When a new space combat simulator looks as handsome as House of the Dying Sun [official site], that's reason enough to raise an intrigued eyebrow. When it can evoke memories of TIE Fighter within minutes of loading it up, that's reason enough to raise a celebratory fist to the torpedo-streaked heavens. But when all of the glories of its atmospheric non-atmospheric combat are packed into a few short missions, it's also fair to raise some concerns.
House of the Dying Sun is an extremely confident game. Starting with that title, which sounds like the defiant endpoint of an enormous sci-fi saga, it's a game that aims big. There's no crude exposition dump to explain the situation that kicks off the campaign, just an Undertaker style gong ringing out as a few stark sentences summarise the fall of your House.
It's stirring stuff and the delivery is perfectly attuned to the minimalist qualities of space, or The Big Empty as it's known in the piloting trade. A tutorial takes you through the basic controls – I played with both mouse and keyboard, and then a 360 pad and preferred the latter – and the whole thing is pitched as a test of your ship's systems as you streak through the cosmos.
That means there's lots of pleasing chatter, the sort which immediately makes me feel as if I'm part of a squadron going to war. What I like most about the voicework is that it bleeds into and out of the background noise rather than interrupting it – the communication is part of the world's hum rather than an excuse for commlink cutscenes.
And then you get to fire your weapons for the first time and there's a satisfying whirring of gears as they lock into place and a soothing THUD as they unleash their payloads. 'Soothing' may seem a strange word to use about deady space-guns but one of the things that House of the Dying Sun gets absolutely right is the feel of the spaceship and its machinery; it's equal parts empowering and terrifyingly fragile, and the firing of the weapons is a comforting defense against the things that would destroy you.
House of the Dying Sun treats space combat as a tense and spectacular analogue of aerial combat, which is a grand idea if not an original one. Being a simulation of make-believe vehicles it can incorporate the most entertaining elements of every era of flight, while discarding those aspects that don't suit its style. So you have long range destruction as if you were tucked in the cockpit of an F-16 and you have close encounters befitting an early twentieth century crate with a couple of rattling guns attached.
It's all brilliant stuff, as crunchily cathartic as the first crisps after a diet. I keep wanting to write some version of 'it does a lot with a little', because everything looks and feels as good as I'd expect from a big studio release, but in reality this is a game doing a lot with a lot, at least when it comes to the combat. It may not be loaded with bells and whistles, but everything looks and sounds just right, and the controls are right in the Goldilocks zone. You can drift at any point, locking yourself into a current trajectory but leaving your ship free to swivel and fire in any direction, and while the flight physics might not be quite as complex as Newton or his cousin non-Newton might like to play with, they're just right for the game's intense and short-lived battles.
And now we come to the key problem. For a good length of its development time, the game (then known as Enemy Starfighter) was going to have randomised missions and even a dynamic campaign. That's all gone now, with just fourteen missions to play through on three difficulty levels. The decision to go with handcrafted missions wasn't made to save time or resources, it relates to the way in which combat works. This isn't just an action game, it has a tactical element, with basic control of the fleet and flagship, and the ability to jump between ships either when destroyed or to gain an advantage in a particular area of the battle.
I think these purpose-built missions are the right choice, though I do love a dynamic campaign, because they allow the game to manipulate situations to create moments of panic that it'd be unreasonable to expect from a mission generator. You're playing against a designer who understands timing and knows how to add a twist to the tale, just as you were in TIE Fighter all those years ago.
Dying Sun founders a little simply because it's possible to burn through those missions so quickly. They're fantastic while they last and I can understand the desire not to repeat ideas just to add to the mission count but thanks to an in-game threat that keeps the playtime for each scrap low, the campaign won't last a full evening. I've already decided to play again on a higher difficulty and might make more use of the tactical views this time around, rather than playing as the hero of my own fleet, but I still wish there were a skirmish mode with some level of fleet and ship customisation.
My biggest disappointment lies in the persistent nature of the fleet through the campaign. Ships can become veterans but I never felt particularly attached to them. Being able to apply a trait or even a cosmetic customisation to them when they'd been promoted would add just that little bit more character. As it is, whatever buffs they do receive (they're more accurate and more intelligently aggressive when ordered to attack) aren't always noticeable and replacements slot in easily enough should you lose your 'best' ships.
On one level, Dying Sun is a roaring success. It has a simple but exquisite flight model and joyous combat, but it is also a slight game. That may not bother you. It doesn't particularly bother me and I'm happy to have played it and will do so again when it leaves Early Access. It's content complete though, with only minor changes to come. Maybe one of those changes will make my veterans more important, maybe one will give me another unexpected reason to return. I'll be very glad to because dying though it may be, this is a glorious sun.
House of the Dying Sun is out now, in Early Access.