(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)
In a distant future the galaxy is split into lawless pirate fiefdoms, entire economies based on the practice of seizing and trading lightly defended cargo. The head honcho of one such operation, a Galaxy Pirate King, has decided it’s high time to turn his son loose with a laser-equipped starship so he can learn the tricks of the trade in a Galaxy Pirate Adventure (Out Now, $4.99)! It seems this should be a perfect setup for a grand space opera, but sadly GPA’s story didn’t quite make it across the translation barrier. Characters get their point across but dialogue is basic and lacking characterization at best, and sometimes it feels grammatically unnatural to the native English speaker. For better or worse GPA’s appeal must rest on the depth of its gameplay — and it’s certainly got plenty of that!
GPA easily draws comparison to the Galaxy on Fire series due to its overall structure. In both, the player uses a star map to visit space ports and accept quests for quick cash or resources, hoping to save up for that shiny new starship sitting behind a shop window. However, the execution is very different here. Whereas Galaxy on Fire lets players travel freely through the cosmos, GPA handles navigation on a strict point-to-point basis. The player’s fleet parks outside the current space station until he or she taps on the station to dock and do some shopping, or pans around and taps on a destination elsewhere in the current star system. Once a destination is selected from the celestial sphere or on a star map, the player’s fleet warps directly there within seconds.
There are two ways of looking at this. The point-to-point travel system leaves GPA’s game world less rich than Galaxy on Fire’s, where the player could stop and mine free-floating space ore, or drop in unexpectedly on the random dogfights of neutral parties. On the other hand, GPA’s system cuts out the hassle of manually leapfrogging from star system to star system on long distance journeys. The game’s story does corral the player in at first, but as the adventure covers more and more territory players will be glad for the ability to warp halfway across the galaxy with a few taps. This leaves more time for the bulk of activity in GPA: battling, and shopping in preparation for battle.
Last week’s preview already put a spotlight on the nuts and bolts of GPA’s fleet vs. fleet combat system. As with travel, the battle system ultimately defers to the fact that GPA is about large starships and not single seat fighter craft — and in that respect its style feels just right to me. What it’s really doing is giving the player active control over many characters at once. A crew member is assigned to each offensive and defensive function equipped on the player’s flagship, so you can practically imagine the bridge bustling with people who spring to action every time the player presses a virtual button.
What I’ve come to appreciate most about GPA’s battles is that there are many paths to victory. The player can try simply packing his or her fleet full of the strongest available weaponry, or show a little more finesse by coupling strong weapons with weaker ones that break enemy shielding. Good teamwork with the AI-controlled allies is often better than acting aloof. Adversaries just love pummeling the flagship if it’s within range, so the player can rush in and distract enemies while leaving the dirty work to his or her comrades. An undeniable thrill comes with using clever strategy and determination to defeat more advanced ships than the player currently owns, but long term survival ultimately depends on new acquisitions.
In the end I had great fun with GPA’s fleet combat, but it still has some room for improvement. One problem I’ve noticed since the preview is that it’s difficult for the player to keep all enemies onscreen and thus keep tabs on what each is doing at the moment. The game tries to compensate by cautioning the player when the flagship is being actively targeted, but this is still inferior to knowing exactly what’s happening in the player’s blind spots; it’s not uncommon for multiple enemies to target the player’s ship at once, so one can never be sure when immediate danger has passed. For now, the inconvenient solution is to switch targets momentarily to get a fuller view of the situation, but an ability to pan the screen around while remaining locked on one enemy would be ideal.
Another problem is the player’s inability to assess the capabilities of enemy ships in real time. Just because your flagship has a full hull integrity meter doesn’t mean an enemy vessel can’t take it out in a single blast! Luckily, enemy ships tend to have certain behaviors and equipment based on their class (Frigate vs. Destroyer vs. Transport, etc), but the player has to learn the hard way. If the flagship gets toasted, the player will be sent to the space station nearest the failed mission to try, try again. The fleet must be repaired at cost though, and this raises the question of what happens if funds are running very low — novice players are sure to run into a tight cash flow challenge from time to time, and some creative thinking is required to reverse these situations. I actually had fun pulling out of such emergencies by taking low risk side quests at space stations, but I also have a hunch that many players won’t appreciate breaking a sweat under these circumstances. If GPA’s auto-save could be prevented from kicking in right after mission failures, the potential for financial impasse would be nipped in the bud.
Lest I make it seem that cash is always going to be a problem in GPA, the game offers a nice solution in the form of the “Golden Route” list about three to five hours in. This is a very handy record of items the player can buy low and sell high, and at which space stations. With a little time investment the player can rack up serious cash this way, and it’s a wonderful contrast to the lack of info available to the player elsewhere in the game. While money flows comfortably with a little exploration, one barrier remains when it comes to purchasing new ships: raw materials. If the player isn’t carrying the specific ores needed to build some ship he or she is just salivating over, prepare for a tough search through all the space stations visited thus far! If we could just get a “find material X at station Y” list presented side by side with the materials requirements like the Galaxy on Fire series has, the player could prep for new ships with infinitely greater efficiency!