Someone once said that space is not The Oregon Trail. En route to Mars, or anywhere else off-planet, there’s no pulling over to hunt Buffalo or forage for berries. All we have in the darkness of space is what we bring with us, unless you are playing Fugitive Games’ Into the Stars. In that case, all bets are off.
Try as I might, I can’t come up with a better comparison for Into the Stars than The Oregon Trail…in space…on the heels of a human near-extinction at the hands of an alien menace. So it’s not exactly like The Oregon Trail. Call it a young adult version of The Oregon Trail mixed with a generous helping of Battlestar Galactica. Would-be captains are tasked with relocating humanity’s last ten thousand people to a new home on the planet Titus Nova. An enemy armada, social upheaval within the Ark’s civilian colony, and endless resource shortages stand between humanity and its new home.
Apropos of that last point, let’s talk about the tone of this game. If a person expects to find a “hard” science fiction experience in Into the Stars, they are going to be disappointed. Titus Nova’s solar system is a little too bursting with stars, planets, space anomalies, and non-Newtonian physics for the average internet pedant. Likewise, the way the Ark burns through resources suggests a little too much entropy for a ship capable of executing an FTL jump and keeping 10,000 people alive. On both points, I, personally, don’t care. Sometimes I want to be Kirk.
The art of the Titus Nova system is beautifully rendered. Bully to the great emptiness of what space should look like. I want to fly through moons that have been cracked in half but somehow not completely reduced to smitherines. The constant and unending demand for resources, indicative of design inefficiencies that would make an engineer’s teeth hurt, informs at least half of what makes the game challenging. And even though the mechanics driving the game’s resource management are simple, meeting their demands feels like an achievement.
When Into the Stars shifts into planetary exploration or combat, it starts to feel like something that is in dialogue with Star Trek. Granted much of that feeling has to do with the Ark’s limited command crew pullling double duty on the bridge and in away missions. For example, one can assign a highly skilled medical officer to a mission of mercy with the hope that grateful aliens might offer up resources or new components for the Ark. Yet it is the vicissitudes of skill checks that govern an away mission’s success or failure. Losing the check often means the crewman’s death and the end of their ability to do things like fire lasers or operate shields during combat. To that end, many of a captain’s decisions end up a strange brew of luck versus skill stats weighed against the potential for long-term gains. I found this to be the one area where Into the Stars feels particularly cruel and arbitrary.
The behind the scenes number crunching is a little opaque in its risk/reward calculations. After watching my people die at the hands of what amounts to bad dice rolls where I didn’t get to see the outcome table before deciding to roll, my instinct is to play it cautious. This puts my more conservative play style well at odds with Into the Stars tendency to have fortune richly favour the bold.
Ship-to-ship combat in Into the Stars – because what’s a space adventure without space battles – is a completely different animal than its ground game. While it isn’t particularly complicated or innovative to mix and match shield and weapon frequencies, battles are surprisingly satisfying. There’s just enough of a challenge to make victories feel meaningful. Likewise, the game’s mining system shouldn’t strain a person’s reflexes to anything near a breaking point. There are moments where things can go wrong, but not usually in a way that sets off a cascade failure. It’s this notion of something being just challenging enough that is, in my estimation, the modus operandi of the game.
Where the game goes wrong is in managing mission critical failures. Mistakes were made during my first few adventures through space. The kind of mistakes where the Ark-13 found itself stranded in space without a scrap of hydrogen to power the engines. There may have also been an oversight where the Ark’s colony was stuck sucking air that was mostly Carbon Dioxide. In those moments, the lack of self-destruct mechanism or a “blow half the people out the airlock” button seems like an oversight. Similarly, it’s hard to maintain suspension of disbelief when bridge officers are dying like flies and apparently none of them can be replaced from within the colony’s 10,000 citizens. Come on, surely someone can push the “fire laser” button, even if their stats are hideously terrible. Once the death spiral hits in this game, it hits hard. For want of a way to Mark Watney my way out of it, I’d like to have seen an option to fall on my sword with some dignity.
Overall, Into the Stars is endearing because it wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s not trying to be a grimdark space simulation, or a brutal Rogue-like. Into the Stars is a fast, replay worthy, space adventure. While it doesn’t particularly break the mold in terms of stringing a series of mini-games into a cohesive experience, I still enjoyed my time with the game. Into the Stars’ tone and intent might not appeal to the most most hardcore of gamers, but the average space captain should find the game an enjoyable experience.