I wanted to like Starlight Alliance, I really did. It’s a hybrid RPG and Third-Person Platform Shooter, kind of like if Ratchet and Clank had an EXP system, or if NieR was all gameplay and no existential navel-gazing. It’s the combination of two things I like, a lot! But Starlight Alliance comes from a tiny team, with only one person primarily involved in the development side, so while the final product is impressive for an indie effort, it couldn’t possibly have lived up to the lofty expectations I had for it. This review might start to read like a laundry-list of complaints, but I don’t do that to denigrate the skill of the development team, or to insinuate that I would personally have done things a different way. I just want to outline the small barriers that I faced when first starting out, and hopefully make a defence for why games like this should, and need to, continue being made.
To start with the positives, Starlight Alliance presents a wholly original science-fiction world, with a unique visual style and huge, vertical levels. The adventure takes players through a bureaucracy in the sky, and down into the shattered remains of Earth overrun by robots. Players follow the duo of Cyris and Lea, a bureaucrat and mechanic combo, who discover a secret about the world that makes them fugitives. The themes have an anti-capitalist bent, with the kind of humour and weirdness that can only come from independent writing. And while the dialogue or narrative itself isn’t groundbreaking, it did keep me consistently surprised as the game developed. I kept playing to see what kinds of new environments the developers would throw at me, and where the story would go. The gameplay and puzzles were something that I tolerated on the way. While they’re both passable, some questionable design decisions make them a chore.
Let’s start with combat. Cyris is a melee character who fights with a powered fist, and in a universe filled with ranged combat drones, he feels underequipped and out of place. He doesn’t have a dodge, and his block only works on certain projectiles, so the process of getting into striking distance of an enemy will often mean he has to take damage. The developers seemed to realise this, but instead of giving him a dodge-roll or a better block, they instead scattered healing items plentifully around the stages. Playing as Cyris means hitting the pause button constantly, healing up to full, and then continuing to tank enemy shots. Unlockable abilities lessen this problem somewhat as the game goes on, but he always felt like the least optimal choice for me.
Players can also switch to controlling Lea, who has a gun – and makes everything laughably easy. The gun locks onto enemies with a great deal of precision, so while screenshots have it looking like a third-person shooter, it feels more like auto-aim. From a distance, enemy bullets are easier to dodge, and the player is far enough away that they can actually appreciate the enemy design. But the problem is that enemies are designed with both Cyris and Lea in mind, which means we rarely get encounters that feel optimised for either the melee or ranged control schemes. Your choices are either – stock up on healing items and go in fists blazing, or lay back and mash the R button while waiting out enemy attack patterns.
Lots of small quality-of-life issues further mar the combat experience. Enemy health bars are on the top left of the screen and your characters’ are on the bottom right, and damage numbers are big and white regardless of whether you’re dealing or taking it. It means players need to flick their eyes back and forth to make sure they’re successfully hurting the enemy, and also not at risk of death themselves. The animations and particle effects could also use some more polish, so that players feel the feedback of their actions. But ultimately these are the kinds of superficial things that a larger developer would address with a QA team, so my hope is that Starlight Alliance’s developers address this with a patch, or at least feed the lessons learnt into the team’s next efforts.
It took me some time to warm up to Starlight Alliance’s graphical style, but I can appreciate its charms, especially how different it is compared to the standard sci-fi fare. The lead developer is colour blind, which has led to some of the more striking visual choices. But it certainly doesn’t look bad – I particularly liked the detail of the locales and the focus on verticality, how there was always something interesting when looking either up or down. Environments are lovingly detailed, but I did wish they were more utilitarian – ideally highlighting to players what areas or objects are crucial for progression, and which are set-dressing. In an early zone, the player is in a city with dozens of identical doors: some can’t be interacted with at all, some can be interacted with but merely display a message that they can’t be entered, and others look the same, but must be entered to progress the story. It seems like the intended path through the game might make sense to the developers, but again a greater amount of QA would have helped the team recognise where players would be likely to get lost.
So although the game is fun to look at, and to think about, it rarely lives up to its lofty ambitions once it’s in motion. Combat is thankfully sparse enough that players get pushed towards their next objective briskly. Although enemies aren’t always fun to fight, they do look cool, and their bullet patterns are always an impressive spectacle. And while I came in expecting a 3D bullet-hell action RPG, what I got instead was an interesting sci-fi world to explore. It’s a pleasant surprise to see that a world this rich and complex came from a studio this small. Origamihero Games is a developer with huge ambition and a lot of promise, so I’d be keen to see the team iterating on ideas from this game and continuing to polish their craft.
– Harvard L.