Starlight Inception is a game that was conceived in hope and born to controversy. Its Kickstarter campaign pitched it as “the rebellious stepchild of Wing Commander, X-Wing, and Freespace 2.” But when Escape Hatch Entertainment released the game, it was a buggy, glitched, and technical mess. The laundry list of problems I ran into while playing it was extensive, and I soon learned that the team at Escape Hatch were well aware of the problems and a had a fix in the works. After reviewing their list of problems they were correcting, I noticed that they were almost identical to the list of problems I was suffering.
Now after having installed the enormous 2.28 gb patch, which brings the game to version 1.01, I returned to Starlight Inception to give it another chance.
I grew up as an addict to space combat games. The Wing Commander series were some of the best gaming experiences I have, and I played so much X-Wing (and TIE Fighter… and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter) that the keyboard commands have been seared into my brain. So when I first heard of Starlight Inception, my excitement was through the roof. Sadly, what we got was no where near what was promised, and while the sizable patch did fix some problems, there are still too many to allow this game reach its potential.
Starlight Inception takes place during World War IV in which the United Star Force finds itself under attack from the invaders of the Non-Aligned Nations. You play as a rookie USF pilot just starting off your first training mission, but soon you find yourself in the middle of a heated space battle fighting for your life. Survival is your number one priority, and you quickly learn the ropes of how to handle your spacecraft in combat. When you finally get back to your carrier, you start to put the pieces together, and the story of the war gets played out as you fight your way through each of the campaign missions.
Each mission begins with you onboard the carrier USF Midway, which you are free to roam about. You can visit the bridge, the engine room, or even a viewing lounge to look out at the stars around you. As a Navy veteran, I found the atmosphere the Midway eerily familiar. It was bleak, dark, and anything but beautiful. The Bridge looked more like an actual functioning bridge than what is often portrayed in science fiction. Eventually you’ll need to make your way to the Briefing Room where you get the details for your next mission.
From there it’s down to the hangar where you get to select your ship for each mission and determine its load-out. As you complete missions, you are rewarded with Command Points which can be spent to upgrade your weapons, purchase new ships, or add new equipment to the ships you already have. The variety of choices are quite abundant, even if the number of Command Points you have aren’t. I never had enough to get more than one ship which could be respectably outfitted with the right weapon systems to get me through a mission. I wish I could “sell” one back in return for my points, but that is not an option.
The missions can vary anywhere from strike attacks to bombing runs to reconnaissance trips. You get to choose whether to play from a cockpit view or a third-person view from outside your ship. I have always preferred the cockpit view, but it seems quite clear that this game is designed to play better from outside your ship. The crucial information you need, the instrument panel readings, and the view in general just aren’t up to par in the cockpit view. The update did make some things easier to read, but it also hampered some things as well.
And it’s not just the display that caused me frustration, it was often the game itself. Too many times I would encounter game-breaking bugs that would make the game impossible to play. Even after the update, there were points in the game where it would become nearly impossible to proceed.
Let me describe one such situation.
It’s late in the game and my mission is to attack an enemy outpost. The enemy launches a number of fighters at my team, and after a bit of work, we’re able to defeat the first wave and move on to part two of the mission. As I approach the outpost, the framerate drops significantly. The game is still playable, but it is certainly not at an optimal level. I’m trying to cycle through my secondary weapons but the controls aren’t responding. I’m pounding Square to switch from one set of missiles to another, but the game doesn’t recognize my input. Suddenly I notice my damage meter is increasing. Apparently I’m being attacked, but there’s no other indication of it. I try to mash Square again to turn my shields on and eventually it works. I’m protected enough to find my attacker and destroy him.
Only now my guns are depleted and despite the fact that I allocated extra resources for them to recharge, they are still at 0%. I wait and wait. Still nothing. I change it so that every bit of power my ship has is being funneled to the guns, and they still sit there empty. Normally they would recharge extremely quickly, so this has to be some kind of bug. I try to switch back to my missiles, but again the controls don’t respond. It’s too late anyway, and I’m dead.
I start again from the last checkpoint and experience the same thing. Ironically, this was a mission I was able to get through bug-free before the update, and now it’s near impossible. The controls killed me. While they work correctly most of the time, I ran into too many instances where they wouldn’t recognize my input. Or there would be times when I would maneuver my ship and it would keep turning even after I had let go of the stick. Sometimes my ship would maneuver with a controlled precision while other times it would feel floaty. The problem is that it’s all over the place. I never knew what to expect.
Outside of the main campaign, you are also able to fly patrol missions. These missions pit you against a number of waves of enemy ships as you try to protect your mothership. There’s also multiplayer which offers your standard fare of options such as Team Deathmatch or Capture the Flag. It was difficult for me to ever find a match, but on the rare occasion when I did, it worked really well. That is until a game breaking bug ended my session (somehow the Pause menu popped up and would not go away. I couldn’t control my ship, but my opponent could still keep killing me). But if playing in a Party Match, this has the potential to be quite a good experience.
One of the main features that was improved in the update was an overhaul to many of the game’s visuals, and I can confirm that the graphics were notably improved. One level in particular was improved so much that comparing it before and after the update is like night and day. But even before the patch was out, much of this game was visually very beautiful. Flying out in space and seeing the Earth rise over the horizon was striking, but then you’d run into areas that looked like something from the first PlayStation. Generally though, he textures and the ships are very well done
But the best part about this game, hands down, is David Arkenstone’s musical score. It’s the one thing that doesn’t need to be fixed or updated. It is quite simply phenomenal and ranks up there with the compositions of John Williams, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer. In fact, the sound in this game is pretty fantastic all around and whether it’s the roar of your ship’s engines or the sound of your weapons firing, Starlight Inception is a game that you should play with a good pair of headphones on.
The real tragedy in this game is that there are moments when everything works as it should and it is amazing. Those times when there are no bugs, when nothing is broken and things play as they are designed to, Starlight Inception is actually a very good, very fun game that does manage to capture the spirit of those space combat classics it tries to emulate. While there were times when I would get frustrated with bugs, there were many more times when when I’d be flying from checkpoint to checkpoint, blasting enemy fighters to pieces, and loving every second of it. The problem is that those moments are offset by game-breaking bugs that lead to tremendous frustration and overshadow the good parts. But the developers have been vocal about supporting the game and have shown that they are dedicated to continuing to keep improving it.
Hopefully one day they will be able to polish things to the point where the gem this game really is can shine. Sadly though it is not there yet, and while this first update was a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before it is finished. With the game currently sitting at 4.7 gb on a memory card (and it is only available digitally) Starlight Inception remains as an unfulfilled promise. It has the sparkle of something great but it isn’t there yet.
*Note: the screen captures in this review are a mix of both before and after the update.