Into the Stars is a space exploration survival simulator set in a distant galaxy where you’re the last hope for humanity. You’re the Captain of a ship packed with 10,000 civilians, the last of our species, hoping that you’ll find new salvation; you’re on the run from hostile alien races in search of a suitable new spot to settle.
The game launched on Kickstarter on January 5, 2015, and 11 short days later, Into the Stars had already reached its $85,000 funding target. Conceived and developed by Fugitive Games, the project cleared its second major hurdle after smashing through the Steam Greenlight program in just 3 days. It’s now slated for a Steam Early Access release on July 9. The developers would like to spend their time fine-tuning their space sim according to the feedback they’ll receive from their community of Early Access players, telling us that “Ultimately, we felt it could only help benefit our game. Being a small team of only 4 developers, there’s a limited pool of feedback.” They hope to release the finished product at the tail end of this summer.
Creative Director, Roy Orr, told me they came up with the idea for Into the Stars when they were “…brainstorming concepts at a kitchen table trying to find something we could realistically accomplish.” For these four veterans their concepts came full circle and collided with some old-school nostalgia. “When we thought about the concept of an Oregon Trail style game in space,” Orr noted, “we really grabbed onto the idea. From there it was an evolution of ideas. Some worked, some didn’t, but that was the beginning of the concept and Into the Stars was born.”
I had the chance to take the spaceship Ark-13 for a spin and give Into the Stars a hefty, hands-on workout. The game begins with a series of load-outs that you, as Captain, must complete before you can head into the depths of this unfamiliar galaxy in search of safe haven. First of all you select the class of Captain that suits your leadership style. You can play as a Scientist, Military Officer, Entrepreneur, or Survivalist. Each class boosts the performance of your crew and ship in different ways. I tested each class, which was easy because I died quite a few times to begin with, eventually favoring the Military Officer.[su_pullquote align=”right”]”We’re able to put players in tough situations and see what kind of choices they’ll make as the Captain. There’s a sense of weight in every decision. Plus you don’t have to eat berries to survive.”[/su_pullquote]
Once you select your class and name your Captain – I was Cpt. Mario St. James, pretentious Military Officer who faked his way to the top without merit but with his daddy’s help – the next step is to customize the Ark-13 to your satisfaction. There’s a number of ways you can utilize more or less of any given resource in the game during the Ark-13 load-out, but I took a balanced approach. I paid a bit more for my shields and weapons, and as a consequence I could only afford one extra cargo bay. The game has five different resources that run the ship’s engines, life support module, mining rig, and other vital systems.
Before you can hit the open skies you have to enlist a crew. Your crew’s abilities will boost your ship’s performance according to their attributes and how you choose to utilize them on the ship once in the Captain’s chair.
I asked Orr what kind of game he thought they were making with Into the Stars. “It’s difficult to categorize Into the Stars, as it’s a very different style of game. Ultimately, Into the Stars is about survival. Exploration feeds into our overall experience.” The point of the game is not to explore the dynamic open space Fugitive Games has created for the setting; the point is to survive within it. The only way to survive this galaxy is to explore its unknown reaches. Every waypoint I pinned to my map was a stressful endeavor filled with anxiety as I hoped to find a celestial body to refuel and refill my resources before the Skorn caught up with Ark-13, or I starved the last of the species. In the developer’s words, “As the Captain of the Ark-13, you’ll need to explore the system and planets, manage your resources, fight for your species’ survival, as well as deal with the occurrences that happen when you have 10,000 civilians on board your ship. It’s a mix of strategy, survival and management wrapped in a beautiful package.”
Once past the somewhat tedious and albeit cheesy-looking load-out screens, you’re dropped into an engrossing 3D open world solar system with the ability to explore neighboring solar systems across a number of different sectors, powered by Unreal Engine 4. The game doesn’t afford you the luxury of relaxed exploration, as the Skorn, a hostile alien race intent on wiping out humankind, are on your tail.
You can fly the spacecraft in third-person, or switch on-the-fly to the Captain’s chair. From the chair you can command the crew and manage situations as they arise. The game keeps you busy managing the day-to-day affairs of the ship’s maintenance and all sorts of on-board civilian mayhem. Flying around in third-person is a spectacle with Into the Stars. The galaxy has a post-apocalyptic sense to it including destroyed planets which highlight this menacing spacescape.
At its core, Into the Stars is a classic survival game, and one that grows desperate quickly. One too many battles with the Skorn or any other hostile alien race, and the species is extinct. If you happen to pass by planets with stormy weather, inhospitable for mining, the life support systems begin to run out of supplies and the ship will eventually run out of fuel. Into the Stars is a frustrating and exhilarating game.
There’s no shortage of survival simulators jumping into the marketplace right now, so I asked Fugitive Games what set theirs apart. “Most survival games are focused on playing as an individual and worrying about your survival. Our game is about the survival of you, your crew and the 10,000 civilians on the Ark-13. I think that really stands out because we’re able to put players in tough situations and see what kind of choices they’ll make as the Captain. There’s a sense of weight in every decision. Plus you don’t have to eat berries to survive.”
There’s definitely a sense of weight with every decision, I’ll testify to that. I died a number of times folks; Cpt. Mario St. James wiped out the species a large number of times. After each death I was drawn back to the load-out screen where I would tweak the Ark-13 a little each time to suit my evolving play style.
Along the journey, the Ark-13 inevitably must go to war during a hostile alien encounter. Skorn battles, the type I seemed to frequent, are a test of patience and timing. The Skorn spacecraft have powerful shields that can block the Ark’s torpedoes (or at least the torpedoes I outfitted my ship with) so I had to time my shots for when the shield was at medium or low strength. Despite victory, the Ark can only survive so many of these battles. During my preview I found myself trying to evade the Skorn at almost all cost. Running low on supplies, with the Skorn in pursuit, the Ark-13 damaged from a previous battle, I had no choice but to stop and orbit a resource-rich nearby planet and attempt to restock. As soon as I was in orbit the Skorn caught up with me, and I was forced to battle two Skorn ships before I could send out a refueling party. And so went the ballad of Ark-13 and Cpt. Mario St. James over and over and over.
The soundtrack for Into the Stars is provided by composer Jack Hall, whose lengthy resume goes back to the 1990’s and includes masterpieces such as the Mass Effect series, work on the Myst series, and Black Ops 2. Along with Audio Director and Berkley alumni, Richard Ludlow, and Audio Producer, Andy Forseberg, the team put together an ominous composition that compliments the tension of Into the Stars.
The developers set out to create a space exploration survival game in which the anxiety builds during the player’s voyage as events eventually deteriorate from bad to worse. Into the Stars becomes a test of strategy and endurance, harking back to its Oregon Trail roots. It becomes frustrating at times, but if the player can persevere, it builds towards a satisfying experience. I asked the developers what their favorite aspect of the game is, and Roy Orr told me “My personal favorite element is the management aspect and the tension that builds along your journey. It won’t be an easy journey, but if you plan well and your decisions pay off, it’s a very gratifying feeling to best the Skorn and survive the trek.”
Into the Stars will be available July 9 for PC via Steam Early Access.