Star Traders: Frontiers

"Star Traders: Frontiers achieves what many games attempt and can't quite accomplish: naturalistic procedurally generated content, interconnected game systems, and strong narrative possibilities existing within the chaotic environment of said procedural generation."

Star Traders: Frontiers comes with the burdensome expectation of living up to the legacy of its developer's past works. Trese Brothers Games has released some of the truly great mobile games of all time, including personal favorite Cyber Knights RPG, but Star Traders: Frontiers is their most ambitious game yet. Fortunately, they shoulder that burden with surprising ease and grace.

The influences are obvious here. Star Traders: Frontiers initially seems a lot like the DOS classic Star Control. Like Star Control, this title is a sprawling science fiction RPG that is as deep as it is vast. You are free to pursue whatever endeavors you desire, be it trading, piracy, political manipulation, smuggling, intergalactic and planetside exploration, bounty hunting... but that's only the visible portion of the iceberg.

You view the game primarily from a top down perspective, commanding a large starship from system to system, engaging in random encounters with other ships which may (but do not always) result in combat. All the while, you must manage the morale, health, and skill allotment of your crew as well as the maintenance and upgrades of your vessel. If you've played a space trading game such as the aforementioned Star Control, it will all feel quite familiar.

This is the most attractive game from Trese Brothers Games to date. The characters and ships are sharp and detailed. The planets can look stunning from orbit, and the planetside starports are gorgeously painted backdrops behind the clear and concise menus. There are a few odd things, like some unfortunate slightly gaudy outfits for your crew, but most of the characters look great. All of the visuals are examples of nice, professional 2D artwork.

Various obstacles materialize via the random ship encounters or the event “ticker” on the right side of the screen. Basically any moment during travel, there is a chance that a random event will roll, which acts as a “skill check” for your crew. If any of these checks fail, you may receive damage to your ship, the crew, or their morale. Talents gained through leveling up your crew greatly mitigate the negative outcomes of these events, which tick by swiftly without interrupting the game in any way. The experience your crew gains as individuals clearly and distinctly contributes to the smooth running of the ship, so keeping morale high to avoid desertions is critical to dodge catastrophic and avoidable mistakes or oversights.

There are two forms of combat, ship-to-ship and infantry. They play similarly, both emphasizing positioning in some smartly abstracted ways and focusing heavily on one-time-use talents, which are learned as your crew levels up. The ship combat revolves around range, as your different weapons have their own effective ranges. Infantry combat is always 4-on-4, and each individual's weapon choice and skill set indicate their preferred slot in line, not unlike Darkest Dungeon. Both are turn based and rely on buffing and debuffing for tactical substance. Fortunately, it works fairly well in both situations, but the infantry combat can feel a bit more plodding. It does remain enjoyable despite this.

No matter how you choose to make a living, Star Traders maintains a quick pace while highlighting the uniqueness of the various activities, meaning that trading feels distinct from smuggling... which feels different from bounty hunting, etc. Although you soon find a rhythm, the game throws enough wrenches in the works to force you to pay attention while only rarely entering the realm of frustration. Players with the wherewithal to plan ahead will be rewarded with fewer unpleasant surprises.

The developers have an uncanny ability to know which of the many game systems to flesh out and garnish, and which to abstract just enough so they feel important but not cumbersome. Essentially, the moment-to-moment gameplay activities are presented in a manner more implied than literal, such as travel, combat, patrols, blockades, spying, random events, etc, while the systems dealing with the overall world, like faction relations, conflicts, rumors, and the dynamic economy, are crafted to the utmost level of intricacy. This contributes to fun, quick gameplay that takes place in one of the most convincingly dynamic game worlds seen in a long time. Star Traders: Frontiers achieves what many games attempt and can't quite accomplish: naturalistic procedurally generated content, interconnected game systems, and strong narrative possibilities existing within the chaotic environment of said procedural generation.

It's difficult to avoid cliché when describing the world of Star Traders. It is living, breathing, progressing with or without you, yet you can place yourself in positions to affect the destinies of individuals and nations. A shrewd captain will be able to see the myriad opportunities before them as the galaxy goes through eras, which affect the behavior of the factions, which affects their relationship to each other, which affects the economy, and so on. You form relationships and build a reputation with entire factions and individuals within those factions — quest givers called “contacts.” It really is too complicated to succinctly explain, so I'll demonstrate through a specific experience of mine.

I began a journey to repair my relationship with the factions I'd wronged, though usually not intentionally. Fortunately, I had a very healthy rolodex of contacts, so I found an individual fixer in a faction who especially despised me, and endeavored to prove myself useful to her through completing her missions. After in-game years of proven service, she approached me requesting help for her coming “coronation.” Now she had a new mission category to offer me that would further that goal. These missions (initiating market shortages by buying out supply, bribing officials, assassinating opponents) would increase her influence and reputation within her faction and amongst her peers. Mind you, reputation and influence are real stats affecting the game's systems. Once certain statistical thresholds and other conditions were met, she would upgrade from a “fixer” to a “smuggler princess”. Her new position granted her the ability to extend pardons on behalf of her faction. Now, through this clandestine relationship I'd carefully cultivated, I had a conduit through which I could immediately (though expensively) fix my reputation with the entire faction. I don't think I've ever seen handwritten plot and pure systemic game design married so perfectly in any game.

What makes this so special is that it can happen under many circumstances. That is, although this was a crafted yet randomly triggered side quest accompanied by handwritten dialogue, the missions I completed were not bespoke, but generated like all the other missions in the game. The ways in which they helped my contact were not scripted, but affected her visible influence and reputation statistics through the game's systems. Me buying up a significant percentage of liquor to stash in a hidden wilderness actually contributed to market shortages tracked by a dynamic economy. Although In this case, one could presume that she had others helping her, since one ship alone couldn't possibly affect the market enough to cause a real shortage.

The point is, you can choose to help, harm, or ignore whomever you choose. You can be as influential or low-profile as you wish, and you can make a good living either way. Also, the game world will progress through stages regardless of how much you wish to facilitate that progress toward one stage or another. There will be eras of peace, turmoil, plague, and more. Each era provides increased chances of certain specific challenges and opportunities.

Aside from the meta world-state changes, each quadrant and starport can also experience similar state changes. You may get reports of increased military patrols in a quadrant, for example, which is a challenge for a pirate or smuggler since they are likely to encounter more military ships demanding to search the cargo. A starport may be experiencing riots when you get there, which means you can't repair your ship, send your crew to medical facilities, or give them leave since all business is shut down. There are many of each type of state change, and each category feeds into each other. An era of plague increases the chances of disease in the starports which put your crew at risk every time you touch down, and an era of peace will decrease the chance of violent faction conflicts, but increase espionage and other passive-aggressive types of conflicts.

There are quests, stories, and narratives in Star Traders: Frontiers. They're well written, often feature fun characters, and nestle into the systems neatly. I can't comment too much on it though, since the possibilities for pursuing narratives is so vast that each player will find themselves in a completely different situation, location, and pursuing different goals than most others after the first couple hours. For my part, I contributed to the formation of a Galactic Coalition in service of an Arbiter named Brokstrom. However, as soon as I achieved her objectives, I found myself embroiled in several other dramas that ultimately led me to, as I said previously, attempt to fix my relationship with hostile factions. In short, all the writing is strong and the quests are cool, but talking about a narrative is missing the point unless it's to demonstrate how amorphous and richly dynamic it is.

The staggering intricacy of Star Traders: Frontiers is more than enough reason to experience it. It may seem complicated, but playing the game is so breezy that most people will be able to see clearly how the mechanics interact with each other. The fact that it's so easy to play and make progress means that a player can devote their mental capital to observing these systemic movements in order to take advantage of the situations they find thrust upon them. Star Traders: Frontiers is one of the very few games that actually fulfills the promise of allowing players to form their own stories that may be very different from others’. It is one of the truest examples of role playing games in the electronic medium.


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