Everything about the premise of Stellar Tactics suggests a game that is so far up my street, it is practically in my house - a squad-based science fiction RPG with extensive character customisation, space travel and tactical turn-based combat. In other words, XCOM in a wider, explorable universe. So I should be disappointed when my last soldier, a frighteningly perceptive riflewoman called Shirley Not, dies at the clawed hands of the opening mission’s zombie bad dudes. But really, I am just relieved. It is the perfect excuse to stop playing.
Things start out promising. Four crew members wake up in the cryo chambers of the Dauntless – the last ark of humanity with a few hundred thousand sleeping refugees, fleeing an earth ravaged by a virus called the Phage. But something has gone wrong during the long journey and we are needed to kick some jerks in the bonce. You are the last special forces team, basically. So far, so tropey. But on the bright side, the game is letting me name my squad and give them specialties. Something I approve of very much.
Shirley Not is just one of the crack team. There’s also Gonads MacAllister, who has forgone a rifle in exchange for hand-to-hand combat expertise and a body made of rock (he has an ultra high endurance stat).
Unfriendly Joan is the intelligent one, and our resident hacker – she likes pistols.
Finally, there’s Cheekbones Gaston, charismatic pilot and professional bullet-sprayer with a submachine gun.
This is always the part of a character-driven game I like the most, before the niggles and quirks start to gnaw away at the potential. Usually that decay takes a few hours. Here, the warning signs began immediately, as I was affronted by the crowded help screen shown below. The on-going tutorial otherwise takes the form of people talking to you – a pair of opposing doctors locked on different parts of the ship - filling you in with walls of text about lore while interjecting with an occasional “out of character” advice and directions on how to hack keypads or move things around in your inventory. It’s a stumbling and inefficient way to teach new players the ropes.
Gonads and co carried on through the bowels of the spacecraft regardless, noting as they went how samey and repetitive the environments where, whole corridors and rooms repeating over and over again, huge spaces filled with nothing much to pick up and nothing to do, all navigated at the squad’s sluggish mouse-clicking pace. Sometimes the story sends you back the way you came, before demanding another return. It’s sacrilegious level design from the 1990s. And then you get into a fight.
The combat system, speaking plainly, is a mess. It usually goes like this: you enter a room or a corridor and freeze – the game has detected enemies. But you might not see them, perhaps your perception isn’t high enough or they are behind a corner. At this point, they’ve more or less ambushed you. The way to avoid this is to enter every unexplored space or room by pre-emptively entering “combat mode” thus turning the team’s slow pace into a glacial one. I decided I could live with being ambushed all the time.
Most of the enemies in the opening levels are your working class zombies. Some of the later ones shoot fire from their hands, for some reason. One of them has a giant hammer and can throw grenades, because he’s the captain. To fight back you click on a certain body part of your foe - torso, legs, arms, head - which fires your gun (or punches them) thus eating up some action points. Moving also costs AP, as does kneeling to get better aim, or simply turning to face another direction. Sometimes you can inflict an injury that affects the enemy’s behaviour, and you can also be affected this way. A crippled status increases the amount of action points needed to do anything, the stun status makes you miss turns until it goes away, poison leaches health from you over time, and so on.
Basically, it’s going for a old-style Fallout or XCOM system of fighting. It doesn’t really work. Firstly, the tight corridors mean that you can often block yourself in. And I found no way of switching between characters aside from straight-up ending the character’s turn, so re-aligning and re-grouping into a usable formation is often impossible. Turn order between both your squad and the enemies is based on some opaque initiative formula – sometimes only one of my characters would get to move or shoot, at other times all of them would get the chance. Sometimes enemies attacked once or simply chilled out, other times they hit my soldiers in the face generously and with great enthusiasm, four or five times.
Having seen the simple, clean and efficient turn order systems and shooting mechanics of the game’s obvious inspirations, the newer XCOMs, the combat here feels clunky, buggy and at times downright unknowable. For example, you can move your troops but they will always face the last direction they were running in – not the enemy - and it costs AP just to turn them back around, making retreat or reorganisation of your troops an unpleasant, time-consuming and systematically “expensive” mish mash. They will not always move where you want them to either, and it isn’t clear what spaces can be occupied and which are deemed unusable.
For a game with “tactics” in the title, the only really viable tactic is to “shoot the baddies before they hit you”. There’s no useful cover, no discernible bonus to flanking, and (for this whole section) no other weapons aside from the default pistol and assault rifle. Some stun grenades show up later, offering the valuable chance to stop your enemies in their tracks. But it’s not clear how many turns this effect lasts and even figuring out how to throw the grenades is a mission, thanks to a confusing and underexplained user interface (you have to equip them as a secondary weapon, switch to them, click on their icon again, aim the arc and left click to throw).
All this might have been forgiveable if there was something interesting going on elsewhere – a story with some humour maybe, or new equipment that changed the way you approached a fight. But each new story NPC you meet is a damp cluster of bore-lore and cliché, and each of the infrequent chests of goodies contain nothing but cogs, magnifying glasses, springs, lighters, twine, canes, USB sticks, hip flasks – all of which are labelled the same way, as junk you will some day be able to sell. I have never understood this practice. Give me something of significance, or just give me money. If loot is just money in the form of junk with an identical description, what is the point?
The whole misadventure culminated in Gonads and the gang jogging onto the bridge and meeting the doctor whose dangerous experiments (oh no!) started this whole zombie disaster. Thinking that the game might be about to display some of the RPG parts of an RPG, I selected the charismatic Cheekbones Gaston to talk to the doctor. Perhaps we can convince him to relieve command of the bridge with reason and words and a sexily sculpted face. No such luck. He demanded all the lifeboats for himself, called in six of his zombie pals on either side of the squad, then whipped out a powerful SMG and started spitting bullets into Gonads MacAllister’s arms.
Meanwhile, each of my squad had less than a dozen bullets left in their gun, and a single underpowered frag grenade. Unfriendly Joan got it in the neck from a zombie, Gonads fell to Crazy Doctor’s bullets, and Cheekbones did his best to lure the zombies away but died unheroically after running out of bullets. It was only Shirley Not left, running down corridors pursued by baddies. Every time she ran, she used up all her AP, since to use some to turn and kneel (never mind taking a shot) would mean the zombies would close the gap and instantly kill her. After a few more pointless runs, I turned and took a few half-hearted shots before the zombies closed in and finished her off. It was my second ‘game over’ screen. Shirley did not even bother to do a death animation for it.
I enjoy a game that’s tough. XCOM is tough. But you can fail a mission and then just keep on going, a little worse off, perhaps critically, but it isn’t game over until it’s Game Over. Here, you die and you have to do all that again, the same fiddly combat, the same slow-paced and expensive movement, the same attempts at careful repositioning ruined by the same spammy enemies. Earlier in the game, for my first game over, I marched back in, determined to see if there was anything to redeem Stellar Tactics from how I now felt about it. After defeating the hammer-wielding captain and his fire-chucking lackeys the second time we fought, I was rewarded with a rusty whistle.
On the second game over, I didn’t bother going back.
Stellar Tactics is on Steam for £14.99/$19.99. These impressions are based on build 1490843.