Developer: Arcen Games
I've never played anything remotely like The Last Federation, even if it looks like any number of space 4X games from yesteryear at first glance. Eight unique races reach out to the stars from their home planets, seeking conquest and coexistence depending on their philosophies. They build fleets, research technologies, make treaties and break them with impunity; thriving and dying in a meticulously-modelled situation that's detailed down to internal politics and populations.
And we can't play as any of them... because they're all AI.
We stand alone as the Hydral, the last of an extinct race of interstellar tyrants with dreams of uniting the galaxy into one eternal federation... and crushing any species who stands in the way. We're the dark heart lurking at the centre of the universe, the multi-headed tentacular puppet master, working behind the scenes to apply pressure through political coups, financial skullduggery, science and fleet combat; subtly influencing the balance of power with both the carrot, stick, cloak, dagger and gravity lance.
It's really rather wonderful, and a revolutionary twist on the 4X legends of yore.
The Last Federation is billed as a strategy game set within a simulation, and Arcen went to town on ensuring that all the moving parts fit together seamlessly. The galactic simulation plays out in real-time in a friendly at-a-glance tactical map as each race goes about their agenda, developing space travel and then seeking to further their own ends. From the amoral robot CEOs of the Acutians to the expansionist hive-minded Thoraxians and stoic forgiving Andors, every species has their own outlook on life and war, locked into their own struggles to come out on top or peacefully get along, all while undergoing internal political upheavals, technological advancement, treaties and offensives. It's a perfect balanced system, a thrill to watch even if you decide to launch a game in spectator mode to see how things play out.
As the Hydral, however, we're a spanner in the works, capable of unbalancing this system through both fair means and foul. Befitting a terrifying ancient alien with four heads and a menacing prototype starship.
Playing nice is important; after all, we're a free agent in need of powerful allies. Gifting technology (researched by amassing teams of black market scientists or stealing it from others), helping out with armada construction, hunting pirates and other friendly gestures accrues 'credit' -- a political currency that can be used to influence everything in the galaxy -- while also improving your relations with the species in question and making them more likely to buy into your plans for a unified federation. On the flip-side, though, it's important to ensure that no one race becomes too powerful and that other factions don't feel that you're a fairweather ally, thus ensuring that you'll need to play dirty more often than not.
We can seed planetary systems with informants for intel. Assassinate leaders or parliament members to install sympathetic governments, or subtly influence elections. Steal technology or sabotage projects. Hire mercenaries. Instigate criminal acts - assuming that the race in question actually has a criminal element, since there's no place for bad eggs in a hive mind or robotic utopia. Quietly cajole species into making peace with each other or launching a war against problematic factions through intimidation and bribery. The simulation is detailed and granular enough to let us pursue our own goals in almost any way we see fit; it's utterly brilliant in an overwhelming sort of way. Be sure to make full use of the active pause mechanic and pay close attention to every single number throughout the sprawling statistic menus.
We can also enter instanced fleet combat, whether hunting pirates, running blockades or actively engaging task forces moving around the galaxy map with our ever-improving flagship. In sharp contrast to the intensely thoughtful simulation and diplomacy of the strategic layer, space combat is immediately engaging yet surprisingly deep; a heady blend of 2D real-time strategy and turn-based tactics that lets us plan out a few seconds of action at a time. We'll set vectors, choose weapons and targets, balance power levels for critical ship systems and then watch the results, constantly improvising and experimenting with a range of secondary guns and gadgets to get the upper hand. It's streamlined, intuitive and crucially fun.
Encounters can get seriously tough in the late game, especially if you haven't kept on top of new technologies that directly buff your ship's armour or damage output. Losing hours of progress because you failed to destroy an enemy fleet can be galling, but scalable difficulty allows you to blow through fleet combat and concentrate on the big picture, should you want to.
Every action has a consequence, both in terms of the balance of power, time and each race's attitudes towards you and each other, meaning that things can fall apart very quickly if you don't think through your decisions. As an example, I kept the ice-dwelling Boarines downtrodden and off the galactic stage in my first game until I had time to deal with them, but they eventually developed space travel on their own and launched an offensive against one of my key allies. I ignored them... and failed to notice a curious racial modifier that makes them exponentially more powerful the longer they're at war. After crushing my pals through attrition, they became a powerful player and did their best to scupper my carefully-laid alliance plans through both political and military means, all while trying to hunt me down.
Next time, I was very, very nice to the Boarines. Right up until I assassinated their leader, twisted the knife, then convinced my allies to wipe them out and construct my dream federation in the ruins. Dance, puppets! Dance!
And that's the point, really. It's a thrill to live out the consequences of our actions and use them as harsh lessons as opposed to just saveloading when things go South, so much like Bionic Dues, the best way of experiencing The Last Federation is to play to enjoy each unique session rather than playing to win. I'd heartily recommend Ironman mode if you've got the mettle, meaning that you'll spend your time genuinely enjoying every new wrinkle, scheme, defeat and victory.
Criticisms are few and far between considering The Last Federation's inexpensive price point, though it's clear that Chris Park and co. have once again obsessed over the systems at the expense of usability. The interface is fit for task, but it's undeniably bitty and requires you to constantly flit between various separate menus and click on unnecessarily tiny icons to keep tabs on things.
The main menu sets the tone, wasting approximately 95% of its monitor real estate and cramming its options into the fiddliest buttons in all the land, alongside eye-strainingly minuscule text. More keyboard shortcuts wouldn't have gone amiss - why aren't the function keys mapped to specific menus? If I wanted to nitpick, I'd also suggest that the endgame sequence is a little perfunctory, while the tutorials are too keen to break the fourth wall rather than grounding you in the canon.
Arcen Games are famous for their comprehensive patching regimen, and they've already added several new features, fixes and usability tweaks since the Good Friday launch. However, they're more famous for delivering radically innovative games that defy genre pigeonholes and provide totally new experiences.
The Last Federation proves beyond doubt, yet again, that they're a force to be reckoned with - and in ascendancy.
- A superbly detailed and balanced 4X simulation...
- ...to unbalance, manipulate and dominate in devious ways as a free agent
- Fun, accessible yet deep naval combat
- Versatile, unique and refreshing; stylish visuals and noteworthy soundtrack
- Bitty click-heavy UI with tiny icons and text
- Perfunctory endgame sequence
- Can be overwhelming and reliant on number crunching
The Short Version: The Last Federation lets us become the shadowy puppet master behind a simulated galaxy, which we can unify or destroy at our whim. Whether applying political pressure from behind the scenes or blasting pirate fleets with energy cannon fire, this recklessly innovative indie gem has the polish, fun factor and sticking power to match its big ambitions.
A subversive and superb twist on space strategy that rewards Machiavellian manipulation and nerves of steel.
A note on DRM: In a pleasing move, Arcen Games are releasing The Last Federation as DRM-free... even on Steam. Should you want to, the game files can be run without Steam and/or copied out of the Steam directory.