Between the Stars: Alpha Impressions

Between the Stars: Alpha Impressions

Between the Stars has legs. Well, okay, it doesn’t have actual legs, I mean, aside from the crew… But it does have legs in the scope of potential. Potential legs. Erm. I may have gone a bit adrift here… Which is actually pretty apt!

Between the Stars is a space action game with RPG elements which is currently sitting in alpha. It’s gorgeous (though with some curious lighting), well-written and often highly engaging. 

It puts you in charge of a battleship and sets you off chasing side missions whilst working your way down an overarching main story mission. It’s typical RPG fare and you’ll likely be right at home if this type of game even slightly tickles your fancy. Sessions are based on local maps, which make part of the local system map, and you’ll be moving around – chasing signals, killing space pirates; you know, the usual.

It’s third person – well, third ship and it immediately strikes you how good this game can look, especially when warping; my goodness it can be pretty. It’s less pretty when you’re close to large space stations as then you see just how much work the lighting engine is doing when you get up-close to the textures. But it’s largely serviceable, enough that you’ll happily immerse yourself in the game.

I particularly like the crew aspect. You see, the RPG element comes from the (largely text-based) encounters you get during missions. You often have decisions thrown at you and some have genuine consequences given your crew can get injured and even die. There’s also a surprising amount of personality shining through these encounters – when travelling between missions I had a pop-up inform me that my crew were doing some hand-to-hand training in the bay and that I could join in. Cue some interesting dialogue, die rolls (which actually works really well) and some very nice character building. The writing here needs special mention as well: I’m properly actually attached to some of my crew. I love it. The prologue actually surprised me too by making the fate of some of the (never seen) crew members deeply touching.

The overarching story itself is ‘okay’, though I’m only a few hours in and don’t want to judge it too harshly given how good some of the other writing is, and it does enough to provide the forward impetus.

My issue with the game though is the combat, ship movement and tactics (or lack thereof). It’s just not very good. It’s got all the right systems – directional shields, power distribution, special ‘powers/weapons’ with cool-downs etc. Hell, it even appears to have modular damage systems. But throw it all together and each battle boils down to just pummelling ship A until ship A is dust, move to ship B and repeat. There’s no benefit to any of these systems/powerups and the difference between the weapons and modules appear to be largely cosmetic. Sure, I can see certain missiles bypass shields. Some weapons preferentially target shields etc., so all the layers are there, it’s just that they don’t seem to work. I’ve found combat to be pretty boring and barely pay attention when it occurs (which it does a lot).

I think part of the issue is the ship-handling. With space games you need a sense of scale: small ships zipping about dodging between shots/beams. Glass cannons. Large, lumbering battleships trading huge punches across the void. Here though, everything handles similarly, and doesn’t seem to fit in either category. It’s a very hard thing to describe, but it just feels off. It’s also not helped by the ship models all looking incredibly similar – even between factions.

Where does that leave us then? Well, with a game that has legs. There’s enough here to make a genuinely interesting game and I’d argue that most of the hard work is already done, but the given, often boring, needs some fixing. The pacing too needs work as it’s far too prevalent. Fights should have weight and consequence: not just be throwaway.

They also seem to lack consequence. The crew we love so much? Have them hurt/damaged if their ship area is targeted. Interrupt the battle with a ‘you need to vent air from section B to stop a fire – but Bobby-Joe is in there, and he only has 3 days left to retirement’ thing. Or we can get shields back, but it’ll mean Sally gets seriously injured. It needs some weight. I’d also like to see the ships weapons have a real punch. I want to see C-beams glittering off the tannhauser gate. I want to see ships being cleaved. I want it to feel dangerous and for each hit to be meaningful.

Then, sprinkle in some more mission variety. Overarching sub-plots would be very welcome, as well as some varied ship designs and we might be getting there.

As it stands though, I’d wait. There’s enough there for a few hours of fun, but some of the mechanics currently make it hard to recommend. I’ll be keeping an eye on it – there’s some talent behind this game and with some judicious tweaking, it could really have some legs. Like how my whole “leg” gag saw me from the first sentence to the last.

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