Tuesday, May 6, 2014

REVIEW - Starlight Inception.

Starlight Inception is a Kickstarted space action/sim from Escape Hatch Entertainment, who turned to the enthusiastic public to fund a game they promised would be a modern celebration of cherished early-90s titles like Wing Commander and Star Wars: TIE Fighter.

Starlight Inception boasts many bullet points that make an enthusiast such as myself sit up and take notice - it claims over fifty hours of single-player content, a fleet of fully customizable ships to fly (swapping out weapons, rockets, equipment packs and stealth or shield upgrades) and the type of power management system that helped make TIE Fighter more strategic and involving than a simple space shooter.

How is it?

It's the least fun I've had on my Vita since Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate.  I repeatedly pushed myself to keep playing it over the past few weeks, and that, alone, is telling.  Beyond my initial curiosity and hope, Starlight Inception is a game that fails its central ambition, and fumbles its grip on the player's imagination with consistent stumbles on its execution, from the details to the broad strokes.

It is, I'm sorry to admit, a game I'm prepared to review without having finished, despite being within minutes, I suspect, of its campaign's end.  Doing this feels a bit dishonest - who am I, after all, to comment on a game when I haven't permitted that game to make its full statement?  Well, who is Starlight Inception to be such a crude, crass and unintelligible speaker?

Targeting, for example.  Let's just talk about its targeting system, and shooting dudes.

It offers the down button to switch to enemy targets and cycle through them, but does so in a totally counter-intuitive fashion.  You'll be 200 yards from an enemy fighter that's shooting at you, and pressing down on the d-pad will select an enemy satellite 8,000 yards away, behind you.  Keep mashing down!  Watch as you get the crap shot out of you as you cycle through a half-dozen satellites!

The game will, thank goodness, auto-target whatever you shoot at with your guns, which would be wonderful if managing your gun energy wasn't a key part of its energy-management strategies, and if it would always, effectively, work - but it'll bug out and just not about twenty per cent of the time.

Once you've highlighted an enemy fighter and come within gun range, a new "lead" target will appear on your HUD in front of the enemy ship as it swoops this way and that, telling precisely where you need to aim your cannons to hit them.  If you're a little off with your aim, it's okay - Starlight Inception has aim assist that's so pronounced, you can watch your shots curve after you've shot them, arcing in to the enemy ship despite any problems with your aim - usually destroying your foes long before you can actually see them.

When you come to a big-ass capital ship or a collection of SAM launchers guarding an installation - it's okay - just sweep in to about 1,500 meters, and as soon as your "lead" target comes up, stop your shift, pump all your energy into your cannons and hold down the X button.  Everything will be dead soon, and you won't take a scratch.

When it's "hard," it's only because you went too close to a bunch of missile launchers that have locked on to you, and now you're dead - very cheap-feeling.  The rest of the time, you barely need to pay attention to what you're doing.

Oh - there was this one time,

when the game has you fly into a tunnel in a small moon, a'la the asteroid field scene in Empire.  Remember when the Millennium Falcon does the upside-down loop and sweeps into the giant hole in the big asteroid?  That was awesome.

Less so, in Starlight Inception, which features a twisting, tight cave that... you can't really see anything in.  The shot above represents the mouth of the cave as you fly into it, and after that

you can't really see where you're going at all (your glowing ship doesn't produce any light) - so the only way to gauge how much space is in front of your ship is to shoot the walls and watch for the impact and "feel" your way in to and back out of the cave as a counter ticks down in the top-right of the screen.  After crashing into the walls a time or six and starting over, I finally made it out!

That sucked!  But at least it required some effort.

After every mission, you start in a hangar bay staring at a ship that's not the ship you flew in the last mission, as the same announcement - every time - comes over the PA system: "All pilots report to the ready room.  All pilots to ready room."

So you walk (very slowly) in first-person down a straight hall to an elevator, select "ready room" from a menu of options (there are three other choices - bridge, engineering, and something else - and there's nothing to do there), and (very slowly) walk into the ready room to watch a "cutscene".

The narrative that plays out across the game's campaign is tired, and largely meaningless, painted in bland strokes of gray with sleep-inducing cutscenes that feature a static shot of a bland character model as a voice actor drones out some lines about how important your next objective is.

Why the entire ship area wasn't managed through a quickly-navigable menu is totally beyond me.

After watching (or, better yet, skipping) the cutscene, it's time to deck out your ship!

No matter what ship you've flown in your last ten missions, no matter what ship you recently outfitted with the new multi-cannons, the system always auto-selects the SF-100 Snipe Trainer - the shittiest ship in the fleet - as your default.

You may then outfit your ship with a variety of cannons, missiles, equipment, shields and stealth options - but after I blew a few hundred command points on the Power Mag 2.0, which seemed to have absolutely no impact on my ship or its systems, and didn't have much in the way of explanation, I didn't want to risk my (very-slowly) building bank of CP on anything but a better ship - which I was never able to afford after my initial purchase of the first-tier upgrade ship.

It didn't matter, of course - keeping back from enemies and enjoying Starlight Inception's generous aim assist ensured I didn't need to upgrade anything, ever.

Starlight Inception has moments that recall the freedom, strategy and joy of TIE Fighter - but those moments almost exclusively consist of opening the menu to transfer power from my guns/repair/shields into my engines to speed up my ship, and holding down R1 to jet off towards the next waypoint a little bit faster (while missing the ability to pan the camera around my ship and, y'know, look around without having to turn my entire ship to see in a different direction).

That's... pretty much it.

Those old games had some grand art direction and, in the case of TIE Fighter, a significantly resonant iconography to exploit - the weird wapp-y sounds of a TIE's laser cannons, the way laser blasts (one felt) were supposed to look - a built-in romance and affection.

Starlight Inception lacks that built-in affection, and lacks the good sense to at least wholly rip-off the excellent design of those grand old games.  Instead, it provides a bullet-point list of features that, on paper, appear similar to what we loved as children, and delivers them in such a misguided, un-polished, amateurish fashion that I feel cheated, when I consider the game's already very-low purchase price.

The folks at Escape Hatch Entertainment are, I suspect, good people who worked very hard to make the best game they could, and are, I suspect, capable of making a game that provides the interstellar fantasy that lives up to those classic titles of old - but Starlight Inception isn't it.

Not by a light year.

Spoiler: I hit OK.

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