One. More. Turn. A known feeling for any fan of strategy games, especially for the gamer who likes to build his empire slowly, methodically, be it on Earth or in space.
Along comes Stars in Shadow, developped by Ashdar Games and published by Iceberg Interactive. Described as an hommage to the classics of the 4X genre (Exploit, Expand, Explore and Exterminate), the game had its official launch last week, after spending more than ten years in on-and-off development and a lenghty period in early access, and is surprisingly good.
For Jim Francis, the game’s developper, « classic titles in the space 4X genre were of course an important inspiration, notably Master of Orion and Sword of the Stars. Star Control 2 was frequently discussed as an example of great character development and a balande between a lighter and more serious tones in both storytelling and art style ».
But why the 4X genre, exactly? « It’s the kind of game we most like to play ourselves », says Francis during the interview. Ourselves meaning Jim Francis, of course, but also Sven Olsen, who worked full time on the project since 2010, according to a short bio published on the game’s website.
That long development time seems to have paid off. If the space 4X genre had its glory days at the end of the 90’s and at the beginning of the 21st century, with such titles as Imperium Galactica and the first Galactic Civilizations, the field was left deserted for a while.
« New space 4X games were few and far between when we started work on Stars in Shadow« , confirms Francis. « Then last year, just when we were nearing completion, suddenly a whole flurry of new titles started to appear, including AAA titles like the Master of Orion remake itself. However, although these titles have many things going for them and are certainly bigger budget, we felt that they missed on some of the classic gameplay that we were looking for, notably the turn-based tactical combat. We felt our game still had something to offer that wasn’t out there », he adds.
The team also had two other big-hitters to contend with: the third installment of Galactic Civilizations, by Stardock Entertainment, who just received an important update to mark its « gold » status (and its version 2.0), and Stellaris, developped and published by Paradox Entertainment.
Was the pressure too high for Ashdar Games? « It was slightly nerve-wracking, but there was not much we could do about it at that point. It wouldn’t make sense to abandon a project we’d put so much of our time and treasure into. But playing those games and being a bit disappointed – and seeing feedback from others with similar feelings – helped to encourage us that we still had a niche to fill », explains Francis.
And that tenacity – or should we say stubbornness? – paid off, as the feedback was « very positive from the start of testing ». « We’ve had a great community of playtesters, from our early closed beta through Steam early access. The gave us tons of great feedback and suggestions, and helped make Stars in Shadow a much better game – and we still have a lengthy list of things to add in the future. Feedback since launch has continued to be very positive. »
The team also wanted to differenciate itself from their competitors, first by choosing a vibrant art style, full of colors, instead of being « visually dark and drab, with black starfields and gray ships and interfaces » like the recent space games. « The classic games we grew up playing were bright and vibrant, and in some cases cartoonish. We wanted to recapture that feel », says Jim Francis.
The same goes for the tone, definitely cartoonish at times in Stars in Shadow, even if the game tackle darker elements like war, genocide and slavery. « Again, the 4X classics are a great model for how serious storytelling can be done with a lighter tone that keeps the game fun and engaging. »
After more than a decade of work, Ashdar Games hopes that the game will sell well enough to give its two developpers the resources needed to add a « larger expansion, with new playable factions and major features ».