Pixel Starships - A pixellated vaccum
| Pixel Starships
There are so many almost identical base-building games clogging the arteries of the App Store that new ones need a big gimmick just to get noticed.
Pixel Starships has several. It's got cute retro-art and a successful kickstarter behind it. Most interesting of all its design riffs on one of my favourite games of all time, FTL: Faster than Light.
Instead of just throwing buildings together and upgrading them, you have to co-ordinate a functional ship. Rather than just rushing the enemy, there's multi-weapon deep space firefights.
It's also a great demonstration that having enough to stand out from the crowd doesn't equate to having enough to be a good game.
The basics consist of stuff you've seen a hundred times before. Two resources, minerals and gas, which you need to accumulate. Barriers to doing just that in the form of timers and limited storage.
Characters and systems to upgrade. Premium currency to make all the pain and frustration of gathering stuff just to gather other stuff go away.
Instead, let's look at the most interesting premise - the combat. It's the meat of the game. Each time you fly a mission, it involves fighting something else, from rocks to other player's ships.
Your weapons and shields all require one or more bars of power from your ship's generator in order to function. When they have it, you can drag each one to a target system on the enemy ship.
Once the power bar fills up, weapons discharge. Energy weapons have to work through shields first, whereas missiles go straight for the kill.Wasted potential
That ought to be the basis of some interesting real time combat. Except that the need for power to keep weapons working introduces a fatal flaw.
If you can knock out the enemy generator, all their offensive and defensive systems are useless.
So that's all combat becomes - a race to destroy all the generators on the enemy ship before they do the same to you.
The ship with the most power almost always wins this race. Once it's over, you must still destroy the enemy's infrastructure, which involves watching your guns fire for sixty seconds.
In summary, most of the game is combat. Combats are generally decided before anyone fires a shot. And the majority of combat time is watching animations.
With the core of the game little more than a sucking pit, you're forced to go looking for fun in ship building instead.
This aspect of the game offers zero innovation - you just pick things from a menu and cram them onto your hull.Cosmic glitches
As if the painfully circular upgrade cycle wasn't obvious enough, Pixel Starships really loves its timers. I hadn't even been playing for ten minutes before I got hit with an hour long one. They just get steeper from there.
The only way to bypass timers and, indeed, the only way to build your ship at a satisfying rate, is to spend the premium currency of Starbux.
The only way to earn these in game is via the achievements system, which doesn't work as advertised. There are few on offer, and most don't seem to increment when you complete the demanded action.
To add insult to injury you can't buy one game action, levelling up crew, with anything other than Starbux. They're essential. The whole game feels haunted by a deliberate design choice to make players spend, or give up.
That would be bad enough by itself, but there's no game here worth playing in the first place. There are many more bugs in the system, including lock-outs and crashes, and advertised features that simply aren't there.
With it's cheery retro graphics and jolly loading screen japes, you could call this a wolf in sheep's clothing. Except underneath the fleece, there's nothing there at all.