note that this game has been a personally uplifting experience for me as a 4X player. Over the course of my play-time in Early Access, Blind Mind Studios has made significant shifts, changes and adaptations to underlying core systems that have moved the game forward by great strides. The attention to detail is staggering and the endeavor nothing short of impressive. Seeing this process take place in increments has forced me to reflect on the depth of true workmanship that goes into crafting a game like Star Ruler 2 and given me a newfound respect (not that there wasn’t one already) for the tireless effort of many developers.
Ok. Sappy love story for devs aside, let’s further examine what makes Star Ruler 2 tick.
eXplore: There’s no doubt that exploration is a central tenet of the entire modus operandi of Star Ruler 2. After all, players striving to conquer the galaxy are going to have to discover what’s out there first.
Players begin with control over one planet and system. The homeworld serves as a critical launching point in galactic conquest, so it is important to consider initial expansion options carefully. Ships are available to begin exploration quickly, and the types will vary as a result of the race chosen. As a personal preference, I most often choose the “human” Terrakin who start with a reasonably-sized fleet capable of dealing with minor threats and who accomplish their exploration through the use of their FTL technology.
FTL (faster-than-light) technology is a critical component in travel and exploration in the game. While non-FTL travel between systems is possible, it’s…slow. So slow, in fact, that even speeding the game up to its fastest setting still results in a painstakingly long process that players will become desperate to avoid.
Basic FTL travel comes in the form of hyperdrives. Similar in function to Battlestar Galactica’s jump drive, hyperdrives allow fleets to move from one system to another with a small warm-up time, as long as sufficient energy (FTL energy) is available. The drawback to hyperdrives is that, although considerably faster than sublight speeds, the journey from system to system is not instantaneous. Other forms of FTL travel available include slipstreams (wormholes with fixed start/end points that any empire can use), gates (large nodes that take lengthy investments to build, but allow travel from any node to another once constructed) and flings (devices that do what they say on the can – hurtling vessels across large distances). As with hyperdrives, all methods of FTL travel require the use of FTL energy, which we’ll explore further a bit later.
Systems in Star Ruler 2 can range from having only one or two planets to those containing several planets, asteroids (which can be mined for additional resources) and even special artifacts, so it often feels like players are discovering something new. As the game progresses, the enjoyment of moving around the map, by whatever FTL options your race employs, does not diminish. The pace of travel feels just right in many settings, and fits perfectly with the need for players to keep their assets in constant motion to balance control of their empire efficiently.
At this juncture, I’ll also make note of the game’s research system. Presented as a grid that can be accessed at various points, research in Star Ruler 2 is comprehensive and provides recognizable enhancements to gameplay and the player’s empire. Research is dependent on the availability of an empire’s research pressure (generated by certain resources – such as Phasite), but is relatively quick during the early stages. The research system also makes use of “insights,” which match one of the key empire-wide resources discussed later. These insights can upgrade or enhance certain types of technology, or unlock the availability of new technologies, such as new engine or weapons systems.
Based solely on the scope and range of planets, resources and artifacts available to be discovered, players are constantly driven to continue exploring the galaxy around them. Star Ruler 2 does an outstanding job of nurturing players toward that desire to keep on looking and searching the stars for more. That can only be a good thing.
eXpand: In the same breath as praising the title’s eXploration mechanics for keeping things moving, I’ll also have to bring it down just a notch for not really allowing things to stay still. Yes, I know, I’m picky.
In Star Ruler 2, expanding quickly is key to establishing a strong foothold in the game. A player’s empire revolves around the necessity of creating a reliable supply chain of resources (more of that in the eXploit section), and the only way to ensure access to those resources is to colonize those worlds and grab them before opponents do so. Unfortunately, this represents one of my biggest disappointments with the game.
As I played, I often found it difficult to derive a purpose in empire-building as anything more than merely trying to expand and grab territory as fast as possible. As a fan of creating “tall” empires, this was a hard adjustment to make in my initial playthroughs of the game. That said, updates and improvements to the game throughout Early Access have done much to ensure penalties/drawbacks for overly zealous expansion, but it’s undoubtedly still an absolute necessity for a winning strategy.
In addition to this, Star Ruler 2 employs a predominantly macro-managed empire building system. While larger decisions about where to expand and when the timing of colonization is right are evident in gameplay, the management of individual planets is not. Most of the planets under an empire’s control will serve as nothing more than hollow shells to be stripped of resources for the sake of developing others. Planets begin at Level 0 and gradually progress toward Level 5 as their population grows, a direct result of the importation of an increasingly diverse set of resources from lesser-developed planets. Thus, eXpansion in the title primarily becomes a launching pad into eXploitation or eXtermination, and the uniqueness of this particular X is somewhat swallowed up by others.
That said, this largely comes down to a preference in 4X playstyle over a failure on the game’s part to provide a solid mechanic. The eXpansion mechanic itself is executed well, is an easy process to manage, and fits the game’s style to a tee. In fact, with such an ambitious scope, it’s hard to imagine a suitable micro-management system that would be entirely feasible in real-time on this scale.
One of the true highlights of eXpansion in Star Ruler 2 are “megaconstructions” – massive structures, unlocked through appropriate research, that provide a range of significant bonuses and boons to the player’s empire. Megaconstructions are formed from ore mined directly from asteroids and come in various forms including the Star Forge (providing labor/production bonuses) and the Artificial Planetoid (why seek out existing worlds when you can build your own?). These advances culminate in the opportunity to build the gargantuan, and incredibly powerful, Ringworlds.
Overall, the eXpansion mechanic in Star Ruler 2 is very enjoyable. The range of resources and interesting artifacts to discover, as well as the continuing development of one’s empire, is enough to keep players interested in widening their borders, but allows little breathing room for those who prefer the slower approach.
eXploit: Herein lies the crux of Star Ruler 2. If eXploration and eXpansion are mid-level management, then eXploitation is the head honcho, the big cheese, the top dog…OK, too far? You get the point.
Star Ruler 2 utilizes two interlinked resource systems working in tandem: one empire-wide, another planet-based. On the empire level, players can make use of money, energy (for activating discovered artifacts that provide special bonuses), research, diplomatic influence, and defense and labor (determining the rate of construction). Each of these empire-wide resources is acquired through the use of “pressure,” the game’s system for generating pools of resources through the acquisition and eXploitation of planets.
On the planetary level, there are a multitude of varied resources available. Some are Level 0 resources and can be considered the fundamentals (such as types of food, or water), while others fall higher on the level scale and subsequently provide better bonuses in terms of pressure for corresponding empire-wide resources or the development of other planets.
As noted earlier, planets begin at Level 0 and require the importation of resources from other colonized worlds to grow. For a planet to become Level 1, for example, it requires the importation of 1 water and 1 food resource from another planet, either found in its own system or elsewhere. Then, as it moves to Level 2, it can gain access to Level 1 resources from another planet, thus increasing pressure in the empire-wide pool as a result of access to the new resource.
The resource management system is indeed the most complex system in the game and, in many ways, Star Ruler 2 could be considered an economic management simulation as much as a 4X strategy game. While it’s certainly hard to explain adequately, the system is actually surprisingly easy to pick up in-game. Helpful tooltips for planets show which resources are required for a planet to level-up, and the game offers the option to automatically import the needed resources for a planet to level up as they become available. This becomes a necessity in late-game when players have so many interconnected worlds, its near impossible to keep track of what is being imported/exported and to where.
I stated earlier in this review that it’s not possible to build a tall empire in Star Ruler 2. While that is true in a sense (players will often have to maintain control of large swathes of territory), it doesn’t paint the entire picture. With the constraints of the economic system and the availability of resources, players can expect to only have a handful (rather than hundreds) of top-level powerhouse planets. Strategic thinking comes into play early on in this aspect as players decide which planets to grow, and which solely to exploit.
In other 4X titles, I have found myself caring about the colonies/cities I build. I invest heavily in their development and in the decision-making progress about the next upgrade or building to queue. In Star Ruler 2, this wasn’t the case. Although certainly possible, it just never felt worth it to actively spend time building on any of my smaller planets. They became nothing more than a means to an end; entirely expendable in my pursuit of galactic domination. As I mentioned earlier, this became a drawback for me. Not a major one, but a drawback nonetheless and the game lost a little of its sparkle after playing for a while when I came to the realization that I didn’t care about my empire all that much. Oh well, at least total obliteration of my enemies was still a viable option.
eXterminate: In Star Ruler 2, conquest is the order of the day. You wouldn’t be much of a ruler if it were otherwise, would you?
The methods by which you achieve domination can vary, but ultimately, this is a combat-driven game and it is all the better for it. Let’s unpack the systems that make that conquest possible:
Build lots of big ships, engage in battle, eliminate your opponent. It’s a tried and true formula, and a surefire path to victory in Star Ruler 2. As with other aspects of the game, combat is no small potatoes. Using a simple point/click approach, the majority of combat occurs automatically when one fleet meets another, allowing players to sit back and watch the action unfold on a massive scale.
Players shouldn’t expect graphically-intense gameplay in combat (we’re talking thousands of ships in battle), but Blind Mind Studios have done a great job of making these space battles look amazing, and truly fun to watch unfold. Lasers flash and missiles dart across the screen, explosions spread throughout the enemy fleet (well, you hope so) and small fighter-size vessels (support ships) zip back and forth around the deadly, but slow-moving behemoths that are the flagships. Several sets of ship designs are available and add a distinctive polish to the close-up view of combat – especially impressive from a three-man team that readily admit artwork wasn’t their biggest priority. All in all, combat is best described as…epic.
Although combat itself is a mostly hands-off affair, the preparation for it is not, thanks to a comprehensive ship-design system. Unlike the unnecessarily restrictive design systems in other 4X games (see: Lords of the Black Sun), Star Ruler 2 allows players a significant amount of customization options and varied hull designs. Simply pick your hull size and fill its hexes to your heart’s content with power systems, engines, weapons and other necessary components. Rather than blindly march into battle, the design tool also lets players create support ships with specific roles, ultimately affecting how they behave in combat. There are 7 different preset behaviors to select from, including the Brawler (downright gloves-off fighting) and the Artillery (long-range targeting from behind friendly lines). Players can design their custom ships with these eventual roles in mind.
As with most aspects of this game, it is abundantly clear that the developers put a lot of thought and work into creating a functional, balanced ship design system that players will love. Additionally, although I didn’t personally try this, Star Ruler 2 also offers the option to share ship designs with the community and incorporate others into your own game. Nifty.
All that said, for players who really enjoy the nitty gritty of combat mechanics, Star Ruler 2 may still fall a little short. There has to be a price for conducting space battles on such a massive scale, and that price is the sacrifice of direct control beyond simply clicking on where the fleet should move next and which enemy to engage. For me, this is a fair trade-off, but not one that every player will ultimately be happy with.
As I noted, Star Ruler 2 is a combat-driven title, and the diplomacy system is no exception. Based around a dynamic card system, players vie with opponents for control of systems, engage in spying and sabotage, and compete for prestigious honors (such as housing the Galactic Senate) that will provide a substantial boon for their empire.
Each card played has an Influence value (one of the empire-wide resources), so players must choose wisely in how they interact with the other empires, lest they lack the influence to win out on a key negotiation that sways the game in favor of an opponent. With cards like Spy, Sabotage and Bribe, its clear that diplomacy in Star Ruler 2 is all about gaining the direct advantage over opponents, and not trying to create one, big happy galactic family.
Given the random nature of the card system, diplomacy is a fun alternative to out and out combat, and allows for more diversity than the standard “this for that” fare of other 4X titles.
Seven species, complete with their own lore and unique challenges, are available to the player (as well as the option for race customization). This brings an interesting dynamic to the eXterminate phase of the game, as different races require different tactics or playstyles.
The Terrakin present the standard style of gameplay for Star Ruler 2 and are still my personal favorite, but players can also take on the task of governing races such as the Hoonan (a Borg-esque race of cyborgs interlinked by mainframes, whose fleets are powerful when near a mainframe, but weakened when further away) or the Feyh (religious fish-heads whose deity demands the building of altars on some worlds, shrines on ships, and the sacrifice of resources in exchange for population).
All in all, Star Ruler 2 presents some dynamic and interesting options for combat that most players will undoubtedly enjoy.
eXperience: I must admit to a healthy dose of skepticism when I first played Star Ruler 2 in Early Access on Steam. I had never played the original and knew little about the game itself. Placeholder races and rough-around-the-edges mechanics are to be expected, but I just wasn’t convinced. The foundations were there, but could this title ever go beyond a time-filler?
If I haven’t made it clear prior to this point, the answer is a resounding yes.
Of all the aspects of Star Ruler 2 I enjoyed, it is the game’s complexity that keeps me returning to it. Each playthrough unveils new levels of depth and strategy, and the fact that there are several important areas of the game I haven’t expounded upon at length (ship design, the research grid, multiplayer, the Remnant, map styles) should give you an indication of just how much detail has been poured into this title.
Despite its complexity, Star Ruler 2 is relatively easy to pick up. The tutorial is straightforward and helps new players master the basics quickly, and the vast majority of the more complex processes can be automated. It would be very easy for a game of this depth to be bogged down in repetitive clicking, but Blind Mind Studios succeeds in adequately balancing the manual and automated processes at the right times in the game.
Additionally, the title achieves something incredibly difficult to do in a grand-scale game of this nature: balancing strategy against outright aggression. While combat is still the focus, players can’t simply rush the map without facing severe penalties that will ultimately cripple them. Also, the range of unique factors that come in to play with each race results in a situation in which no one strategy works every time, and players must adapt to the environments and opponents around them continually in any given game.
The AI is more than competent in providing a challenging experience. In my early attempts at the game, it was not uncommon for me to think I was doing pretty well with my empire. I had access to plenty of resources, had begun the task of building a strong fleet and was leveling up like nobody’s business. Reality hit, however, when I encountered the AI and discovered it was thoroughly thrashing me in every regard. Strategy is, as I’ve noted, critical to this game, but the AI leaves little room for lengthy decision making processes (of course, you can always pause). It keeps players consistently on their toes and making the tough choices. Do I expand here or there? Should I research this or that? Star Ruler 2 is a definite test of a player’s 4X mettle.
For many 4X titles, complexity results in a lengthy decision-making process. For a single-player game, this isn’t usually a problem as long as the player has the attention span to make it through a full game. Star Ruler 2 offers a multiplayer experience for up to 28 players – a mammoth undertaking in the 4X world. While I haven’t yet had a full multiplayer experience, I have had the opportunity to watch a live stream of several over the course of the game’s development. The balance between complexity and automaticity is evident in that Star Ruler 2 allows for a 4X multi-player that is large in scope, but fast moving enough to ensure players can actually play through a game (granted, a few sittings may be required).
Dallin’s (Kearon) Additional Perspective:
Star Ruler 2 has been a pleasant surprise and a blast to play. While I am far from mastering the game, Blind Mind Studios has put together something that is both unique and enjoyable. Empires grow wide rather than tall as you attempt to colonize dozens of star systems (or hundreds depending on the scale of the game).The process of exporting specific resources needed to allow a world to “level up” might seem simplistic but is more enjoyable than I would have thought. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the diplomacy system, which is very different than what is found in most 4X games. This critical difference, however, provides a more satisfying way to wrest control from your opponents.
The combat system allows for extensive ship customization which is great, but overall I felt combat was less in-depth than I would have wanted. Large battles are breathtaking and beautiful to watch but lack variety outside of a few different weapon types. This is more of a critique rather than a failure of the game design since warfare is required to achieve victory.
Overall, Star Ruler 2 brings a number of fresh and enjoyable mechanics to the RTS/4X genre. While the game may seem shallow on the surface, it is one of those rare times that first impressions are deceiving. I honestly cannot wait to sink many more hours into this game, further exploring its distinct races and, as always, finding one more stinking food planet.
Rob’s (DevilDog) Additional Perspective:
In memory, never before have such bold and unique mechanics worked in such a cohesive manner. Usually, when so many unique ideas are presented, something falls apart in the execution. Blind Mind Studios, against all of the odds of genre past precedent, managed to not only make the game mechanics cohesive, but extremely fun.
The diplomacy, the economy, the planet management, the unique races and play styles, and the research grid are all presented in unique ways that certainly go against the grain, but are all still relatively intuitive enough, and certainly deep enough, to keep you coming back.
Does it have flaws? Yeah, sure. Personally, I’d love to see a bit more personality in its universe through random encounters and the inclusion of flavor text for alien races that is displayed as I play a dastardly “Annex System” influence card against them and subsequently win the vote. However, these are just “icing on an awesome cake” items that while I hope and pray see the light of day in SR2, don’t necessarily detract from an otherwise very fun experience. I’d also like to see a stronger AI, but that’s only after nearly 40 hours with it, as the first 30 or so had me losing to the AI regularly (the AI is getting better though and with the game reaching 1.0, I’ve seen significant improvements in system defense).
I personally don’t think you can spend $25 on a better game in the genre right now. I can see myself spending hundreds of hours with this one and its stellar multiplayer performance will certainly see to that. Just buy it. You won’t regret it and, even if it’s not your exact cup of tea, you’re still supporting a great independent studio.
TL;DR: Star Ruler 2 expertly balances complexity in gameplay with an intuitive, easy to pick up system for players. Grandiosity is the order of the day in most aspects of the title, but players won’t get bogged down with micro-management, thanks to the game’s smart automation. Despite having some drawbacks, in the form of a largely hands-off approach to planetary management and an overemphasis on eXploitation, Star Ruler 2 is nonetheless a worthy entry into the 4X genre whose fast paced, detail-oriented management systems, and epic space battles are sure to please almost any strategy fan.
You might like this game:
- If you enjoy games with considerable depth and complexity
- If you prefer grand strategy over micro-management of gameplay
- If pausable real-time strategy is where it’s at for you
You might not like this game:
- If you enjoy high levels of control over game systems, especially planetary management
- If graphically rich environments are an absolute must for your enjoyment of a game
- If you largely choose titles with very little combat focus
Davey played 44 hours of Star Ruler 2 on an AMD A10-6700 3.7 GHz processor with 16GB DDR3 RAM and AMD HD8670D graphics on Windows 8.1 64-bit.