Review: Merchant Beyond the Stars

By Owen Faraday 25 Mar 2014 0
Precious Roy: 2099 Precious Roy: 2099

On one level, Merchant Beyond the Stars is a beautiful, deeply meaningful game that reveals something essentially kind and benevolent about humanity.

In gaming's first decades, casting was handled in a predictable manner. You were always The Hero, uniquely empowered to defeat your enemies. The Chosen One. The Redeemer. It's easy to see why video games got so popular so quickly, given how flattering they were to play.

But then in the last decade or so we started seeing games explore new roles. In Reccetear, you run the item shop that the RPG heroes frequent. In Final Fantasy XII, you're the hero's sidekick. In Dungeon Keeper, you're the bad guy. In Spec Ops, you're something worse than that. What these games tell me is that we 21st century humans are hugely empathetic creatures. We want to see other sides of familiar stories, and experience viewpoints that aren't our own.

In casting you as the merchant in a sci-fi quest hub, arming the heroes who venture out and have off-screen adventures, Merchant Beyond the Stars is a perfect example of this phenomenon, and I think on that level it's a remarkable artefact that speaks well of us as a species.

On every other level it sucks.

A live stream of George Jetson playing Merchant Beyond the Stars. A live stream of George Jetson playing Merchant Beyond the Stars.

Merchant Beyond the Stars is a very light makeover for last year's Merchant to the Stars, a fantasy game with the same core concept. Adventurers show up at your shop, and you repair their kit and buy interesting junk from them, which you improve into quality weapons and sell to other adventurers.

On paper, this was a wonderful concept with a lot of potential. In practice, Merchant to the Stars was a boring treadmill of a game that Kelsey called "highly unsatisfactory" in his review. So when Man Up Time Studios sent me Merchant Beyond the Stars and promised "a completely revamped game", I held out some hope.

Beyond the setting change from a high fantasy kingdom to a far future space station, I simply can't detect what's different about this new game, except that it's now free-to-play. In my book, that makes it objectively worse than its predecessor.

Here's what's going down in MBtS. A sci-fi adventurer walks into your shop with an array of weapons and armour she's picked up on her travels. You can repair her gear for some cash, then consider the stuff she's brought. Buy something if you think you can resell it, or buy it for parts -- there's four kinds of resources in the game, and every item is made of and improved with one of them.

Free from Merchant Beyond the Stars. Bless. Freed from Merchant Beyond the Stars. Bless.

I've just described the entire game to you. Sure, there's some wrinkles to this. Adventurers prefer certain types of gear (pistols or axes, for example) and they're procedurally generated, so you never see the same character twice. That said, I'm not sure why you'd want to. The adventurers have a bit of chat for you every time they come into the shop, but like their attributes their dialogue is made by an algorithm. This is neat once or twice but after a few minutes the dialogue starts to read like generic sci-fi Mad Libs.

Once you have the hang of things, your brain disengages entirely and the game is played on pure autopilot. Enter adventurer, buy their rarest item, scrap everything else, repair their stuff, sell them something you bought from someone else, lather rinse repeat. Merchant Beyond the Stars is just a flavourless grind.

Like too many other iOS business sims, failure is so unlikely in MBtS that I'd actually suggest its pursuit as the definitive way to play the game. You're on a constant spiral upward -- fight it! If you download this game, play for a little while until you've mastered the game loop and then try to drive your shop into the ground. You'll get a lot more stimulation and challenge out of the game that way. And something else, too. What was it?

Oh yeah. Empathy.

Merchant Beyond the Stars was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

Review: Merchant Beyond the Stars

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