Stars in Shadow is a stylized indie 4X in the same vein as the classic Master of Orion II and is being developed by two people, Sven Olsen and Jim Francis. Jim, also known as Arioch, is a well known web comic artist responsible for Outsider, a science fiction comic that’s definitely worth a look. Stars in Shadow (SiS) looks to combine the best of Master of Orion II with some of the underrated classic, Ascendancy. Gameplay will be similar to the style of MoO2, while the game’s races will feature unique active skills much like a hybrid pairing of those in Ascendancy and the racial bonuses found in Sword of the Stars. Currently in early Beta, SiS is trying to give us what we have been asking for all along, a MoO2 successor.
You start the game by choosing from one of seven different factions, whether it be one of the two groups of space-faring dinosaurs, the Ashdar, the waterbug-like Orthin, or the Phidi, a race of space seahorses and my personal favorite. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses and will eventually have their own unique active skills as mentioned above. You can hear more about those skills in our recent podcast interview with Sven and Jim here.
Each of the races bear unique art styles for their ships, space stations and various advisors. Arioch’s art is on full display here and for good reason: it’s fantastic. The artwork in SiS creates an aesthetically pleasing look that draws you in and really sets itself apart.
The gameplay begins much like it does in Master of Orion. You’re provided with a scout ship, a colony ship, and a trade ship set to explore and colonize your surrounding systems. SiS is a turn-based affair that has you set your fleets’ destinations, select your first research topic, the first production focus, and progress time with the end turn button. Initially, you press the end turn button more than a few times in quick succession as you get the galactic ball rolling.
Soon enough, you’re exploring surrounding systems with multiple planets orbiting their stars and eventually running in to some obnoxious pirates or your AI competition.
Travel between systems is as simple as it gets. You pick your a fleet and point them in the direction you’d like them to go. You are provided with an ETA, which is usually several turns. The distance you can travel is limited by the amount of fuel that your ships carry. All in all, a simple design first introduced by the MoO series that works just as well today as it did back then.
Once you find those pirates, or your competition, the battles begin. Combat occurs very much like the aforementioned MoO games, taking place in a turn-based tactical manner. Each side takes turns maneuvering and firing upon the enemy with the various weapons it has researched and defending itself with the selection of armor and shields it has discovered.
You can’t fight without first producing ships and those ships are built at your colonies in a similar fashion to other 4X games. Producing ships requires industrial infrastructure in the form of factories. You can build a variety of ships and buildings, and can also choose to set your focus on various resource outputs. Each of the structures you can build are all well drawn and offer the eye candy that anyone familiar with Arioch’s colorful art will expect. Planet infrastructure promises to be a simpler affair than most games of this type, with a limited number of slots available for building improvements on each planet. You decide which types of buildings fill that limited space. Want that planet to be a super producer of ships? Build a bunch of factories and industry boosting buildings!
Research currently appears as a list of various technologies that you’re capable of developing, with the right column displaying the various effects that each technology provides. You’ll notice the components that the subject unlocks and you’ll be informed of which technological advancement each research discovery leads to. It’s already pretty understandable, if not a little unwieldy as there is bit too much clicking to be had, and it does a good job of providing the information you need to make a decision right for your strategy.
Unlike it’s MoO2 inspiration, however, opening up one branch of research in SiS does not preclude you from researching another branch on the same level. Thankfully, that mechanic has been excluded for the moment.
The feature that will set SiS apart the most is the eventual inclusion of active skills unique to each race, much like those found in the classic 4X, Ascendancy. While not yet implemented, the skills will allow each faction to do various things that no other race can. For example, the slaver race, the Gremak, will be able to use a distortion field that makes them difficult to target in combat while the Orthin, the underwater “Pillbug” race, will have the ability to store incoming damage to use as a high-powered attack on a later turn.
Diplomacy is another feature not yet included in the beta, but it promises to be an important part of the game. The standard fare of 4X diplomacy should be present and Sven and Jim hope to make it immersive through flavor text and ambassadors and their respective races acting in a manner you’d expect them to.
Stars in Shadow promises to have all of the features you’d want in a 4X game and has excellent visuals to accompany the solid mechanics. Though it still has some ways to go, what is there is very playable and it leaves a good overall impression. Sven and Jim are obviously both very talented, so we’re very hopeful that with the right amount of time – and perhaps funds – Stars in Shadow could actually become the modern Master of Orion that we’ve all been looking for. You can now preorder SiS for $19.99, which provides instant access to the beta, but in the case you’re still not sure, check out this quick preview video we made touching on some of the gameplay. Once Ashdar Games is ready, we’ll be sure to include more footage and possibly Let’s Plays, too!