Star Command Review: Lasers Still Make Cool Noises In Space

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Just a little something I’ve cooked up while writing all those anime reviews, for some variety. Quick info: it’s a mobile game currently available for iOS with the Android version available at a later date. Also added, a short guide to the game handily hidden in a different tab to prevent spoiling the game. With that said, let’s get it on!

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C’mon, tap the screen already!

Right, so it’s a spaceship simulator type game on the i-devices now is it? A sort of FTL wannabe on the app store? Well, one thing you have to keep in mind early on is that Star Command is not a roguelike game. It does have permadeath (explained later) but there the similarities end. But enough of me rambling, let’s get cracking and see what’s inside this game! Also note that I didn’t Kickstart this game (didn’t know of Kickstarter at the time) so this review will be from a non-backer’s point of view.

Story

Well, how shall I put it… Star Command’s story is somewhat straightforward. You are part of Earth’s space squadron known as Star Command and being new to the fleet you’re first tasked with some minor missions usually revolving investigating strange energy readings and the like. Things quickly ramp up as in one of the missions you’re caught with your pants down literally and have to flee for your life. I won’t spoil it any further here but the story does involve a couple of plot twists and though predictable as they may be, they do their job well enough. Still can’t stop my eyes rolling upwards at the reveal though.

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Yes, hello commander. You can open your eyes now, the battle’s over…

Also included are some dialogue options between yourself and whoever else you happen to meet in whatever sector of space you’re in. While these add some flavour to the lore and the world of Star Command, there are no amiable solution to them. At least so far I’ve tried, every option will lead you to battle. Not that I’m complaining much as the battles tend to be fun (more on this later), but it is sort of disappointing to find that the only alien species that won’t attack you on site is one that practices pacifism or something like that. What if they didn’t? Would they have attacked your fleet just like everyone else you meet? In any case, my point here would be that it may have been nice to have branching paths regarding different alien races depending on what you say and thus having a much more significant impact of the story. As it is, the story remains linear with minor changes depending on what you say/do (e.g. having a more difficult time fighting from angering the enemy or having to babysit and protect a stowaway).

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The first dialogue scene in-game. Want a tip here? For an easier fight don’t be a self-righteous, immature brat.

Gameplay

Ah, the meat of the game so to say. If this game had brittle bones from having a relatively weak story, then it is compensated by having… thinking about it this sort of comparison doesn’t seem appropriate. Weird more like. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the game is fun.

When you begin, you are given a spacecraft and told to build some stuff. The choices are separated into three categories: Weapon rooms, Utility rooms and Engineering rooms (my own naming convention for the Red, Blue and Yellow rooms respectively). Also you’ll be told to hire a crew and asked to assign them to whatever room you like. After that’s done you’re dumped into battle where you can see how the game creates a form of real-time simulator time-management strategy. Weapons and skills like dodging and shields are activated by waiting for their meter to fill then clicking on their buttons. Quite a number of these require ammo that is generated by the rooms itself and as the rooms can only hold two of its kind of ammo, one aspect of the game is managing the creation of new ammo with their constant consumption through vital skills and attacks.

Two rooms are visible here

Two rooms are visible here, the Dodge Generator and the Shield Generator. The tokens seen are ammo required to carry out each of the room’s skills.

Also clicking on a weapon button doesn’t let you do a ‘fire and forget’ sort of malarky. Oh no, the game instead pauses while a window pops up with a mini-game that changes depending on the weapon chosen. I hope you have your reflexes warmed up as these require good timing to pull off well… and you definitely want to pull these off well as they are your only means of damaging the enemy’s ship! This has the potential to become very very annoying very fast, but so far I played I found the heart-pumping action lots of fun when compared to the apathetic action of simply clicking a button to damage the enemy. Sure I do have a couple of bad runs, but none too detrimental that I cry in frustration and throw my phone away. My point is: the weapon mini-games can be tough but insofar as I can tell they are not broken. Practice is needed that much is for sure.

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Timing the presses to the circles can be a bit tricky, but with practice you’ll hit the three circles in perfect succession.

There comes a point in the game where the enemies can’t be bothered to wait for your ship to blow up from the outside. So they beam squads of soldiers into your ship once your shields are down to blow it up from the inside. Repelling these intruders require you to take control of whatever crew you can spare and direct them ala RTS-style down corridors in an attempt to fend off these attackers. This particular function adds a whole new dimension to the game. In addition to managing the ammo token upkeep and the weapon games now you have to keep an eye on the interior of the ship and try to minimise casualties.

The crew members are divided into three categories much like that of the rooms. Those in red are weapons specialist and are your main line of defense. Garbed in blue are effectively your medics and the yellow dressed ones are engineers who repair damaged parts of the ship. You will want to be careful during these sequences as a dead member of your crew remains dead after the battle is over. During the more intense missions, it is not uncommon to see tactics like reassigning crew members in the middle of a battle just to have more defenders who can shoot back as opposed to repairmen who sit around idly doing nothing much. Also another thing to note is death by vacuum. If the ship sustains enough damage, the hull will be breached and in that section a gaping hole will be present that will suck anyone who wanders by out into space making navigation even more tricky. Boosting the shields will seal the hull allowing engineers to repair the damage, but again it is a matter of juggling priorities. Just one mistake…

A team of defenders attempt to fend off the insectoid intruders.

A team of defenders attempt to fend off the insectoid intruders.

Sending an engineer to repair damages to my ship.

Sending an engineer to repair damages to my ship.

Once you’ve won your battle, you receive tokens and your crew receives experience points. The tokens you received can be used to hire more crew members, build more rooms if you got the space or more importantly upgrade your existing rooms. The upgrades are really useful ranging from extending the shield threshold limit to delay direct physical damage for longer to reducing the time taken to produce ammo tokens for a particular room. Grinding via revisiting defeated sectors is then a mid-game priority to max your crew and fully upgrade your ship. Regarding the crew, the experience points they gain allows them to eventually level up and increase their skill levels in their related speciality as well as learn skill.

Now one of my biggest gripes of this game is that there does not seem to be a lore section that explains what these particular skills are. You use them when they appear at the bottom of your screen, sure. But it is through inference and trial and error that one learns what these skills do. For example, most red-clothed crew members learn a skill marked with a cross-hair. In the heat of battle I press it hoping it’ll do something useful but I struggle to see any major impact in the fight. It is only once I leveled my ship and crew up to end-game-level and visited older sectors to bully the weaker enemies that I could examine what that skill does. Pressing it increases the attack range of that character, which would probably had been useful HAD I KNOWN WHAT IT WAS to begin with.

I’m sorry that I may be old-fashioned, but I prefer some explanation of skills or at the very least the skill’s name, especially in this kind of game. That goes for a lot of the lore in the game, stuff that gets mentioned once or twice then tossed away almost never to be mentioned or cropping up as an obscure abbreviation that you’ve forgotten. Surely an in-game library isn’t too difficult to add in? A simple one would do, no need for any visual effects of any sort really.

The buttons

The buttons at the bottom left to right are as follows: Return to Room, Reassign Room and Use Skill(?). From the icon I fully expect my character to don a blue leotard with red spandex punching the lights out of those ant aliens. He doesn’t.

Just a short note to end this section; while the room choices do add a strategic depth of sorts to the game there just aren’t enough rooms to diversify one’s playing style, in particular the weapon rooms seem stuck at three choices. This may change as you unlock harder modes perhaps but so far I’ve played there seems to be a limited number of choices available. Something to keep in mind.

Music, Art and Everything in Between

As I write this, I had to turn the app on to remember what the music was like. Not a particularly great start then, especially when you consider the fact that I can still remember Shovel Knight’s trailer theme song… the trailer for lords sake! It is legendary and you will listen to it. Now. I’ll wait for you to catch up… Done? Good. Catchy isn’t it? Ermm… I may have gone a bit overboard here, haha!

Ahem, anyway please do not misunderstand. While Star Command’s music lack memorability, it is very fitting for its settings and adds to the atmosphere. The battle song crystalises the tension you feel while trying to multi-task your way through to victory. The exploration background music are also lovely invoking a sense of lonely exploration in the player as your journey through the game. It’s just that despite all that, once you close the app that’s kinda it. The music will still be there once you revisit the app, but apart from that it will be numbered appropriately and filed away in the deep crevasses of your mind. In contrast something like the example in the paragraph above has shortcuts made on your inner desktop and several extra copies made as posters and displayed on the windows of your mind.

The art direction of Star Command is an amalgamation of great pixel art with gorgeous digital backgrounds. While one can never get enough of pixel art I believe, I wonder if perhaps too many games are taking this approach rather flippantly. By which I mean: “You know what would make our game sell more? Pixel art!” rather than “I think using pixel art with fit the theme of the game and I believe it will enhance the experience.” Still, Star Command is great game and the usage of pixel art is well implemented in the game making it a lovely game to see and play through.

An example of one of the lovely scenes you can come across in the game.

An example of one of the lovely scenes you can come across in the game.

Absolutely love this particular screencap that I've used it twice already!

Absolutely love this particular screencap that I’ve used it twice already!

Oh right, before I forget; Controls. The game (obviously) uses the touch screen for everything. There isn’t any virtual d-pad of any sort so controlling individual crew members boils down to touching them and the location you want to move them to. Now I have yet to play this on the iPad so I can’t say much about it there, but on the iPhone 5 in the middle of battles it can be a little annoying when you’re trying to move your squad down a corridor to fend off intruders. It’s usually alright but I find myself more than once accidentally moving my units somewhere else entirely, possibly due to the small screen size and more likely because I was panicking and trying to patch up a hull breach. Besides the RTS part of battles, everything else regarding controls works properly and feels natural.

Summary

Overall, I like Star Command. It’s a game light on story but tops it up with really fun and frantic gameplay. The battles are genuinely difficult later in the game and unless you train and prepare yourself well, the Game Over screen will be your best friend. Also, one way of describing this game would probably be along the lines of a battle simulator on borad a spaceship. It’s not rogue-like nor is it like a usual simulation game so that’s probably the best description I can come up with… though I expect others have come up with better ones.

As of writing I have played through roughly four to five hours and am now in the middle of my second playthrough where I am going (I believe) the unlocked second tier of difficulty with a bigger ship. So far using the strategy I’ve developed through my first playthrough things are going swimmingly. However I do expect the difficulty curve to hit an exponential increase someway midway through so I’m grinding tokens to level up for that now. Anyway, the breakdown:

Pros
  • Lovely pixel art.
  • Great battles with many things to keep you on your toes.
  • Controls well mostly, with little niggles in the RTS sections.
  • It’s just plain fun to commandeer a spaceship. C’mon, admit it!
Cons
  • Linear story, has potential for greater player involvement in story.
  • Lack of explanation of parts of the game, like skills. Could benefit from an in-game library/lore section.
  • Story! Diplomacy! Negotiations! Where are they?!
  • A bit short.
  • Also lack of weapon/utility variety and quantity.

Verdict: For two quid (or three dollars if you’re American) you’re getting a game with an immensely fun battle system involving taking control of your own spaceship and crew. If you like the sound of that than go right ahead and hit purchase. Seriously, you would think the mish-mash of genres in the battle section will throw this game off into bizzaro territory, but it works. It really does and because it somehow does it is fun to play. And that is why despite the relatively poor story features the game sports, I believe this game deserves an 8/10.

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Gameplay Guide

Rather than take you through each mission, I shall outline the general flow of combat and also what to concentrate on during the cooldown period between battles. Note that all of these tips comes from my playthrough of Star Command and should allow you to finish the game at least once. First off, some tips regarding gameplay:

  1. Learn the Weapon minigames! They aren’t too difficult and since they are the only way to damage your opponent’s spacecraft, you might as well learn how to do so efficiently.
  2. Upgrade early when possible! In particular prioritise upgrades involving token generation and skill/weapon recharge rates. Of course this is not to say ignore crew recruitment, but rather a reminder not to ignore upgrading rooms for crew members.
  3. Learn to manage resources! A lot of skills and a particular weapon in the game uses ammo tokens in order to activate. The maximum number of any particular type of ammo token is 2 so get into a habit of recharging your ammo everytime you use one up.
  4. To return crew members to their original rooms, click the U-turn button that appears when they are selected! Something that can be easily missed, this is a shortcut as opposed to you manually panning the screen to find the rooms that they might be assigned to and moving them there.
  5. Don’t panic! During some of the later battles, you may feel overwhelmed with the amount of enemy intruders waltzing onto your ship. I find that a dedicated team of 4 soldiers backed up with 2 medics help resolve these situations quickly. Also for hull damage that result in vaccum breach, do ensure you have shield tokens ready to be spent to seal the hull for repairs.

Early-Game Strategy or ‘Ship=Building 101′

So you’ve entered the world of Star Command, Welcome! Bit lost? Ensure you have tooltips (or as normal people like to call it: the tutorial) enable so that you don’t miss much your first time. That’s something very obvious I know, but still important to keep in mind regardless. When building up you space craft, it seems like your ship will only allow for two weapon rooms (even in the larger versions) so you have a choice of 2 among the 3 available: Machine Gun, Laser Cannon and Proton Torpedo. Laser Cannon, when mastered, has the highest probability of executing prefect shots. Machine Gun feels powerful with the large amount of bullets it throws out, but that depends heavily on how well you perform in its rather tricky minigame. It is highly unlikely you’ll hit a perfect run on its mini-game the first time through but with practice you can dish out relatively high amounts of damage. Lastly the Proton Torpedo. The daddy of the three when it comes to firepower, it also requires an ammo token to fire. The wait is worth it though as a perfect completion of its minigame will ensure a sizable chunk of the opponent’s health gone in a heartbeat. My advice? Either the Laser Cannon or the Machine Gun together with the Proton Torpedo as your second weapon. You can opt for a more regular output of damage by choosing both machine gun and laser, but the torpedo’s mini-game is simple and allows you to fire anywhere from three to five devastating missiles. Managing its resource is easy if you remember to keep producing ammo everytime you use one up. Protip: click the token menu to see what ammo tokens you have at the moment.

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The Laser Cannon room. This will require 3 red tokens to build, not including its three possible upgrades.

The Laser Cannon's minigame.

The Laser Cannon’s minigame. Tap the circles when the yellow dot reaches the red circle. Timing here is important and determining quickly which dot end first is a skill that should be learnt as you play on.

The Machine Gun room.

The Machine Gun room. Requires two red tokens and one yellow to build as you can see.

The Machine Gun's minigame.

The Machine Gun’s minigame. The toughest of the three I felt. Tap each time the red dot lands exactly on the red circle. The speed of the dot increases with each revolution making it extremely difficult to obtain a perfect run here.

This mini game doesn't end here as you're required to pump out whatever bullets you stock up by rapidly tapping at buttons that are more or less labelled 'FIRE'.

The Machine Gun mini game doesn’t end there as you’re required to pump out whatever bullets you stock up by rapidly tapping at buttons that are more or less labelled ‘FIRE’ within a time limit. The visual result is quite satisfactory.

Keeping the Proton Torpedo fueled is easy as long as you don't forget your rhythm.

Keeping the Proton Torpedo fueled is easy as long as you don’t forget your rhythm.

The Proton Torpedo's minigame.

The Proton Torpedo’s minigame. Tap at the right time to stop the vertical and horizontal lines to create a crosshair at the different circled locations. Keep calm and this section should be a cakewalk.

As for the Blue utility rooms and Yellow engineering ones, the initial ship you start with only have room for two more besides the additional Yellow Engine room. Now I find that out of the two initial choices for the Blue rooms the Shield Generators are hands down more vital to your ship than the Medical Room. The Medical Room heals your crew members when they step inside. Handy yes, but when weighed with the benefits of the Shield Generator, it gets shoved aside rather quickly in terms of usefulness. The Shield Generator allows you the use of a skill to recharge the shields of your ship in battle. This means that after an attack and your shields are critical, pop on the skill and watch your shield level recharge faster than you can say ‘Ferret’. Recharging the shields also has the benefit of closing up hull breaches allowing engineers to repair the damage safely and preventing unnecessary vaccum death. Also if I’m not mistaken, with shield up it can prevent unwanted intrusion from enemy landing parties. Once the shield dips below a certain threshold and if the enemies’ green bar on top of the screen is filled, the landing party then has the opportunity to attack your ship. TL;DR: Shields are important, so building a shield generator is a no-brainer really.

What happens when you sustain a hit with shields up.

What happens when you sustain a hit with shields up. The shield regenerates but the pace at which it does so isn’t usually quick enough to prevent physical damage to your ship for the next attacks. The blue shield skill regenerates the ships shields all in one go allowing your ship to take another beating safely.

There is only one Yellow engineering room available to be built (not counting the engine room already provided in the ship) and that is the Dodge Generator. While not as crucial as the shields, the Dodge generator is certainly a close second. It provides a skill that requires the generation of its brand of ammo tokens and once activated will prevent your ship from taking damage once its targeted. This allows for a tactic where you switch between dodging an attack and producing a dodge ammo token for one turn, to taking a hit and regenrating shields after the hit while generating the shield ammo token, cycling back to dodging and continuing on ad infinitum or until your enemy ship explodes. I call this the Dodging Shields technique, but whatever its name it is this tactic that will serve you well from the start all the way till the end. I guarantee it. For this reason I ignore the Medical room until your second playthrough where you unlock a larger ship with extra room to build this.

A certain audio cue will play when you see this targeting reticule appear on your ship. This means that a weapon projectile is headed for your ship.

A certain audio cue will play when you see this targeting reticule appear on your ship. This means that a weapon projectile is headed for your ship. Now would be a great time to use that yellow dodge skill if you have the tokens for it.

Mid-Game Tactics or ‘How I Learnt to Love My Crew and Upgrades’.

Self explanatory title. as the game progresses you will encounter more and more battles where you will at the very least get one or two enemy intrusions on borad your ship despite your best efforts at the Dodging Shields, i.e. the RTS parts of the game are inevitably unavoidable. With the introduction of a variety of enemy types, sometimes all present in one boarding party, one has to wonder on how to repel them with little to no casualty. Personally, I have lost one crew member in my initial playthrough through a careless attempt to repair an exposed hull without first pulling up shields resulting in that poor guy getting sucked out into space and one more newbie recruit from being overwhelmed by numerous boarding parties.

A different audio cue will play

A different audio cue will play when this arrow appears. Watch that area for that is where the enemy landing party will appear to wreck havoc on board your ship.

When your crew members a few in numbers initially, don’t be afraid to reassign some engineering people to take the role of red-garbed shooters as a means to bolster your defenses. Leave if possible a minimum of one crew member at their respective rooms to keep them operational. Your attack squad should also have one, if not two blue-clothed medics with them during their fights to keep the health of the crew members topped up. Later on in the game you will max out your crew limit and perhaps have a couple of extra members. Assign all the rooms to have the maximum number of people except the Engine room. Once everywhere else is filled up only then assign people to the engine room. Here, take the four members of the Bridge room. This will be your main defense force. Have them move to the centre of the ship. Add a blue medic to the team during battles (Protip: build the Shield Generator they’ll be residing at directly at the center of the ship) and you should be able to respond quickly to any intrusions on board your ship. If things gets a little too dicey don’t hesitate to add the second blue medic to the team temporarily. One thing to note is that you can’t select the group as a whole and move them together. You will have to select the members and move them individually as quick as you can remembering that the battles are real-time.

My anti-invasion force.

My anti-invasion force. Some of the more intense battles later on will benefit from having a second healer take part. It’s a sacrifice to shield generation but a must if your crew are to survive the intrusion. Oh and spam the crew’s skill when fighting large battles. While I don’t really know what each does (except for that cross-hair one), random clicking of the skills may save your crew member’s life… not that I could tell so far I tried, but hey every little bit helps.

Also as you progress along the campaign, you will want to upgrade your rooms. In particular concentrate first on those with token generation and skill generation. They usually come in the flavour of time reduction which will make managing the Dodging Shields technique bearable especially in later battles. From there, you will want to invest also in the Bridge room’s monitor upgrade that improves your shield threshold for damage. Then everything else. Upgrades will require tokens won from battles and as recruiting crew members use the same tokens, it becomes a matter of personal choice between the two. I went for alternating between recruiting and upgrading. It worked alright I suppose.

See those tokens with I stamped on them? You get those from winning battles.

See those tokens with I stamped on them? You get those from winning battles. The more difficult the battle the more tokens won I believe. Clicking the top right button accesses this screen.

An example of the upgrade screen. Those in a dull grey-bluish colour are upgrades that have not yet been developed.

An example of the upgrade screen. Those in a dull grey-bluish colour are upgrades that have not yet been developed.

The token requirement for hiring crew members.

The token requirement for hiring crew members. Note the multi-colour which indicates that any token colour can be used. This is not the case with building rooms or upgrading them.

End-Game Guide or ‘Onwards for Great Justice!’

Once you got pat down the tactics above, they should serve you well all the way till the last boss. Now I don’t want to spoil things TOO much but for this fight ensure you have (in real life terms) a bit of stamina because the fight can be quite draining to your senses. Still, stick to the strategy given and things should be fine.

Hopefully you see loads of this following the guide!

Hopefully you see loads of this following the guide!

So once the game’s over, that’s it? Well, in comes the medium class vehicles and with them more space including larger rooms that brings about 3 new rooms to consider about: an Armoury where I believe you can equip your crew members with grenades, a larger Medical room that now allows for the resuscitation of those on the brink of death and finally a Sentry room where I believe you can summon robotic sentries to help fight off intruders. I’ve not played enough to know exactly what each room exactly does, but what I intend to do is build the Medical and Sentry rooms. I won’t build the Armoury as for now I’m unsure as to whether friendly fire will be taken into account from that and extending from that whether the ship can be damaged as a result. In contrast, the resurrection function of the new Medical room seems like a useful thing to have tucked away ready as is the extra fire power in form of sentries. Sadly, there are no new weapon rooms so yes, business as usual.

The first few battles in my second playthrough at a higher difficulty rating (at least I believe it is) resulted in victory using the Dodging Shields tactic. I am unsure as to how it will perform later on in the game, here’s hoping it’ll hold up till the end.

I may update this guide depending on whether I get to finishing the game again from where I am now. For now, thank you for reading and enjoy your journey in Star Command!

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