Full Disclosure: A review code for Space Tyrant was provided by the developers.
In Space, Nobody can hear you die screaming, or at least they won’t hear you die several dozen times over. This grim fate is what awaits you in the 5X strategy title Space Tyrant. A game that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve in more ways than one.
Now you might be thinking, “5X, what about 4X?”. Well, Space tyrant is shifting the focus of typical 4X games to a more grimdark – The devs words not mine :) – perspective. 5X is eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, eXterminate and eXsanguinate. But making things more gritty isn’t the only new thing to expect from Space Tyrant. This game is shaking up the 4X formula, by adding in gameplay elements common to short-form roguelike games. The tagline and promo blurbs for the game sum up the intent here perfectly:
Space Tyrant – CONQUER THE GALAXY – ON YOUR LUNCH BREAK
A zero-attention span mega-empire builder where you can enjoy titanic space battles and huge galaxy-wide conquests but not run over your employer-mandated allotment of lunch-eating minutes.
So one could be forgiven for being a bit confused at this point while wondering how this interesting but weird combination all works. It’s OK, because Space Tyrant is walking that thin line between complexity and beginner friendliness quite well.
Space Tyrant has favorable comparisons to some of my favorite 4X titles. But at the same time, there are some choices made in terms of mechanics that drag the whole empire to it’s knees due to frustration. Titles like FTL, Endless Space and even Stellaris all seem to have had some influence on the design of Space Tyrant.
The primary screen in Space Tyrant is the Sector overview. Each Sector is the overall map for each mission, and your goal is generally to dominate some element of the sector in one way or another. Overall, the mission system allows the player to easily drop in and out of Space Tyrant on their own time.
At the top of the screen are your main resources. Credits and Research Progress. Both of these play into a variety of mechanics, but chief among these is the Upgrades system for Research and Shipyards for Credits.
Leaders and traits are a crucial part of Space Tyrant. As a fleet leader wins battles they gain experience. Once a leader levels up, they unlock more spaces in their fleets, and will potentially generate random events. These events can do things like giving your leaders pets that grant them combat bonuses to permanently maiming them or otherwise debuffing them.
Faction traits are also an integral part of strategy in the game, especially for harder missions. Perks are unlocked with repeated victory for that faction in missions. Each time you complete a mission, you get a choice between two Perks. And as is expected in roguelike games, repetition is the way to go in Space Tyrant. Although this will no doubt annoy some players, your Perks and Artifacts do NOT carry over from lost runs. I’m not sure if you have to win the campaign in a run or what to keep the buffs, but in my lost run, I lost all the Perks and Artifacts I had amassed upon starting a new campaign.
Research and Economics
Admittedly, this is one of the more shallow areas of Space Tyrant in my experience. Researching is primarily focused on unlocking damage buffs for ships. And each planet generates a set amount of Credits, Crystal or Research per turn. The targets you will mostly encounter are Cities, Labs and Mines. Labs generate research for new cards, while Cities and Mines generate either Credits or rare Crystals. Both of these locations are conquered in the same way any other system is. There are also special planets like Barracks and Prisons, which allow extra Invasion Dice or to recruit a new fleet respectively. Capturing and holding these key resources early will be essential to establishing dominance.
Crystals also tie into the Deck system, they’re basically mana that you use to play cards. Exploration events, new tech and factions traits all have the possibility of unlocking new cards for your Deck, so the only way to find the optimum strategy is repetition. The combinations of cards I’ve seen so far hinge on three main types. Fleet buffs, invasion buffs and research buffs. Timing these cards is vital to success. The AI can ruthlessly exploit a weakened fleet on higher difficulties, so focus your fleet bonuses on the front line.
Combat in Space Tyrant operates on a mechanical level in ways very similar to Endless Space with it’s rock-paper-scissors balancing. Though choosing abilities and tactics is a spur of the moment thing in Space Tyrant, and it’s made much more complex by the primary limitations that combat is balanced around. These two elements are power management and spaces. Each fleet in a single combat is limited to seven spaces initially, meaning the max number of ships a fleet can have is seven at the start of a game. The power management rings with echoes of FTL in a certain way. Having to use power for your abilities will limit what actions you can take throughout a combat encounter. So don’t expect to be able to spam powerful weapons and sheer numbers to win every fight. Energy charges automatically as the battles progress, so carefully timing of a series of Volleys or Fighter Squads can turn a battle by taking out a key enemy ship. Or your fleet can be obliterated because you missed using a powerful ability.
But space combat isn’t the only combat element in Space Tyrant. Ground invasions are also a necessary part of succeeding in the game. Each turn after you successfully crush an enemy fleet you can “attack” the system said fleet was guarding. It’s literally just a die roll that needs to hit a certain value to succeed. Planets don’t normally heal damage between turns while under siege, so taking planets in the early game is quite easy. But it will become a chore in the later game as planets get fortified with higher defense values.
Once you conquer a planet, it’s automatically explored, this is when various factors affecting random events and their outcomes become important. Each trait can have positive and negative effects on your leaders and the overall effectiveness of your forces. So be careful about the choices you make during exploration. Having various unlocks and Perks for your faction will unlock certain special responses to these events, potentially offering new solutions.
The game includes some basic tutorial missions that explain each of the five Xs. They’re just basic video tutorials that play over the game, then the player is expected to complete the scenario in whatever way they feel is best. Generally this means moving whatever forces they give you around and taking Planets, Labs and Mines until the tutorial ends. They’re not the best tutorials in the industry, but for a fresh out of Early Access title, Space Tyrant‘s tutorials are very easy to grasp and straightforward.
Once you’ve mastered the tutorial missions, it’s time to start destroying your enemies. So here’s how a basic game of Space Tyrant will go your first time round the galaxy.
You’ll start by picking a race from one of four main factions. Each faction is unlocked with completing the “missions” of other factions in the game. And each faction has different traits that can be unlocked to beef them up in a variety of ways. The selection of these traits and primary faction will be one of the first strategic decisions you make in Space Tyrant, so choose carefully.
And be aware that you can’t focus too much on one set of missions. If the Senate ever gains control of a Sector, it’s game over. That means if one of those red skulls you can see in the image below lights up, you’re done for that run.
Each mission has various goals that need to be completed, as well as quirks that add additional challenge to each playthrough. When you select your Faction, you’re then allowed to choose both Artifacts and your starting Deck. More on these in a bit.
Gameplay and Mechanics
Managing Tyranny is a very central aspect of controlling your empire in Space Tyrant. The balancing act the player has to perform between Tyranny and Unrest is a decent enough system for adding another strategic layer beyond research choices and combat, but it can be very annoying. The fact that losing too much Tyranny or gaining too much Unrest almost always ends that run automatically adds to the difficulty. My first run ended with me losing to rebels because I wasn’t properly managing Unrest by Oppressing planets. Basically, move a couple of reserve fleets around Oppressing planets with high rebellion. It is kind of annoying to basically have to babysit your empire like this, especially when Oppression fails and ends up spawning a rebel fleet that wrecks your ships. Thems the brakes I guess.
Research and Economics
Like I said previously, research and the economy of the game is pretty basic. You should be rushing for Crystal planets and Labs in equal measure to the pursuit of Credits, until the late game when you have too many Credits to spend. The speed at which you research new tech, and which techs you choose, will largely depend on the Perks and Artifacts you bring along for that mission. So choose wisely.
The Economy in the game is very simple, it was far too easy to amass Credits and Crystals by just steamrolling enemies with my main fleet while training up a few reserve fleets that would move around and Oppress planets to keep Unrest down. This strategy works well on easier missions, but on harder missions the AI is a lot better about playing offensively, so steamrolling is a less viable strategy. I also found that the Deck system is sometimes too random to be helpful at all. Maybe with replays it’s possible to minimize some of the unhelpful cards and focus Decks a bit, but I haven’t played too far into the game yet. In some scenarios, I also encountered planets that were too well defended to take on with level 1 fleets, especially when random events for the battles I did win kept killing my ships. Combining this with cards that were completely useless, made some missions frustrating.
I suppose bad RNG is par for the course with a roguelike game like this, so expect to be frustrated by a bad start more than a few times. The AI is also ruthless about using special projects to weaken your economy or cause spirals of uncontrollable unrest. So it’s a double-layer crap cake.
Some of the mechanics rely on the player to figure everything out, as well as the best strategy to beat the AI. Don’t expect much hand-holding here. You’ll have to rule over the galaxy with naught but your wits and might alone.
Now it’s time for one of my major gripes with Space Tyrant, and it has to do with player agency. Now, anyone who has ever designed games knows this, but players love to cheat. You may be thinking that’s not true, but think back to all the games you’ve played that balanced the outcome of a scenario in the favor of the player. Players want to feel cool and powerful, and designers should often strive to deliver that experience by giving the player an invisible (to most players) advantage in single player experiences.
Now, then think back to the games that didn’t balance things in favor of the player and ended up with the player feeling less engaged with the experience the game is trying to sell. Games like Dark Souls work because while they’re tough and don’t make concessions for the player, they engage the player in other ways, or balance gameplay for enjoyment. Space Tyrant fails to do this in one very specific way.
As a mission progresses, you’ll notice two things. The Senate, who are your primary enemies in the game, are trying to kill you, but they kind of suck at it. They very quickly ally the various neutral factions and pirate planets against you, meaning you face an ever growing number of foes. Eventually the Senate will activate massive fleets that will swarm from the Senate HQ in a Sector and start retaking planets you’ve conquered. Sadly these can be trivially beaten by exploiting a weakness in the AI. Simply wait for the AI to move two of the three fleets away from their HQ, and swing around behind them and blow the third up, placing their HQ under siege. Hopefully you plan this move correctly and have taken all Barracks on the map to expedite taking their HQ. Once you’ve done that, just force the two remaining fleets to chase you and catch them in a pincer. Let a sacrificial fleet soften up one Senate fleet, and wipe that one out. Then you just repeat the cat and mouse game with the last fleet. The combat ability Armageddon is useful here, as it will essentially wipe out a much larger fleet as long as you don’t mind losing your own fleet. Once the three main Senate fleets are wiped out and their HQ is gone, just spread out and wipe out any remaining resistance.
The other thing you’ll notice is these AI Projects. These are constantly spawning debuffs against the player that can reduce your credit or research income, and even increase unrest.
Now as far as I can tell, there is no way for the player to stop these debuffs or AI behavior, you just have to overcome them. Seemingly the best approach for this is with sheer numbers. Having more credits than your enemies can ever take away, or constantly steamrolling the AI planets with fleets seems to work pretty well. And therein lies the issue. The mechanics are clearly meant to make the game more challenging, but they really don’t. The mission system in tandem with these AI controlled debuffs makes for some pretty annoying losses. The only reason my first campaign ended was due to a single mission in which unrest became unmanageable because I couldn’t counter Unrest by generating Tyranny; all because there were not enough enemy planets left to conquer or fleets to blow up. I got stuck in an endless loop of chasing enemy fleets while waiting for tech to upgrade, all while Unrest spiraled out of control. And because you only start the game with a single commander, it was an instant game over for that campaign. Pretty annoying.
Overall Space Tyrant plays well. Even on a low-end machine like the one I tested it on, High settings played smoothly with no graphical defects or FPS drops. Even in larger fleet battles the game runs smoothly. This is helped by the simplistic, but still visually appealing, art style of the game. Each faction you encounter has a unique visual style and combat mechanics. Although there were only a few that I encountered in about a dozen games. There may be more enemy types, I just haven’t seen them yet.
I can see myself spend a lot of time with Space Tyrant, and assuming the base mechanics and gameplay hold up, and I expect they will, I can almost guarantee I’ll enjoy my time with the game. mostly.
Enjoyment and Value
Is Space Tyrant worth it? Well, that depends on the buyer. It lives up to it’s promise of quick strategic action with a slick presentation. The game runs well enough and has sufficient polish for an indie title for me to feel comfortable playing a fair bit of it.
At this point though the majority of the appeal for Space Tyrant lies with established fans of the genre. So if you’re into 4X games, especially those with a twist, you should pick up Space Tyrant. There are some gripes that will turn off less hardcore players, but the challenges are worth playing through at least a few times in my mind. So if you enjoy a difficult but rewarding game, give Space Tyrant a try.
Space Tyrant will be available on Steam on July 19 for Windows, Mac and Linux for $19.99 USD. Check out the trailer here.