The space combat genre seems to be making something of a comeback lately, with releases like Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut lighting up the dark corners of space. As such, it’s only right that the PlayStation Vita should get its own spaceship game, and Starlight Inception by Escape Hatch Entertainment is a Kickstarter project that’s designed to fill that very void. Alas, despite being a crowd funding success story, this customisable affair is a bit of a mess on Sony’s handheld machine.
The story sounds interesting enough. You assume the role of a space pilot during World War IV, and you’re assigned to the carrier U.S.F. From this position, you must fight in different battles that are important to the war cause. Despite a solid premise, though, the intricacies of the narrative are hard to follow, and it becomes confusing and uninteresting as a result. Even the pilot monologues which are relayed between missions fail to add any spice, and you’ll quickly find your attention starting to stray.
One neat idea is that you can move around the U.S.F before embarking on your latest objective, but the clumsy first-person controls leave a lot to be desired. Add to the fact that the visuals look – well, in the kindest manner possible – dated, and the whole mechanic loses its lustre a little.
Thankfully, this represents a small portion of the package, and you’ll spend most of your time out piloting a spaceship as you attempt to take enemies down. While this handles better than the on-foot exploration, the controls are still merely serviceable at best. You handle the yaw and pitch using the left-analogue stick, while the right nub allows you to roll. Thrusting and braking is dealt with using the R and L buttons respectively, while the face buttons tackle your various weapons. It sounds fine on paper, but the button layout makes it difficult to manoeuvre with any real accuracy, as you’ll have to release the right-analogue stick in order to fire off rounds.
When you’re not wrestling with the inputs, you’ll (hopefully) be completing a variety of objectives, which include saving allies or salvaging items. Despite the intergalactic theme, not all of these take place in space; for example, you may have to work over a city like Chicago or even different planets. Unfortunately, you’ll need to fly between different waypoints in order to complete entire missions, and this leads to a lot of needless – and tedious – downtime.
Moreover, the checkpointing is terrible. This can mean that you spend anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute travelling to a choke point, only to get blown up, and forced to restart. It may not sound like a lot, but when you’re forced to repeat this several times, it quickly adds up, and the issue could have easily been avoided with more thoughtful design.
Still, aside from the above control issues, the combat is not terrible – it’s just dull. On the small screen of the Vita, the developer doesn’t seem to have accounted for issues such as miniscule enemies, which can be almost impossible to make out. The game compensates for this by including red targets, but engaging in an artillery exchange with little more than a heads-up display isn’t exactly our idea of epic space warfare.
Alas, when you can see these foes, they’re utterly devoid of any intelligence anyway. They seem content with allowing you to blast them as they follow a straight trajectory, continuing on their pre-programmed path until they explode into an unsatisfactory ball of flames. This is all undoubtedly worsened by the fact that you’re supposed to be participating in World War IV – it’s meant to be exciting. Not even the audio can live up to the spectacle, which is drowned out, flat, and doesn’t lend any excitement to the action at all.
To its credit, the game is not short on choices. You can toggle between two different perspectives as you cruise the galaxy: a first-person cockpit view and third-person viewpoint where the camera sits behind the right wing of the ship. As already alluded, the handheld’s teensy screen means that your outlook will be impaired whichever option you use, and this includes the heads-up display, which is very crowded. Worse still, while you’re given plenty of information, the release complete forgoes the most important detail of them all: your objective. As such, you’ll need to rely on radio commands.
Still, the game definitely does deliver in one area, and that’s the headline customisation mechanic. There’s a lot of depth to be found here, from different types of ships, to weapons, and much more. It’s impressive what you can do here, but with the core gameplay being so dull, it begs the question: why would you bother? Granted, here’s a horde mode where you protect a mother ship from waves of enemies, as well as an online area where you can compete with friends – but in both instances, the poor controls remain a problem.
And bad design choices and drab missions aren’t the only issue, as the game is in a pretty horrendous state from a technical perspective, too. We encountered numerous crashes, freezes, death loops, and much more. The developer informs us that a patch is in the pipeline, but it’s pretty unforgiveable that the game has launched in this state, and we’re not convinced that any number of hot fixes will solve the fact that this space foray just isn’t fun to play.
Starlight Inception is a hot mess. Not only does it feature more bugs than a faraway foreign planet, but it’s also disappointingly dull to play. Poor pacing, atrocious graphics, and shoddy controls mean that this space sim barely manages to get off the ground. Factor in its £12.99/$19.99 price point, and this is little more than an intergalactic insult.