03/10/2018

🔫 Review: Star Traders: Frontiers "One of the deepest, most complex experiences I’ve had since AD&D 2nd edition" 🛸 @TreseBrothers @DarkBlueMonkey #GameDev #IndieGame

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Review By DarkBlueMonkey
Like many, I’ve recently found myself turning away from the high-price Triple-A games towards the indie scene for my fix of truly novel gaming. As a long-time fan of the space trading and 4X genre, I’m always on the lookout for really innovative takes on a traditional formula. 

If I’m to get into a game, it needs to have a certain amount of depth in which to immerse my imagination, and it has to be said that few studios do depth like the two-man team of Cory and Andrew Trese.
Almost immediately after their first game, “Star Traders: 4X empires” which was released on Steam in 2014 to mixed reviews, they quickly performed a volte face, following it up less than a year later with an extremely impressive Templar Battleforce.

While TB was a huge departure from ST:4X, it still featured their signature mind-numbingly impressive set of choices for the player, demonstrating their flexibility and dedication to providing deep experiences. TB garnered great reviews, bringing the Trese Brothers firmly into the spotlight of the Indie scene.

Not content to stand still, the brothers have been hard at work over the last three years on their next space adventure, Star Traders: Frontiers. Although in the same universe as their first release, they’ve once again jumped genres from the original’s 4x empire-building into a more free-style RPG living sandbox galaxy with overarching storylines.

Fans of previous space trading games or A&D will be very pleased with ST:F. Much of the game can clearly trace its roots back to well known progenitors. There are aspects of FTL, Master of Orion, Elite, Darkest Dungeon and almost any table-top card-based game you care to mention. The complexity reminds me a lot of my early games of AD&D, and the starting six stats of “STR, CHR, WIS, QUICK, FORT and RES” map almost perfectly onto the AD&D standard “STR, CHR, WIS, DEX, STA and INT”. The fact that the stats start at a base of 8 reinforces the similarity.

Ad Astra

Like Elite’s “The Dark Wheel”, the game’s story begins with you inheriting your first space ship from a relative. Like any good RPG, you get to choose your gender, name, outfit and select from a range of starting classes. Your character is handed the keys to a medium-to-large trading vessel with a relatively green crew of about thirty salty space-dogs.

Character creation is intimately familiar to any D&D players.

Although there are a handful of pre-made templates, you can easily make your own. The starting class makes quite a difference to the way you play the game, so choose something that fits your style, rather than pick something that looks good and try to bend it into something else later.

After finding the built-in classes too difficult I made my own “Merchant” class with a nice easy play level focussing more on trading and negotiation, while turning down the belligerence and power of the baddies.

No good space game today would be complete without its fair share of intrigue and faction politics. ST:F is no exception with no less than nine factions. There are also the “independents” who generally seem to be treated as target practice by the others.

The factions all have the usual traits and fall into the same kinds of lines you’d find in any Sid Meier game or the Dune books by Frank Herbert. Choosing your starting faction seems largely irrelevant in the early game, but becomes more important later on as you begin to push out into the galaxy.

With the captain set up, you’re released to do as you please. You start out in a “quadrant” as defined by the faction you chose. One time I started way out on the right, another time I was smack in the middle.
The galaxy’s quadrants have a core area of highly-connected systems, and two “tails” leading off to some very interesting systems.

Each quadrant is “controlled” by one of the factions, and within each one is a collection of planets. To add a level of complexity, each of the planets is controlled by one or more of the factions which may (or may not) be the same that controls the quadrant. The planetary government may even be at war with the quadrant owner.
Each planet or space station has one or two landing zones. These may be totally different types of zone, and controlled by different factions!

In times of war, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to find yourself buying a hold full of well-priced goods and then be unable to sell it nearby because all planets with demand for it are embargoed from you by restrictions, or because you’re the enemy.

As the galaxy’s timeline unfolds, the factions will have their inevitable disagreements, wars and allegiances, presenting you with problems or opportunities, depending on how you look at them. You can’t possibly know or predict what will happen on your first few playthroughs, though, so just go with the flow and try to keep a note of the major happenings.
Each planet is surrounded by a collection of icons which show its faction, type and main features. Learning to interpret all the icons and symbols takes quite some time.

Tuning into the News

Because of the huge amount of dynamism in the game, it’s hugely important to keep an eye on the faction politics and news windows as often as possible. Generally, each time you land at a planet you have to go through a ritual of checking all the information feeds. This can be a bit laborious but more than pays for itself in trade opportunities.

The houses can engage in a number of actions against each other. Most of them seem to be exploitable or may be affected by your actions.

Keeping track of who’s engaged in certain actions can net you some good profits too, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty by joining in the tussle. The downside is that you’d be persona non grata with the other side, unless you take certain preventative measures, which we’ll talk about in a little while.

The game’s newsfeed is chock full of useful information. Ignoring the news is done at your own peril, it’s easy to find your day turning very sour.

As well as the formal news, and the political updates, there are also “rumours”. These are snippets of information which may help you avoid getting into trouble. Nobody wants to be on a highly lucrative trade run with damaged weapons when they’re suddenly ambushed by a Xeno, the game’s answer to the Xenon, or Thargoids. Keeping your ear to the ground can prevent that.

Rumours give some flavour to each quadrant and let you know local stuff that’s happening outside the viewport.

All of this influx of news leads to a bit of “information overload”. The ritual checking of news and rumours grows ever more complex and onerous as you spread your wings to explore the farther quadrants. At first only a few rumours and news are pertinent, but later your crew become adept at picking up rumours, and you need to keep an eye on the news from every sector you’re likely to fly through.

The skill of filtering out the unimportant information takes a while to master. After 40+ hours of gameplay I’m still checking the maps and planets to see whether each news item is worth noting.

Trading

Planets will have stock to trade (as you’d expect from a trading game), fuel depots, dry-docks, shipyards and medical facilities. I won’t waste time talking about them since they’re pretty self-explanatory and work as you’d expect.

Also on the planets are a “spice hall” and potential “contacts”. The spice hall acts like a bar that you can banish your down-in-the-dumps crews to in order to raise morale, Sending them uses up your hard-earned cash as you’re effectively “putting your card behind the bar” to give your weary crew a good time to cheer them up. If you train them in a little subtle espionage, you can also get them to do a little spying while they’re in the bar and perhaps pick up some more rumours and maybe even a new contact.

One of the “tactics” is to instantly fire any crew who are depressed, and hire chirpy replacements instead of pay for endless trips to the spice hall. While Human Resources would have a heart attack in the real world, it seems a sensible, if callous tactic here.

But, annoy a faction too much, and when you land you’ll be faced with a wall of red: No refuelling, no repairs, no medical, and absolutely no visits to the pub. The world is cut off to you completely. Unless you have a friendly contact on the world, you just better head back up into space and find somewhere else to grab a pint.
Short of fuel, and damaged in hostile territory quickly spells doom since there’s nowhere you can refuel and repair.

Assuming you’re not Public Enemy #1, you can head over to the Exchange and check out the trading opportunities. To begin with you can pick up a few small cheap items. Each planet only has a small number of certain items, unless they’re a major producer, so don’t expect to recreate those epic trading runs from Elite!

The game’s economics and supply/demand system are simplistic but also relatively realistic. Of course you have to suspend disbelief a little in that a 1,000 tonne space ship can clean out an entire planet’s output of “plants”, but let’s not split hairs.
There’s absolutely nothing unexpected here. The selection of trade goods could be lifted from any trading game. The familiarity is nice, though, and is the one part of the game which doesn’t confuse the novice player.

You’ll notice from the above that some of the trade goods are restricted through permits. This is one part of the game which I found a little irritating. While in theory you can avoid contacts, doing so limits your trading opportunities somewhat.

There’s a little bit of a bootstrap problem that you need to make some money to get the influence to buy the permits to make more money. Without those permits, there comes a limit to how much each trade can make, and the game becomes a real grind. So, you’ll need to be in favour with at least one person (usually the starting prince, Calagan), in order to make enough cash to buy yourself protection for the longer trade runs.

The game provides an interesting system where the costs of items are affected by many factors, including supply, reputation, trade skill, planet type, faction, and possibly more. It tries to simplify this to an A to F letter code, A+ denoting a well priced stock, F being mediocre. However, when calculating the potential profit one has to also look at stock availability (which isn’t shown until you click on it) and the actual cost vs. average cost. So be prepared to do a lot of mental arithmetic to work out the most lucrative purchases if you choose trading.

Getting to know you

Contacts are absolutely invaluable in ST:F. All of the main storyline is advanced through contacts in your home faction, and then the further contacts you make as a result of working for them. Once you’ve got enough “rep” with contacts, you can ask for introductions to others.

The galaxy’s a big place though and ST:F gives the contacts far and wide. Very seldom did I find that the offered contacts were in useful locations for me, since I couldn’t really travel all that far before going deep into hostile territory and using all my cash on bribes to escape combat.
Different contacts have different things they can offer. Most offer jobs, but some also offer influence, permits and introductions to other contacts. Getting a good contact can be worth more than many hours of trading.

Although contacts are valuable, you can quite easily play without talking to a single soul. Mostly swerving the contacts can be a good move if you want to stay neutral and do some trading,

Contact missions are often hugely lucrative, but like all political things the stuff they tell you is only the tip of the iceberg. If someone sends you to a quadrant owned by a different faction, be prepared to take a reputation hit from that faction when you’re doing the mission due to “unforeseen side effects”. I took a few missions and suddenly found myself unable to return to my old trade runs because I was now had the death penalty on twelve systems.

Assemble your crew and head out

So, once you’re all loaded up with cargo, perhaps with a mission to do, you can set off into space. The waypointing and navigation system is quite well done. Like everything in this game it takes some getting used to, but once you figure out where all the necessary buttons and right-click options are, you can move about relatively easily. There’s a lot of toggling back and forth between windows, though, to compare stats and check routes, which is just a limitation of the game’s UI style. It doesn’t overly affect the game too much, but does make you wish for a few usability enhancements.

Once you get into space, the game switches from being about trading and missions to something far more complex and, dare I say it, more ‘grown up’. Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the crew.

25 to 30 strong, the crew have their own jobs and functions aboard ship. Senior officers can train in up to three different jobs, allowing impressive customisation of skillsets. Each job that a crewperson has grants access to talent upgrades which are offered as the crew gain experience. Getting new talents occurs on payday (for some reason), and these are some of the most delicious sequences of play as you get to customise your crew to your own tastes.
The crew are vitally important in Star Traders: Frontiers, and may be the aspect of the game which separates it from all of its peers. Each crew member is an individual and each has a job to do.

As you ply the spaceways, little things happen along the way. Safety checks are run, course corrections occur, safety drills run, and all the other little things a ship needs to do. Each time one of these events occurs, a stat check occurs against the crew. If someone passes a talent check, the event occurs without issue. If nobody is up to the task, however, the ship or crew can be damaged or hurt.
A small window pops up to show you all the little events that occur while travelling, and the talent from the crew which prevented it from being a disaster. It also shows any major news events, but they scroll past so quickly it’s easy to miss them.

Each time a member of the crew uses their talent, there’s a ‘cooldown’ time before they can use it again. So it pays to have multiple members of the crew trained up to respond to the same kinds of in-flight emergency, in case it happens twice in quick succession.


In addition to the little stat-check talents which stop you taking damage, the crew have two kinds of combat talents. The first gives skills or applies buffs to ship-to-ship combat, while the second gives options and buffs for hand-to-hand combat.

You can either nurture your crew, or fire them and replace them with better ones at your discretion, a bit like discarding your unwanted cards in Poker. Some hardened players swear by the “discard all the noobs” tactic at the outset.

Ship-to-ShipUh oh…

Running into another ship while doing a trade run or mission is a nerve-wracking event while you’re still building up your ship’s capabilities. Almost all of the encounters will result in some kind of damage or penalty until you learn how to play the game better.

There are a number of tactics espoused by the community, but the prevailing #1 tactic seems to be “just surrender and be boarded all the time”. So long as you’ve got permits for all your cargo, and you’re in allied space, being approached by a non-hostile you’ll probably just be left alone.

Each enemy ship has a page of stats you can review before choosing what to do.

Although at first it seems maddeningly unfair how you seem to be perpetually losing reputation with everyone, when encountering ships your options are almost always logical, although the results can leave you scratching your head. When first starting out, it’s easy to see the word “Smuggler” or “pirate” and go on the attack to gain some rep, but almost always going on the offensive will lose you rep with the ship’s faction at the very least, and might result in much worse penalties later.

It seems annoying that taking out a clearly illegal ship will result in losing reputation with a faction, as it seems to deter the player taking legally sanctioned actions far away from anyone who might see them doing it. However, once again you must curry favour with a contact in order to get permits and military ranks to open those lines of play up. Considering it that way, it does make some sense, although once again it sends you running into the arms of contacts, which you might be wanting to avoid due to their unerring ability to get you in trouble all the time.

Military Actions

If you do lose too much reputation with a faction, you can try to do some nice things for them in the form of military actions. While doing big high-value trades can help (so long as you’re not barred from the exchange), taking patrol jobs can be the only way to recover reputation effectively.

These actions are presented as a card game. You’re dealt a set of cards depending on the situation, and have some crew-based talents to adjust or remove some of the cards based on what talents you’ve trained them up with. The nice sounds of the cards turning, and the delightful anticipation as the cards are removed until the result takes me right the way back to waiting for the d20 to stop spinning in AD&D to see if the sword went into the enemy or my own foot.
Patrolling, Blockading and Spying are card-based mini-games mixed with percentages, and affected by your crew’s talents.

Unfortunately, the patrolling aspect of the game feels (to me) too much like it’s stacked against the player, and results in a little too much ‘dead time’. The game would feel a lot more ‘fun’ if the percentages were tweaked more into the player’s favour, I feel. You can easily spend many hours patrolling planets and wind up worse off than you started, thanks to bad luck and running out of positive talents that help you avoid trouble. Despite playing on ‘easy’, I’m yet to make any major headway with reputation by patrolling. The time spent versus reward given leads me to find patrolling a bit less rewarding than it could have been.

I discussed this point on the Trese Brother’s forum, and the (extremely helpful) players there gave me all manner of tips and tricks, which generally boiled down to “Train up your crew to help you to avoid combat” and “if you do get in a fight just run away all the time” or “just walk away from a hand you don’t like”. While perfectly valid, to me it feels like an admission that the balance isn’t quite there yet if the best thing to do is run away all the time.
Sometimes a patrol ends up with a nice surprise at the end.

However it was also through the flavour of some of the answers that I realised I was thoroughly misunderstanding some aspects of the game. The patrol is for a faction, in a system owned by a (different) faction.

Apparently the interplay of the player’s standing with both of those factions affects the percentages in the die-roll, and then the crew’s talents can affect how much reputation they stand to lose (or not). All the complex interplay behind the scenes can be quite confusing.

Takin’ it to ‘em

If the worst comes to the worst, and you have to engage an enemy ship, the ensuing fight will be extremely familiar to anyone who’s played tabletop gaming or FTL. Two ships with weapons, skills and shielding pitted against each other at varied ranges. It really pays to look into the statistics for the enemy ship and decide on whether to go toe-to-toe, run away, or try to board them.

Ship-based combat is extremely easy to get to grips with although it’s perhaps not the most nuanced or strategic implementation I’ve seen.

The ship-to-ship combat is interesting and solid. Everything feels ‘right’, and the way the weapons and movement balance, but are enhanced by the crew’s talents makes for some nice choices.

It feels like a “light” version of FTL, where the damage is shown a little less graphically, but you really get the feeling that your upgrade choices matter in the heat of battle. Having crew die in combat can be frustrating, but getting new crew and training them up isn’t too punishing, so long as it’s not, say, half your crew.

Mano a mano

If you manage to inch your way through the walls of laser and kinetic fire and get within boarding range, the game turns from an FTL-like into a Darkest Dungeons-like.

The play style is clearly influenced by Darkest Dungeon

You choose four crewpersons to take into the boarding party, arrayed on the left. The enemy throws up four to counter you on the right. Actual disposition is meant to be in the mind of the player requiring some imagination to pretend where the crew actually are, rather than a literal lining up like a giant tug-of-war in the cargo hold.

The turns proceed in initiative order, with certain actions using up some of your initiative, affecting your next turn. Each attack has a set of effective positions, and has a certain set of locations it is effective against.

Ensuring you have an effective fighting force involves quite a lot of planning. Checking the crew screen and noting their preferred weaponry and position, is a critical first step. Then looking to see if they’ve got any weaknesses or strengths can tell you if they’ll suffer a crisis of faith at an inopportune moment.
This chap’s pretty handy in a firefight.

It’s always wise to have three dedicated fighters in your crew and a combat medic. They’ll each have a preferred location, and can execute certain attacks from their preferred position. If they get pushed out of position, they can become far less effective.
The various talents you assign to the crew can give them more effective attacks. But there’s no point assigning a position-2-only attack to someone who prefers position 1 or 4, for instance.

Many of the additional attacks at higher levels are very effective and can also knock the enemy out back, stun, poison or kill them outright.

Who left the docs out?

As you should have guessed, with all the captain, faction, news, crew stats, quadrant politics, ship stats weapons, tactics, talents, upgrades etc, effective play requires memorizing a huge amount of cause-and-effect material, or spending half your time on the Wiki to have a hope of staying in one piece.

There’s no manual. Instead, the Trese Brothers have supplied an extensive Wiki. The wiki is to the game as a Haynes manual is to a car; it’ll tell you how to change a carburettor, but don’t expect it to teach you how to drive. If you need that you must turn to player-made documentation.

Just leafing through all the player-made guides can take many hours of your time alone. There are guides in how to be most of the “primary” career paths. There are also pages and pages of tips on how to get the most out of your crew, ship and combat.

Not for the faint hearted

Star Traders: Frontiers is not a game for the faint hearted. The fact is that the game genuinely tries to present you with realistic-seeming choices, and (except for a few places), the consequences are realistic too. To do this, it actually simulates hundreds or perhaps thousands of variables, with every single member of the crew contributing towards your overall success.

For the beginner, there simply isn’t enough in-game help for what to do at each stage and the text on screen doesn’t give you the full picture of the choice you’re making, often understating the negative effects of what you’re about to do. The combinations and permutations of all the different talents and effects are so vast that the choices can seem impossibly hard to choose from. It’s easy to feel utterly lost and that the game is set up to make your life hard.

Once you’ve got about 30 to 50 hours of gameplay under your belt, read through the Wiki and the best strategies (usually running away all the time), you begin to see the patterns and understand a lot of those hidden effects.

Despite the difficulty, it’s astonishingly well put together. Once you understand the risks and effects, the game becomes irresistible. I’m absolutely hooked on it and spending an inordinate amount of my time away from the PC plotting for ST:F when I get back.

There’s so much in this game even this long review barely scratches the surface of it all. I didn’t mention piracy, bounty hunting, blockading, spying, selling secrets, obtaining pardons, ransoming crews, upgrading your ship or buying bigger ships retraining and a whole lot more besides. If you want to find out about those, you’re just going to have to buy the game.

Summary

Star Traders: Frontiers is a very solid RPG with more depth than the Stygian Abyss. Every single element has been crafted and polished nearly to a mirror shine. The Storyline, graphics, varied game modes, excellent sound and music are all very good with few gripes to speak of.

The hurricane of information constantly battering the player coupled with the lack of sufficient (or correct) information to choose the best path at any one moment can put new players off. It just takes time, repeated plays and reading of community guides, to learn the game’s idiosyncrasies. The Discord community is good, and the Trese brothers are generally on hand to lend a supportive hand or thank the community for their assistance.

If you’re looking something sweet and simple like “Master of Orion 1” or “Starlord”, this isn’t the game for you. Star Traders: Frontiers is a cerebral and extremely rewarding game with complexity in almost every interaction. It may be one of the deepest, most complex experiences I’ve had since AD&D 2nd edition.

For just £11.39 on Steam, I’m impressed by the sheer amount of material and replayability on offer, making the game an absolute steal for the more cerebral Sci-Fi RPG lovers.

❄️ RATING: ICE COOL ❄️
Ratings Explained
ICE COOL (Great Game Recommended)
MELTING (Recommended with reservations, one to consider if you are a fan of the genre)
MELTED (Not A Recommended Purchase)