Developer: Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC
Publisher: Escape Hatch Entertainment LLC
If you claim that your game is the "rebellious stepchild of Wing Commander, X-Wing and Freespace 2," and "the return of the space simulation genre," you'd better make damn sure that the finished product delivers. Especially when you ask for -- and receive -- $150,000 on Kickstarter to make it on the back of that promise.
Starlight Inception certainly talks the talk on PS Vita and PC, and it's exactly the sort of ambitious indie project that I usually evangelise from the rooftops, but I'm dismayed to report that this latter-day space sim falls drastically short of what I'd consider to be an acceptable level of quality. It's not enough to crib from legendary sims and hope for the best, indeed, the constant references to Wing Commander and other better games just reminds us how good we used to have it.
The action takes place "one hundred years from tomorrow," wherein a new war is breaking out between Earth and the non-aligned nations. As a new threat emerges, it's up to the brave fighter jockeys of the
TCS USF Midway carrier to scramble into the black, defend Earth's interests, lead strike missions and a undertake bit of mild escort duty. Though the story is told through stilted, poorly-acted, monotonous, awkwardly-animated cutscenes that do their best to make you fall out of love with the setting before each mission, who cares, because we're here to "light up the sky."
Which, I'm afraid, is decidedly mediocre at best. Space combat is purely functional, kicking us out of the hangar and letting us manoeuvre in 3D space using somewhat clunky keyboard, joystick or mouse controls (or the Vita's adorable thumb nubbins), undertake some basic power system management and discharge our guns at distant target markers. Occasionally we can do something genuinely cool, such as seamlessly swoop into planetary atmospheres, while highlights include a great Martian mission.
Purchasing new ships and gadgets with persistent currency is undeniably addictive, and definitely improves replay value as you return to earlier missions with more powerful upgraded vessels or test out the simplistic multiplayer. A fun and forgettable 'Fly Patrol' mode is also on hand for tower-defence style shenanigans and can be enjoyable in small doses.
But most of the time Starlight Inception feels like an ancient relic in every imaginable way. Mission design is primitive; throwing you into stilted combat against waves of similar foes, trudging between distant waypoints or leaving you unware of where to go next. Target acquisition is a nightmare -- why do we have to cycle through all targets rather than select the nearest enemy or objective? -- while the UI is ugly and unhelpful. The basic controls feel awkward and stiff, there's no sense of speed (admittedly there wouldn't be in space - that's an observation rather than a criticism) and the visuals are terrible. Though the art design is pleasingly industrial and I like some of the ship models, even the PC version looks dated, scatty and bitty.
You know something has gone drastically wrong when Hellbender beats your gameplay hands-down and doesn't look much worse either. Let alone the likes of Freespace 2 or Tie Fighter.
There are still bugs aplenty. By far my favourite one was a checkpoint that saved just after I died, most of the way through a mission. What fun! Workflow is also rather odd at times, such as quitting the ship customisation screen and being dumped to the main menu, not the carrier's ready room. Seethe.
With an enormous amount of extra polish and plenty of patches, the space combat might eventually become fit for task. Sadly Escape hatch wasn't able to polish it before launch since they were too busy working on some tragically ill-advised window dressing.
We get to walk around the USF Midway, which attempts to emulate Wing Commander's carrier downtime (even copying the name of the flipping carrier itself!), but ends up actively making Starlight Inception worse. What should be a bustling vessel is an eerily abandoned ghost ship; a small number of recycled silent corridors punctuated by empty rooms - or the occasional crewman staring blankly into space, not moving or twitching unnaturally, like a scene from Silent Hill. It's terrifying! You could easily mistake it for Dead Space's alpha build, and the appalling visuals and syrupy controls don't help any. It's infuriating to have to navigate the Midway before every mission, without the ability to talk to fellow pilots or accomplish anything at all.
The story isn't strong enough to dwell on, told horribly and would have been vastly superior as a streamlined premise, with players assuming the role of a faceless pilot with a Callsign rather than the jaggiest jarhead in all the cosmos. Seriously, the game would be vastly improved if Escape Hatch cut back the plot and removed the Midway sections altogether, especially on Vita.
Oh cripes, that Vita version. Starlight Inception may be fiercely unambitious on PC, but it's paradoxically far too ambitious for Vita, meaning that Escape Hatch had to scale back the visuals to obscenely primitive levels just to get it to run. Atrocious render distance, murky textures and jaggy models make it look worse than practically any PSP title on the market (including the Ace Combat games), while the unoptimised UI is uncomfortable to read or use effectively. A soupçon of slowdown finally makes this version almost impossible to recommend, unless you're absolutely desperate for a portable space sim and don't want to play Galaxy On Fire 2 for some reason.
Don't get me wrong: unlocking new fighters on the train can be fun, and there's some fleeting enjoyment to be found in the short campaign. But you'll wish you were playing a competent space sim every time someone mentions "Midway" or "Darkstar One."
- Fly Patrol mode is fun
- Broadly functional mechanics and stirring soundtrack
- Plenty of ships and weapons to buy with persistent currency
- Clunky and primitive action, unhelpful interface
- Limp visuals, short and desperately uninspired campaign
- Awful and obtrusive Midway sections; terrible storyline poorly told
- Vita version looks utterly atrocious, has appalling UI
The Short Version: Too fussy and complex for Vita yet too primitive for PC, Starlight Inception doesn't feel at home on either platform. This shoddy Kickstarted space sim tries to emulate the greats, but succeeds in little more than reminding us of the genre's glory years. Specifically: how much more fun we were having back then.
"The rebellious stepchild of Wing Commander, X-Wing and Freespace 2" deserves a good spanking.