While I believe the proper way to begin a review is to start talking about the product itself, there sometimes arises a game with an unfortunate proverbial 800 pound gorilla attached to it. Even though this issue isn’t actually a part of the title itself, there will be a large contingent of people who will ignore everything you say – as if you were an idiot – until you’ve first addressed this other matter. It is to this end that I unfortunately will have to first spend time discussing the troubled development cycle behind Star Command (out now, $2.99), only after which will I be able to review the actual gameplay.
Star Command began its life as a starry-eyed Kickstarter project – all the way back in September of 2011 – that quickly managed to raise a modest $37k, which is pretty good when you consider that the developers were only seeking $20k (nearly double their sought amount). The money did not last long for after the cost of hiring music composers, lawyer fees, taxes, and the heavily underestimated cost of producing backer rewards, there was only about $4k left to actually work on the game with. Still – despite this heavy setback – the dauntless trio soldiered on with Star Command, even if this did mean they would also have to work day jobs in order to keep the stoves burning.
Fast forward to July 2012 and the trio over at Warballoon were again holding a Kickstarter for more funds to finally finish Star Command with, leaving a large number of people rather unamused as the game was originally promised for a release back in December. A part of these additional funds were stated to be used to expand the game’s platform coverage to include a PC/Mac release, something the developers claim they still fully intend to deliver on. As Star Command only just recently came out on the iOS platform, one doesn’t exactly need to do much math in order to figure out that PC edition – which was promised to be delivered back in August of 2012 – didn’t exactly hit its originally promised launch window.
Another fact that left many feeling betrayed is that Star Command was missing some previously mentioned features when it finally released, leading some to feel as if Warballoon had failed to deliver the game they had promised to all of their backers. However – if one pays proper attention – these aforementioned features had always been stated as content that would be added sometime after the title’s initial launch, something the developers have been consistent about. While Warballoon has certainly had some failings in accounting and project delivery date estimations, its not exactly their fault that there was a mass misunderstanding involving matters otherwise clearly spelled out.
Anyways – now that I have proven that I am fully aware that Star Command had a somewhat rocky development cycle – I will reiterate that I am going to henceforth ignore all of that, for a professional reviews games as they actually exist and not by the bumps they experienced during creation.
So, have you ever wondered what it would be like to become Captain James T. Kirk for a day and be in charge of your own interstellar spaceship voyaging the cosmos in search of adventure? While giving commands to engage the hyper drive and fly off to alien planets is all well and good, have you ever given the first bit of thought to just how much work goes into managing the various people running to and fro about a spaceship? If you think it all sounds like child’s play, you might just change your mind when your vessel comes under siege by hostile forces simultaneously assaulting your ship both inside and out!
If you think you are still up for such a challenge, and not deterred in the slightest from boldly going wherever the Federation deems you expendable enough to explore first, then Star Command might be just the game for you.
However – before you can set about to (mis)managing your crew towards success/oblivion – your first order of business is going to be choosing how you appear as a Captain, a tiny little isometric pixelated Captain. To this end Warballoon has provided players with an impressive array of options – especially considering the tininess of the graphics – covering not only the basics, such as gender and hairstyle, but also things such as facial hair. Afterwards you select which of the starter vessels you wish to pilot – as well as its paint job – and you will finally be ready to begin boldly leading a horde of little people towards glory, or perhaps just grisly demises.
From here you will be able to start setting up equipment in any of the empty lots found throughout your spaceship, and afterwards assign your plethora of crewmen to helm the various stations. The room you assign crew members to will determine the color of uniform they are wearing, those assigned to tactical rooms will be given red shirts – those connected to science stations will be wearing blue shirts – and those posted at engineering centers will be outfitted with yellow shirts. While a ship station will only function if the people assigned to it are present – and the crew can be freely reassigned at will – the color someone wears imparts a secondary skill than can be used anywhere: reds can shoot at invaders, blues can heal others (but not themselves), and yellows can put out fires and repair hull damage.
The particulars of ship-to-ship combat are actually fairly straight forward: all of the results that your vessel can take are tied to the room where equipment facilitating said action exists, and you can use that room so long as it isn’t on cool down. As I previously mentioned, none of your ship’s workstations will ever bother to recharge – or even be fireable/activatable – unless at least some of their assigned staff is not presently roaming about the ship (thankfully they will only ever leave the room if you tell them to do so). Where as actions affecting your own vessel will occur the second you press the relevant button, activating a weapon will bring up a mini game that determines how many of your shots hit the mark.
Unlike the other recently released starship crew management simulator – FTL – you don’t actually select specific parts of the opponent’s ship that you’d like to focus your attacks on, or even see the inside of the enemy vessel at all. While you have full control over when your recharge your shields – take evasive actions – and return fire, the heart of Star Command is far more about dealing with the constant boarding parties that your opponents will endlessly beam aboard. Failing to tend to the inside of your ship will see your crewmembers either all shot to pieces by invaders, or sucked out of hull breaches that you didn’t bother to repair quickly enough; of course, focusing too much attention on the invaders will cause you to neglect the enemy ship that is more than happy to cut you in half with laser beams.
Before every ship battle begins – and sometimes afterwards as well – there will be a conversation between your captain and the opposition, often delivered through full screen pixel art cinematics. While there is no such thing in Star Command as a situation that doesn’t end with you being attacked, how you choose to respond during these encounters will often affect what happens in the ensuing battle. Furthermore – whether they affect the terms of a fight or not – these dialogue scenes are almost always extremely hilarious, with things such as your crew proclaiming they weren’t able to stop the Russian Space Zombies from teleporting onboard because the ship’s designers never expected it to be assaulted by such inferior technology.
Speaking of humorous situations, the descriptions of the various rooms that you can build in Star Commander – as well as their respective upgrade options – are all chock full of them. One such upgrade labels itself as the ‘Armstrong Calculator’, and proclaims that the recent discovery of a 20th century invention known as ‘Pen & Paper’ will greatly improve the crew’s mathematical computations. Another description happily proclaims that a scientist gaining the ability to temporarily use area of affect healing is like that one time the Grinch’s heart began growing, followed by lamenting one’s lost childhood.
Anyways, it is quite an enjoyable experience to try and manage the utter madness that goes on inside your ship as sections catch on fire – crew members get sucked out into the vacuum of space – and boarding parties constantly teleport over to harass your efforts. Still – as one might have surmised from that sentence – this is anything but an easy game, and thus is neither for those easily frustrated or bad at simultaneously juggling various elements non-stop. Unlike the vaguely – yet not really – similar FTL, there is absolutely no pause option to be found within Star Command to help you catch your breath and/or better assess a situation (meaning this isn’t, perhaps, the best game for coffee breaks).
Your reward for successfully completing each mission will be a handful of upgrade tokens of various colors, with the specific tokens awarded at the end of a scenario sometimes being affected by what you said before the battle started. While enlisting a new crew member costs only a single token of any color, each outfitted room – as well as all of their potential upgrades – costs a number of very specific tokens. As having a plethora of crew members on hand at all times is a must, lest you be forced take people away from their stations in order to deal with boarders and/or fires, the chief reward for performing well is that players who don’t constantly have crewmembers dying will more easily be able to afford vital ship upgrades.
The game itself is controlled via mouse like tapping gestures throughout, with you either clicking on crew members – locations – or user interface icons in order to interact with things. For the most part this control scheme works flawlessly, although there will sometimes be occasions where Star Command will confuse which crew member you are tapping on (or think you wanted to tap a crew member instead of the room itself). While this can at times be annoying, generally zooming in on the action will generally clear up all such confusion for the game (and the developers have furthermore promised that future updates will help with this matter as well).
With how the game itself plays now covered and out of the way, I would like to take a moment to close this review by discussing the presentation of Warballoon’s Star Command. All of the in-game action is presented via low-res isometric graphics that are reminiscent of Kairosoft’s famous iOS title Game Dev Story, which – although simplistic – has a certain charm to it. Accompanying this is a soundtrack containing over 30 minutes of background music composed by professional artists, ensuring that you are never stuck listening to just one track so long that it drives you bonkers.
iFanzine Verdict: Despite the troubled development cycle that Star Command has experienced, involving more than a few delays along the way, the end result has been a very entertaining title in its own right. The game contains a delightful mixture of isometric pixel-art, a demented sense of humor, and breakneck real-time crew management as you attempt to keep everyone on your team alive. The game can unfortunately sometimes confuse who and/or what you are tapping on when the action is viewed from a zoomed out angle, although this can easily be fixed by zooming in when an area becomes clustered. While the lack of a pause option is a deliberate part of Warballoon’s intentions that Star Command feel like a chaos management simulator, it does mean that game will easily overwhelm many when situations go awry.