Kickstarter is a great platform that enables many games to go from passion projects into full-fledged products. Such is the case with Between the Stars, a game made by Isolated games – a studio determined to use Kickstarter to bring us the best possible spaceship action game we've seen. To that end, they produced a short demo of the game to help us better understand just what kind of game they are making.
Between the Stars puts you in the shoes of a starship captain, James or Jane Scott on your way to a summit held by the Interstellar Republic. Your ship was, however, damaged by this presumed long journey and you fall out of warp short of your destination to a small star system that is to be your tutorial area.
While this short demo is light on the story, this area gives you a good idea of some of the factions and the problems you'll be dealing with in the finished game. The arrival at the summit also introduces a major villain in the form of Admiral Nartos, a leader of the Children of the Sun faction that has had enough of being subjugated to the whims of the Republic. He shows this defiance by arriving at the summit with a huge fleet and basically starts a full-scale war.
Most of this is presented through a series of character panels and their dialogue as if they were hailing each other and conversing ship to ship. While the dialogue delivery itself starts off a bit cringey, it improves over time and becomes surprisingly good near the end of the demo. At certain points, I truly felt like playing an episode of Star Trek which I guess the developers were sort of going for.
On the gameplay side of things, Between the Stars hits a sweet spot between games that are geared more toward space pilot simulations like Elite Dangerous and arcade action oriented ones like Everspace. The ships are not as agile as in the latter, but they also don't feel sluggish and hard to control as in the former.
Besides the slow and precise flight, there's also the faster flight variant that will quickly get you to your destination within a star system. There's also warp that will transport you quickly to a different star system but you barely get to use it in the demo. The full game promises to fix that with many star systems present on the map for eventual exploring.
The demo will give you a glimpse of some game mechanics and actually let you do a decent amount of activities – for a demo that is. At first, you'll get to pilot a larger cruiser ship of sorts, and at one point you are given an option of controlling a more agile combat frigate. Controlling them is extremely approachable if you ever played any flying game and you'll feel right at home after only a minute or two with a ship.
The ship systems are also easily controlled with the arrow keys and you can divert power to either the engines to move faster, shields to become more durable or weapons to boost your firepower. Most of the battles I did in the demo were quickly resolved by boosting my weapons but I can see how the system can be improved with a higher difficulty, and a more diverse cast of ships, upgrades, and scenarios.
Speaking of scenarios, the demo will see you investigating distress calls, inspecting and defending space stations, fighting off pirates and more. Although many of these ultimately culminate in combat, there are also some situations that present you with Star Trek-like mini stories where you can choose how to respond to a situation. These can vary, depending on the mission at hand. Sometimes it'll be boarding a derelict ship or station and reasoning with an AI system that's gone haywire. Other times it will be conversing with another captain or a potential crew member on how to proceed in a mission.
A few missions in the demo feature some humorous characters and situations which actually surprised me and gave the game an adventurous lighthearted kind of vibe, despite it dealing with some serious and grim scenarios. Your decisions in missions where the game lets you make them can even impact the well being of your ship and your crew members that play a part in how well its systems function.
Although the system is not entirely fleshed out in the demo, it shows great potential as you'll probably be tracking down potential crew members across different star systems to improve the functioning of your ship. Upgrading weapons, shields and other systems is a straightforward affair. Once obtained, these can be put into different slots across your ship and the bigger the ship – the more slots it will have. They can be purchased on the space stations or gained from caches that you loot from destroyed enemy ships.
The entire game is also sprinkled with some procedural generation that will make sure you don't see the same space station or a star system twice.
VISUALS AND AUDIO
Visually, Between the Stars looks great, especially when you consider it's a space game – where you'll presumably be looking at the darkness of space most of the time. Here, the game mitigates this by making each sector have a different colored theme of sorts with planets, rings, asteroids, and nebulas sprinkled about to create believable systems that don't feel empty. It helps that the ships are insanely detailed, even when viewed up close and the weapon and particle effects that they produce are pure eye candy. The developers are well aware of this fact and they even included a simple yet effective photo mode that makes producing some great images a few clicks away.
The HUD, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Although simple and understandable, from an aesthetic point of view it feels old, clunky and not on par with the sleek look of the rest of the game. It's one area where I feel the game could improve a lot to present an even more appealing visual package.
The music does well at encapsulating the ambient feeling of the vastness of space and brings up the tension each time a conflict escalates. Once that happens, however, it falls behind the excellent and impactful sounding weapon hits and ship explosions that will have you fully immersed into the experience.
After a few hours with Between the Stars, I truly feel like its shaping up to be something special. The mechanics and systems put in place make the game feel much larger than its humble budget would suggest. The gameplay is insanely approachable and combat encounters give a great sense of satisfaction due to how great they look, feel and sound. With the game on track for an early 2019 release, we can see it only getting better in the full release. If priced reasonably, like in the Kickstarter campaign, it will surely be a must for any fan of action-oriented space faring games.