Review: Devouring Stars10 Dec 2015 0
Mobile gaming has given a whole new lease of life to turn-based strategy, but squeezing its real-time cousin onto pocket devices remains an elusive dream. A genre that revolves around coordinating many commands to many units on many maps at twitch speed is just too much for touchscreen control. Making it work demands paring everything down to the essentials while still keeping the game a challenge, and that's proved to be a challenge in itself.
The latest title to take a bite at this lucrative cherry is Devouring Stars. It's an odd sort of science fiction game where you control a tribe of battling gods. These entities drift through the universe and gather stars, which they can then use in fights against enemy titans. Highest star count wins.
At first, this feels a lot like those generic games where you drag ships between planets, trying to gain more bases and win a war of attrition. There aren't any bases in Devouring Stars, however. Instead, you're simply trying to monopolise the densest starfields. Winning doesn't require you to eliminate all enemy units, only controlling a portal and then having all your units escape from it.
This is where the seeds of strategy are sown. You control your gods simply by dragging a route for them to follow, which you can change at any time. So instead of just gathering stars and charging into the fray, you can win by luring foes away from their portals, then skirting round to escape. Some scenarios feature more than one enemy force. Here, clever players can try and bait them into attacking one another while you make a quiet getaway.
The game consists of short campaigns of linked scenarios. In each you carry your titans from one battle to the next, less casualties. Complete one campaign and you unlock a new slot to take another god into the next campaign, up to eight.
Once you've accumulated a couple of extra berths you can try your hand at the next layer of strategy. This involves combining two of the five basic types into a more powerful entity. These move faster, fight harder or gather stars more quickly than their constituent units. You can also combine these, in turn, into third and fourth tiers of power.
It quickly becomes obvious that some of the combinations are more useful than others. Demeter, for instance, sucks up stars like a vacuum and can give you an unstoppable advantage if built early. But it's equally obvious that most powers are situational. Stars are a finite resource on each level, so Demeter is no use if there's nothing left to harvest. To do well requires you to learn the combinations and think on your feet.
Once you've grasped the concept, you can build your force to suit the situation and your style of play. If you want to take the non-confrontational route and just go for portals as fast as possible there are titans for that. Build some of the faster types for speed, plus the one that gets a boost when capturing portals. You can be off the level before the enemy has even had a chance to gather enough stars for a fight.
It does have remarkable flexibility and depth for such a straightforward model. Indeed it's so straightforward that the game doesn't bother explaining much of it. Instead, it leaves you to discover the mechanics by experimentation. For those that dislike the style of play, there are plenty of forum threads to explain what's going on.
What's going on with the story is a lot less clear, since it comes across as new-age waffle about celestial forces and timeless enmity. That goes hand in hand with a modern minimalist approach to presentation which is much more effective. Watching balls of brightly coloured pinpoints swirl and drift across the blackness of space could be therapeutic. Could be, if not for the fact that most of those pretty pinpoints are trying to kill you.
In keeping with the mysterious nature of the game there are secrets to discover, with accompanying achievements. In the end, however, there's not quite enough depth in the game to stretch the whole campaign. Once you've built all the titles and got a handle on how to beat the different scenario types, it can get a little repetitive.
At that point thoughts inevitably drift to multiplayer. Although designed with touchscreen control in mind, the game is actually a port from PC. The Steam version has multiplayer but it’s described by the developer as an afterthought compared to solo play. As a result, this mobile version has none, and none is planned. I can’t help feel that’s a shame: with such short matches, it would have been an ideal fit for the platform.
There's a lot to like about Devouring Stars, even if your time with it is unlikely to span more than a handful of hours. It's impressive both visually and mechanically, showcasing lots of innovation to get the most from its minimalist mechanics. The fact it doesn't do better is, I suspect, more a comment of the difficulty of making satisfying real-time strategy on mobile than it is on the game itself.
Played on an iPad mini 2