Most big iOS games get their 15 minutes of fame and not much more. The App Store’s turnaround rate is a vicious cycle for indie developers, as is the limited mobile game press. But then there’s Star Command, an iOS game that has been in development in front of expectant gamers for more than two years now. And despite having launched one of the more notable Kickstarter campaigns in recent gaming history, the release of Star Commander really does fall on a peculiar year.
By 2013, gamers had already been delighted by a certain similar-looking 2012 game called FTL: Faster Than Light—an incredibly challenging rogue-like that put you in charge of a ship and a crew to great effect. Not only did that little indie game deliver more than it promised, it really did make you feel like a captain of a starship. Furthermore, since J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek films, the series is more present on the collective consciousness than it’s been in years.
As a small indie iOS game, Star Command doesn’t live up to whatever hype the successes of FTL and J.J. Abrams might reflect upon it. More importantly it doesn’t deliver on its own promises of galactic exploration and a free-roaming spaceship simulation. In its current form, Star Command is primarily a strategic space combat game. There are some cut-scenes and a faint sense of open-endedness (meaning you can usually choose which planets you visit next) but this is most definitely not the open world space sim it set out to be two years ago.
These battles, which are presented in a very arcade-like way, are stressful and difficult—sometimes in a good way and sometimes in an annoying way. The player must balance launching lasers and weapons at their opposing starships via a simple mini-game, while also handling more detailed situations on the ship such as dealing with on-boarding enemies and putting out fires. This frantic decision-making recalls FTL’s battles, albeit to a lesser extent. You’ll find yourself having to make a lot of frenetic choices such as whether to send a medic out with your gun-wielding crew to stop a ship invasion or to have an additional scientist boosting your ship’s shields. For the most part, these battles are a lot of fun and although they get a little repetitive, there are a lot of different strategies to try out.
The part that is frustrating is trying to move your little crew members around this ship when you’ve got hostile zombie aliens breathing down your neck. You have to tap on the particular crew member, and then tap on a square of the ship to move them to—which is pretty rough in the isometric perspective. They won’t stop and auto-attack the enemy that is shooting at them or even avoid walking right into a fire. It would have been really nice to have something like a swipe gesture to draw an AI path—anything to make it not so easy to accidentally get your crew members killed. The final thing to note about the combat is that it can get really difficult really fast. The developers have already patched some of these difficulty spikes, but be assured that plenty more remain.
They didn’t make it easy to figure this stuff out either (including learning about the three classes of crew members and what they can do). The original version of the game featured a tutorial that was really minimal and didn’t clue you in to how to appropriately handle these situations or even give you an idea of what you are supposed to do moving forward. For example, after completing the first mission at Mars, I had forgotten what planet I was supposed to go to next—so instead I went back to Mars. The game then threw me into a loop of the first mission that I was unable to get out of—the zombie aliens just never stopped coming—and eventually I had to just reload the game. Although the newest update adds in an extended tutorial and even an “easy” mode that covers most of the bases, there is still a lack of direction.
The place where Star Command truly lives up to its potential is in its presentation. The isometric pixel graphics are incredibly charming and unique, as is the game’s playful musical score. It’s too bad that the developers felt that nailing the presentation was more important than including worthwhile game features or balancing the game’s difficulty properly. If you’ve been following Star Command for the past two years, you’ll likely be disappointed with the final product, but Star Command is still the best of its kind on the iOS platform and a lot of fun if you manage your expectations accordingly.
Developer: Warballoon Games
Release Date: 04/23/13