When we were all asked as kids what we wanted to be when we grew up, most people said they’d like to be vets, firefighters, police officers or something along those lines. Not me, no sir. I wanted to be a galactic emperor. Who wouldn’t, really? Having entire star systems under your iron-fisted control…it’s a glorious thought. I haven’t quite made it there yet, but 4X games like Stars in Shadow make for great practice for when I finally take the throne.
Stars in Shadow casts you as the leader of the alien race of your choice, ranging from snakes to seahorses to filthy humans – who, in an interesting touch, are considered a “challenge” race since they lack a homeworld. From there, you’ll set up a galaxy according to your whim, including size and shape. When all that’s done, you’ll take your disgusting xenomorphs and work to conquer the galaxy you created as per usual.
You’ll do this via the usual 4X tropes: explore the galaxy to find areas in which to expand, then exploit your new territory and use your increased power to exterminate anyone who stands in your way. Stars in Shadow doesn’t do a lot to shake up how this works, and aside from their flavor the races don’t differ quite as strongly as they do in games like Sword of the Stars. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the genre wouldn’t be as popular as it is if the basic gameplay didn’t work – but if you’re out for a new and improved 4X experience then you probably won’t find it here.
You’ll colonize planets, design your own ships, and, when your borders start to feel a little cramp, engage in that extermination we mentioned. Said extermination is of the turn-based variety, by the way, and you can engage in diplomacy and trade as you might expect. Stars in Shadow’s early game feels a little slower than most, but once you get your empire off the ground you can expect to snowball fairly quickly.
The presentation here is probably the high point of the whole package, which is an unusual thing to say about a strategy game. Each race has unique-looking ships, for instance, and everything right down to the tutorial text is customized based on your chosen aliens. All of this is tied together with a colorful comic book art style. It’s a decent-sounding game as well, though that won’t stick with you quite so much as the art does.
Stars in Shadow’s biggest issue is the game’s lack of multiplayer. I understand that there are plenty of folks out there who are happy to play solo, and if you’re in that group than I suppose the lack of multiplayer probably won’t be an issue. For the rest of us, Galactic Civilizations 3, Civilization: Beyond Earth and the reboot of Master of Orion all boast multiplayer functionality. As someone who primarily plays strategy games with friends, this is almost a killing blow to the game for me.
From a purely functional gameplay standpoint, though, Stars in Shadow is competent and well-made with enough cute touches to keep the usual 4X grind interesting. I especially appreciated the little flavorful touches that kept the various races feeling unique. That’s the sort of thing that can give a strategy game legs, even if it doesn’t have multiplayer, and that’s what helps keeps Stars in Shadow in my recommended games list.