The term “hidden gem” often might be used a little bit too loosely for the gaming industry. A lot of games can be gems, but rarely can you say that they are actually hidden, as in hard to find or just generally unknown. Starsector however might very well fall into that definition. A game that deserves an in-depth review solely for the lack of recognition it has received up until now. A mammoth project that is being developed since 2011 and still receives regular updates to this date. And certainly not a small game either, even though it is an Indie Studio project.
Starsector is set in the year of 3126. Humanity has unlocked intergalactic travel by using so-called stargates. It has rapidly grown all over the universe, reaching a golden age that eventually finds an end as these gates stop working. The vast Empire of humanity is split across sectors that have been cut off from each other. Eventually, this lack of inter-galactic travel leads to a dark age. You play approximately 200 years after these gates go dormant. The setting of Starsector is the so-called Persean Sector, that has since brought multiple factions and has effectively evolved (or devolved) into its own civilization.
There is no deeper leading story in Starsector. The whole idea of Starsector is for you to have your own story. It is all about your role inside this (randomly generated) sector that has been cut-off from the rest of civilization and is effectively its own world now. You’re a captain who has just started out with a single ship. The tutorial will be sparse but it will cover the necessities. After that, you are free to roam the sector and set forth on your new adventure.
Traverse the sector in your self-made quest
From now on, you decide on how you want to make a mark on this world. Do you want to smuggle drugs and contraband across the sector and become rich with the dark side of trading? Perhaps you would like to trade legal goods and become a legitimate trader instead. Or you could hunt for pirates, maybe even join one of the many factions Starsector has to offer. Be brave enough and you could become a pirate yourself and lurk in the depths of hyperspace for precious bounty. If that doesn’t sound like enough, only the center of the sector is occupied, while the outer borders are often times devoid of any faction and might offer artifacts and rewards for those courageous enough to go this deep out.
A myriad of ships
You could stay on a single ship, or build up a fleet so big, it could eventually be called an armada. And even then, you will have many choices. You can focus on building a small but powerful strike force full of optimized high-quality ships, or you can just take whatever you get and have this scrappy fleet full of repurposed civilian ships and pirate-modules. The ship-system is one of the core elements of Starsector and it is extremely deep and versatile.
There isn’t just a vast amount of different ships, ship types and ship classes available, every single ship is also completely customizable to a frankly overwhelming amount of degree. Plus, there are some epic ships you can set your sights on, which is usually something I enjoy in this type of game. Gigantic capital class ships that feel like space fortresses at times.
This exceptionally in-depth system is not there only for purposes of immersion and roleplay, it also underlines the combat system of Starsector. It probably won’t come as a surprise to you, that the combat is just as detailed and even complicated as the ship-system.
Combat is handled similarly to games like Mount & Blade. You fly around the map and if you come into a situation that turns into a space battle, you will need to handle that on a different, tactical screen. All of these aforementioned elements of shipbuilding will now heavily affect how you do battle and what strategies and tactics you can implement. Fans of the Sci-Fi Genre and space battles will find details to their heart’s desire on this screen.
You can send out commands to your fleet and target specific ships or plan a certain formation. Furthermore, you will always be able to command the ship that your character is controlling and manually fly it in battle. However, you can also delegate every part of the space battle and effectively let the game handle the battle itself, while only watching. While that is a perfectly reasonable way to deal with combat if that is not your cup of tea, it is obviously not the most ideal. Carefully planning your engages and implementing tactics will always be better, but doing it this still possible and reasonable. For example, I chose this approach for a long time in Starsector, until I felt confident enough to fight some battles myself.
I am not going to try to explain to you the whole specifics of how combat works. It is very complicated and chances are you probably will not remember anything. Just know that it is hard, detailed, and feels very realistic. In addition, once you figure it out, it is going to feel extremely rewarding and like discovering a completely new aspect of the game.
Base building and late game
Whatever path you chose, there will be a time where you might consider settling down and colonizing a planet. Depending on how you have fared with your adventures up until now, your finances could allow you to quickly form the foundations of an empire. You could colonize multiple planets at the same time, speed up development, and help out by bringing in resources and personnel. Maybe you will grow slowly though, have a little outpost for starters that will eventually develop into something bigger.
As it is the case with many games of this sandbox genre, this usually will unfold a new set of rules, gameplay elements, and aspects for you to work with. Suddenly you will have to deal with the envy of other nations and characters depending on how prosperous you become. To name a few threats, pirate fleets, terrorist threats, and inspections from other factions, are what await you. The upside however is, that you will produce goods for yourself, generate more income and eventually be able to produce your own ships. Proper management may very well make you rich and give you the ability to produce the perfectly planned and balanced fleet.
What truly hooked me when I first tried playing Starsector was, how well thought out it all seemed. You can sense that this is a game that has been updated for almost a decade now. Every single feature and element of the game flows into this distinct feeling of being just another captain in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world. Things like having to shut down the transponder so ships cannot identify you as easily when you do some questionable work. Or how you will have to plan trips to outer systems by preparing enough fuel, perhaps even bringing a tanker with you. And in this article, I barely even mentioned a fraction of what this game has to offer.
Starsector is a game for lovers of the Sci-Fi genre. People who enjoy sandbox games and do not want to have their hand held through a game. It’s deep and complicated, has a lot to offer, and may very well suck you in immediately. Caution is advised as these kinds of games can be very detrimental to your time management. I have found myself spending way too many hours in some playthroughs.
It is most importantly, an absolutely great game, even in 2020. I can wholeheartedly endorse Starsector as a true hidden gem in the sandbox and sci-fi genre. Try it out!
Mind, that Starsector is not available on Steam or any platform. You will have to buy it from the developers’ homepage: https://fractalsoftworks.com/. The process is fairly simple and uncomplicated and you will get your key and an easy way to download the game. Starsector is technically still in Early Access but it definitely feels like a full-fledged game already.