The 4X game genre is a tough one to break into, there are already a number of titles acknowledged as all-time classics and several long-running series that fans of the genre are often very loyal to (given the number of hours you would typically commit to these types of games it’s not surprising). As a newcomer to the party ‘Lords of the Black Sun’ from developer Arkavi Studios would have to work hard to draw attention – as a turn-based 4X game set in space there wasn’t initially much to make it stand out from the crowd but the promise of 8 unique races with realistic AIs and a whole host of diplomacy features sounded promising. However the main draw for me was the apparent streamlining of of the whole 4X experience, games of this type typically involve a LOT of micromanagement so I was looking forward to a game that could make things simple and open up the genre to the masses.
Early impressions in this respect were good. Getting a game up and running was nice and simple, and once I started there weren’t too many options or features to worry about and I could concentrate on exploring the galaxy and progressing my civilization. I’d chosen Terrans (humans) for my first playthrough which matched my gameplay style – keen to explore, earnestly making contact with as many races as possible and trying out every new option that came my way. The tutorial did a reasonable job of guiding me through the game without holding my hand. The playthrough wasn’t brilliant but kept me occupied despite a number of odd game design decisions until a few poor decisions saw my overstretched empire crumble and my dreams of ‘winning’ the game (which can be achieved by maxing out all research trees for scientific enlightenment or by wiping out all other races) coming to an end.
For my second playthrough I opted for the Atroxians and it’s here the rose-tinted glasses didn’t just slip but came completely off. It was immediately obvious that playing as each of the different races made virtually no difference whatsoever. They all had the same buildings, units, tech trees, gameplay style and options – the only noticable differences were the starting government types and social policies, although these could change during a campaign anyway. All the irritating issues I’d done my best to overlook on the first playthrough became glaring and deeply annoying – limited building options, having far too many turns with nothing to do beyond waiting for stuff to be researched or ships to travel across solar systems, bizarre menu systems, ships docked on planets being too easy to forget about, overpowered pirate races, redundant minor races (who exist only to be destroyed) and the rubbish battle system conspired against my enjoyment.
The main issue I have with the gameplay (and to be honest it’s a major problem) is that the attempt to remove the micromanagement has resulted in it being very boring, and yet somehow it’s also confusing in that a lot of the time it’s not clear what difference your various actions make. There’s also very little you can actually do and in an effort to stretch the game out everything takes a long time to complete whether it’s researching, building or exploring. It doesn’t help that you can rarely do more than one thing at once and it doesn’t bode well for a game that you spend most of your time repeatedly clicking ‘end turn’. Finally, from a gameplay standpoint it’s pretty annoying that sometimes your whole campaign can become when it takes so long for you to be able to react to an event that it almost wasn’t worth bothering in the first place. In a serious 4X game I could accept this as my own fault for not planning properly but in this ‘streamlined’ version it just felt unfair. The game doesn’t actually feel too difficult but I never did manage to complete it, although this was mainly due to several game-ending bugs and abandoning campaigns in frustration.
Switching focus to the graphics and audio there isn’t really anything to offend here, but at the same time nothing to impress. Graphically the menus aren’t too clear but the galaxy and solar systems look OK – until you zoom in and realise how basic they are. The lighting effects of the stars and suns are reasonable but everything is very sparse while planets and ships all look the same, both in style and scale. The music is a nice, stirring classical piece (although it can become repetitive) but the sound effects are virtually non-existent and when they do occur sound like they belong in a game from a different decade.
On a more positive note there are several pleasing aspects of the game that helped engage me (admittedly mostly on the first playthrough). The other major races might play the same when they’re controlled by the computer they seem quite different and the AI system makes them variable enough without being too erratic. There are a whole host of diplomatic and negotiating features for when dealing with other races, including counter-intelligence options such as spying, sabotage and even assassinations. Ship building is diverting for a whole (but deeply flawed), and I did like the option to give your ships unique names – the AI in particular comes up with some great random names for it’s own ships. The random generals and ministers that you occasionally get assigned are a good idea, but unfortunately underused.
The theme and story behind the game itself is also very underwhelming – this was a chance for an indie developer to come up with something startlingly original and instead they’ve embraced almost every possible sci-fi cliche. There’s very little of the story itself beyond some opening blurb (which is cringe-inducing) and a few references in the game to a highly advanced race that disappeared. There’s a very amateurish feeling about the game that becomes most obvious with the numerous spelling and grammar mistakes – it might seem harsh to criticise when the it’s clear english is not the first language of the developers but there isn’t even that much text in the game so the errors (which even appear on very earl sceens) are unforgivable. The only positive I can mention here is that at least they changed the title of the game from it’s incredibly generic original name of ‘Star Lords’ but that’s not nearly enough to save it.
I should point out that I originally started playing the game when it was in early access mode and at that time I assumed a number of issues would get resolved for the final release, however this doesn’t seem to have been the case. It’s hard to notice many changes (all the spelling and grammar mistakes are still there for example) beyond a number of cinematics that open up the game for each race, complete with a laughably earnest voiceover. The most obvious change seems to have been to one of the races – as the Xenom Dominion have changed from friendly space blobs (think Ralph Wiggum with tentacles) to genetic monstrosities that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dead Space game. Granted most of the game-breaking bugs seem to have now been fixed (many of my initial playthroughs were abandoned after corrupted saves or ships getting stuck on auto-explore mode) although there are still some issues that have never been addressed.
Overall there’s very little to recommend about Lords of the Black Sun. An easily accessible 4X game for newcomers could still be a great experience, but this will never be it. I never did get to try out the mutiplayer mode although I can’t imagine it would work well against strangers, and I wouldn’t want to encourage my friends to take part in such a futile exercise.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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