Frankly it’s about time that someone made a strategy game in space, one where you can control vast fleets of starships and conquer a vast array of systems and planets. A game where you can fight an array of alien species whilst researching the next scientific innovation which will allow you to improve your terraforming of planets or improve your current colonies or nuke somebody else’s planets. Unfortunately, while Lords of the Black Sun by Arkavi Studios does indeed contain all of these things, it doesn’t really do it in the way I see it in my mind. It’s a game which, I think, had noble intentions but then, rather unfortunately, failed to deliver on pretty much all of them.
From the offset the similarities between Lords of the Black Sun and the Civilization series (where I will admit to having only played Civilization Revolution to any great degree) were surprisingly obvious. Starting up a game you choose the properties of the Galaxy you will be playing in and also which one of 8 races you will be playing. Like Civilization each race has specific traits which supposedly provide advantages and disadvantages whilst playing. Jumping in further I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the last thing I was hoping for was a straight-up 2-D map of explorable star systems somewhat akin to the Mass Effect galaxy map. Each system contains a number of planets with a few set traits which mark out their size, whether it is possible to colonise them and the abundance of their natural resources. Also like Civ Rev you start out with only a simple scout ship which you can send off into the unexplored galaxy to find new habitable planets, pirates, primitive non-spacefaring races and the other empires.
Everything happens in a turn-based manner, movement of ships, income, construction and if that still isn’t enough similarities for you, even the screen for each planet you have under your control is reminiscent of the cities in Civilization down to build queues, the stats of the planet and buildings present in the city. You even get to choose one type of scientific research to focus on from one of an economy, military or “technology” tech-trees which will research steadily over the next few turns.
And of course, what would a turn-based strategy game be if it did not have some form of diplomacy screen with which you can interact with those other civilisations with which you have made contact? Because I’ll tell you right now there is nothing I love more than a diplomacy screen with the options of forming alliances, gifting money and planets or creating trade routes. Well, that’s not entirely true, I also enjoy having other civilisations constantly believe that anything you offer is beneath their all-powerful stature and that you should offer the majority of your next 5 years income in order to pay for something you did not particularly want in the first place. Nice.
I don’t want to belittle what the game tries to do too much though because Arkavi Studios did make some attempt to introduce some new and interesting ideas to the game. You can recruit generals to lead your fleets and ministers to provide policy within your government. You can change a variety of governmental policies in order to gain certain bonuses with interesting choices from offering free healthcare to legalising slavery. Your income comes from not only trade and planet industry but also tourism as other races visit your lovely planets. You also slowly build up “Glory Points” by doing various things including fighting battles and researching tech throughout the course of the game and once you have enough you can make speeches which provide strong bonuses to your Empire.
Most exciting of all is the ability to customise your own starships though. It would appear that devs are finally starting to cotton on to the fact that everyone and their cat wants to own a starship of their own and customise every little thing about it. In fact I think this is part of the reason why FTL was quite so successful. So the ability to customise a whole fleet of your own ships is definitely something which made me perk up when I started playing the game. I could already taste the possibilities, making huge slow-moving Star Destroyers with massive amounts of firepower and armour, flanked by smaller and nimbler frigates with less power but perhaps the ability to make more moves in combat or be more evasive or whatever. It had a lot of promise.
This is where the primary issue of LotBS comes into the fore. The simple fact is that there is so little variation to the game, so little ability to choose and change, that really all the options you are provided with seem pretty empty of any real value because the majority of them do not really require any real thought to choose.
Going through all the interesting individual bits and pieces. Generals provide literally nothing (not even any buffs to nearby ships that I could see) except one more slightly more powerful ship which can level up. Ministers are worse in that their sole function appears to be that they occasionally suggest a technology from the tree for you to research. That’s literally it. Changing governmental policy would be a neat little mechanic if there was more than eight or so things you had any power over and making speeches might be interesting if there were any more than four (and in reality only one of those has any actual value).
Deciding what to research is all-too-often, far-too-easy a decision to make. You are provided the choice between technologies which will increase the amount of damage your ships will do or increase the amount of production and science your empire produces. OR you can choose to have your species be “more liked” by other alien races. Well… Great… I guess… I’m going to go for the bigger guns though. This is an especially valid point when one understands that there is literally only one way to win the game and that is by “domination”, I.e. destroying all other alien races. You CAN (if you remember) select the option for an allied victory at the start, but this still does not change the fact that the only technologies of any real value are those which make your ship’s numbers higher.
The short-comings of the game are easiest to see in the customisation of your own ships, the area which ought to have been the most exciting. You are offered the ability to customise four different sizes of ship: small, medium, heavy and capital hulls. The size of the ship allows it to have an increased weight capacity and an increased number of slots for weapons, armour and so-on. However, there is no way to increase the amount of weight ships can carry and no way to increase the number of slots on existing hulls. This means you will always be limited to a few viable choices and there is no way of improving on existing designs. It would be good if newer engines could allow a ship to carry more weight or if there was the ability to add extra modules, but no, nothing of the sort.
Choosing between existing modules are often superfluous as well. For example, in the “defense” slots one can place armour or shields. The difference being that shields regenerate between fights whilst armour does not, but they both provide overall additional healthpoints in combat. In what possible way is anyone ever choosing armour over shields here? Especially as armour is usually heavier and provides less health.
It gets even worse when one examines weapons as well. When first designing ships you see that you have the option to choose between outfitting your ships with beam, plasma and rocket weapons. Initially this seems pretty awesome, because maybe it means your ships can fire a volley of all three at once in a fight and perhaps each type of weapon has a specific advantage and disadvantage. HOWEVER, in combat a ship literally has two things it can do. It can move and “evade” incoming attacks, or it can move and fire (and the distance it moves has no impact on whether it can fire or not). Plus, it can only fire ONE of any of it’s equipped weapons. So really the only viable option is to equip just one of the three types of weapon, because this will mean it will do the most damage with it’s turn. There is also no noticeable difference between weapon types either. Rockets seem to have a slightly longer range while beams have the shortest, but that’s it. While this might suggest that rockets might be superior, this is really not the case as they are A. the heaviest form of weapon (and so you have to equip fewer than you could other weapons, doing less damage overall) and B. each combat map takes literally two moves to cross (for every type of ship, regardless of size or engine type) so really range is meaningless. This meant that I very quickly was only equipping beam weapons to all of my ships, because I could move halfway across the map (then the enemy would move into range) and then on the next turn I would be able to shoot any opposition from the sky.
Ship sizes also quickly become superfluous as well. As there is no noticeable difference in what a ship can do in combat or how far it can move on the Galaxy map, inevitably I just started to churn out the biggest ships I could outfit. During this same time the enemy AI kept building small and medium hulls whilst I was building Capitals, meaning that when it did finally come to a fight there was literally no contest between the firepower I could field and theirs.
Because of all of these things combat also very quickly became boring and extremely repetitive. Depending on who initiated the encounter, the first player would move halfway across the map and shoot any rockets in their arsenal. Then the other side would move all their ships closer to the middle and fire back. And then, because my ships were always stronger with more damage output, I would destroy their ships. Initially I lost ships due to poor understanding of how the game worked but towards middle-game I would only lose a ship if they somehow managed to catch one on it’s own in space.
It is a story that became oft-repeated. Some stats, for example increasing your race’s likeability or diplomacy skill, seem utterly superfluous and thus just stupid to have. It is clear that the game started off with some interesting foundations on which to build but then ran out of substance when it actually came to delivering on the various ideas they had. Frankly, it’s just disappointing, boring and nothing special and I would not recommend it to anyone.
A final note about the game as well is that, even now, it still feels a bit buggy at times. The devs are very clearly and (rather pleasantly) keeping an eye on the Steam page for any complaints, but this does not change the fact that the game does still have issues. In my game alone my campaign would repeatedly freeze (except for the zoom function on my mouse) and slow down to crawl. Then after I won my first war, for whatever reason, I started to get money in the tens-of-thousands every turn instead of the hundreds of income I was supposed to have. That was the final straw for me, it was a game which was already too easy and now that I had lost the only limiting factor on my Empire (my income) whatever challenge there might have been had disappeared.