Note: This review is based on the Early Access version of the game, before its full release 4 months later.
Star Story: The Horizon Escape, by Evil Corporation Games, is a game that blends the “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style progression of a visual novel, the item gathering and puzzle solving of a traditional graphic adventure, and the turn-based battles of a traditional RPG. These disparate elements come together to form a cohesive whole that is less like a Frankenstein monster and more like a BLT (bacon, lettuce, tomato) sandwich. Although this is an alright BLT, it needs something more to be a great BLT.
The story puts you in the boots of a somewhat muddled archaeologist whose ship crash-lands on a foreboding planet due to its tractor beam-esque gravitational pull. While his archeological spirit encourages him to explore this new land and discover buried secrets, his main objective is simply to get off this dangerous and desolate world. With nothing left to lose, he decides to learn as much as he can about his surroundings while searching for a way to escape. The majority of this mysterious planet is desert with some oases where other crash-landing survivors reside and have split off into different factions, which depend on various means of survival (e.g. raiders, scientists, etc.)
The story is fairly simple, and I did not feel emotionally invested in the protagonist, the villains, or the NPCs, who all had potential to be something special. Neither the protagonist, nor the world, nor its inhabitants receive any organic or meaningful development, and the game ends very suddenly, leaving more questions than answers. I assume more episodes are in the works because the ending indicates that there are more adventures to be had. Good writing can make even the most mundane stories interesting, yet Star Story’s prose lacks character and reads in a wooden manner. For example, the protagonist looks like a guy who would have a big personality, but he is practically devoid of one. The potential exists for a compelling tale of a man’s journey to overcome crushing odds, but that potential is not realized at all, which is disappointing.
Equally disappointing is the sound. The sparse music, while nicely composed, is not particularly memorable. Sound effects do their best to lend atmosphere, but there isn’t enough sonic variety for my tastes. I understand that deserts are desolate environments, but many of Earth’s deserts are actually teeming with life, so the lack of interesting music and dynamic sound effects in Star Story made progression feel tedious.
One cool aspect about the game is its take on a visual novel’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” mechanics. Every action taken in the game adds points to one of three alignments: combative, inquisitive, and supportive. The amount of points in each alignment not only affects the decisions you’re presented with at various junctures, but it also affects which equipment you can forge. The combative alignment opens up weapon creation, the inquisitive alignment lets you create exploratory gadgets (e.g. jumping boots, language translation devices), and the supportive alignment provides the ability to craft healing items.
Although the game has a variety of tasks to keep things fresh, it moves at such a relaxed pace that it’s difficult to play it in marathon sessions. Star Story lends itself best to short 5-7 minute bursts or it gets repetitive over the long haul. Thankfully, the game is only about 4-6 hours long. When approached as a casual game, this is praise. However, when approached from the context of meatier graphic adventures, this is a death knell because “hardcore” players want to be kept enticed for lengthier sessions.
Game progression has you walking along until a screen pops up, presenting you with a visual novel-style cutscene that textually sets up a scenario and offers choices on how to handle the situation. Choices usually boil down to fighting, fleeing, talking, or evading, though some are greyed out depending on what equipment you have. Some choices lead to a multi-step Q&A puzzle to solve a conundrum, where a situation is presented and you have to choose which of the items will work best in each step of the solution. Most of these are no-brainers, but others require leaps of logic. There are also some choices that involve using an exploratory gadget to avoid hostilities.
Not all battles can be avoided, however. Combat in Star Story plays out in a turn-based fashion, with the icons at the bottom of the screen representing the weapons and items available for use. Some weapons, like blaster rifles, do massive damage but require cooldown times lasting several turns. Others, like clubs, do less damage but have no cooldowns. Also important in battles are temporary shield items, whose calculated use can be the difference between winning and losing. Battles can be pretty challenging without judicious use of strategy, and there’s an unexpectedly sharp difficulty spike near the end of the game, which I discovered the hard way after losing to the final boss a couple of times. Still, with the right preparations and a little finesse, you can best any challenge this game has to offer.
After a certain point in the game, a mobile home base becomes accessible during the various junctures where the game stops to narrate events. In this home base, you can heal up, salvage raw materials, create items based on blueprints you’ve uncovered, open sealed capsules, update your inventory, and all that other good resource management stuff.
Star Story is a vibrant looking game. The sprites and environments feature clean lines, vivid colors, and smooth animations. Event cutscenes have comic book panel aesthetics, which really appeals to an avid comic book reader like me. The game doesn’t have many environments or sprites, so I look forward to what the creative team can do with a bigger, deeper game with more explorable environments and character sprites.
Star Story: The Horizon Escape possesses an indescribable “cool factor,” but I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. I felt like the variety of gameplay styles and creative ideas should have kept progression fresh, but instead the game was a more casually paced affair that I couldn’t play for more than 5-7 minutes at a time. Perhaps it’s just my personal taste, but when I’m playing a graphic adventure, I want to be engrossed to play a marathon session like I’d be engrossed in a book that keeps me up past my bedtime because it’s such an incredible page-turner; unfortunately, the thin narrative of this game lacked the punch to keep me coming back for more. Star Story: The Horizon Escape is not a bad little game and it has some good ideas, but I want to see Evil Corporation’s future projects take this game’s concepts to the next level.