Between the Stars is a space action game set in a universe currently being torn apart by a war between the Children of the Sun and the Republic. The game offers a mix of real time large ship combat, text-based adventures, and RPG-style character progression. The game is currently on Steam Early Access, and developers Isolated Games recently launched the fourth chapter in the campaign.
The writing is decent in the latest Steam Early Access build. The writers have made an excellent choice tying the gameplay tutorial with a longer prologue chapter starring an already established character within the lore. This allows for players to gain a solid understanding of the state of the universe and the world they are about to throw their personalized avatar into. The actual writing quality itself is inconsistent. The writing feels a little stiff most of the times, but quickly swings to cringe inducing corniness or cutting wit. The dialogue struggles the most, as the short sentences are often too constraining for the writers to work. The text-based events are where the writers shine in comparison as the longer format gives them a better chance to showcase their skills.
Between the Stars takes a foundation of traditional space sims and text-based adventures and mixes in elements of RPGs, large ship management, and tabletop games together into one package. While the list may sound a little overwhelming, the developers have done an excellent job picking and choosing mechanics that work well together. The gameplay focuses heavily on combat and exploration, so space sim fans who are looking for another trading and economics heavy game will be disappointed.
Combat is all about large ships with multi-person crews fighting against each other. Combat feels a little more like nautical battles than sleek jets dog fighting. The pace of the battle is a little slower, focusing more good positioning to unleash the full barrage of weaponry on an enemy weak point than doing a fast-paced dance of death with the opposition. There are some action RPG elements in space combat, as it is not just unloading all the ship’s missiles, rockets, lasers, and bullets on the enemy. Certain pieces of equipment and ship models come with skills that can be activated on a cooldown. The skills are general short, high impact abilities that provide instant gratification. The only problem with the skills is they are not always visually obvious. For example, the nuke will give a giant explosion eventually, but it is nearly impossible to visually confirm the launch or see where it’s travelling.
Life in Between the Stars is a lot more than just blowing up pirates and the Children of the Sun. Players will spend a lot of time exploring the universe, meeting people, discovering derelict ships, and getting into trouble when exploring on foot. All of these randomly generated events are done in a text based, Choose Your Own Adventure-like presentation. Actions of lesser consequence will automatically be decided for the player, while those with serious consequence will require an attribute roll using the player’s stats. Foot combat is more like a board game, where the player’s away team and the enemy will roll dice to determine how much damage they do to each other. The text-based adventuring is what makes Between the Stars special. It is what makes me feel like a captain of a major ship like on Star Trek. These adventures take me to the weird and wild. They make me consider the health and safety of my crew. Most importantly, they make me as the character change, for better or for worse.
The controls are decent, but it is clearly still a work in progress. There are messages in the settings that controller support is still in development. I noticed some keyboard functions could still not be rebound to keys already taken up by the unbindable functions. In practice though, the default mouse and keyboard controls are very good. The controls are a bit more like a nautical ship than an arcade flight sim. Combined with the slower pace of the game, Between the Stars’ controls are quite accessible to new players.
Like all Steam Early Access titles, there are some quality of life changes that are still needed. One improvement the controls could use is a clearer way of showing which weapons will fire when aiming in a certain direction. Right now, players can only experiment until they memorize the arcs of fire. Ideally, some sort of subtle dot representing each weapon that can be greyed out as necessary would be a welcomed addition. Some extra tutorial details would also be nice for some of the text adventuring sections. An option to skip the docking animation would be great, as they get tiring very quickly. Finally, reducing the scrollable areas of the planets would help navigation, as they are massive compared to the space stations.
The audio/visual presentation is okay so far. The graphics aren’t the splashiest, but it’s still a solid looking space sim. The audio has the right soundtrack and sound effects to create a sci-fi experience. The voice acting isn’t great though. Most actors are barely passable, and a few are awful. Worst of all, the recording quality is not even across the board. There are a few actors that either recording their lines on poor quality hardware or the audio enhancements were done poorly. I applaud the effort the developers are putting to make the game heavily voice acted, but I am wondering if the effort and money might be better spent elsewhere.
Between the Stars is shaping up to be a unique title that brings a fresh twist to the space sim genre. The combination of large ship combat, generous text-based events, and crew management create one of the best Star Trek-esque experiences I’ve played in a long time. While it may never be a flashy AAA space sim, it will provide a compelling niche title for people looking to be the captain of their own starship.