There's a special place in my heart for games that put the player in the cockpit of a fighter ship in space. Games like the Wing Commander series, then Starlancer and Freelancer had many hours spent on them in my youth, and the kickstarting of Star Citizen/Squadron 42 recently reignited my interest in the genre. Then along comes this indie space combat/RPG, Dawnstar, and I wanted to see what other people can bring to the table. After spending enough time with the game, this ship needs more time with a monkey-wrench spent on it before I'd take it out for another flight.
Dawnstar sets up with a cool story which can be affected by player choices. Players are cast in the lead role of The Pilot, a man who, one moment is getting comfortable in a bar on the space station Dawnstar, and the next, is hurdled into the middle of intergalactic espionage and warfare. In his escape, The Pilot teams up with Chuck, a character not too unlike another character who often uses that name as cover, Bruce Campbell's Sam Axe on the spy action/drama, Burn Notice. They'll hook up with a government spy, Alecia, forced to flee from her undercover position with the Galactic Mob before joining forces with a mysterious para-military organization. The rabbit hole only goes deeper from there--or is it wormhole, since we're in space?
The interactions and conversations between characters are done in voiced comic-style cutscenes which don't look half bad, especially for an indie game trying to make it through Steam's Greenlight system. The disappointment sets in when you're later receiving missions through simply static heads and text, unlike the more animated and lively comic book-style scenes. These same voiceless heads are how dialogue is delivered when you're out on missions. If there was ever a time when important information needs to be delivered audibly, it's when the player is in a dogfight and the last thing they should be is distracted from staying alive by having to read something. It also fails to deliver the same emphasis that a panicking wingman screaming over the radio would. Then again, it might be drowned out as much as the music is in the heat of battle by gunfire. Whether the music being overridden by lasers and missiles is a bad thing is debatable, because often the music doesn't feel like it fits the action on screen. It's like someone wanted to replicate Cowboy Bebop's mix of space and jazz but didn't quite make it.
The general gameplay has its moments that you can really sink your teeth into, and follow it with something that makes you want to quit. While Dawnstar's ships and space look good, at times combat feels less like dogfights in space and more like simply chasing after the enemy while grinding them down. There are minimal repercussions if you explode in the process; your ship will be respawned and you're right back into the action. That's not a real motivating punishment, but it's probably “fair” considering the number of enemies Dawnstar occasionally throws at you. There are some missions that ask more of the player in unique ways, like trying to sneak around a Galactic Mob base without being spotted by security. Inevitably you're discovered and have to make a decision: do you smooth talk your way to safety or blast your path back to Dawnstar? It's the same sort of “this or that” decision system present when deciding Renegade/Paragon actions in the Mass Effect series. Your decisions will affect how the other characters act and missions play out. The missions, though, can be difficult to get to when waypoints aren't always marked and a traditional radar has been left out in place of arrows that will jumble together in an attempt to point out enemies and other objects in space.
Dawnstar has more rough edges it could stand to have smoothed out. The way it jumps from loading screens to being on a mission or docked is awkward, and its tutorial system could be more direct and helpful. Going back to my point on reading something in the middle of a dogfight, tutorials on things like inventory and the upgrading of skills are probably best left for when the player is docked at a space station. If it has to happen out in space, pause the game and put something dead center on the screen so the player can't miss it. Trying to track down that save button is a royal pain when nothing has told me I have to travel through two jumpgates to go save my game at Dawnstar -- which is aggravating in itself, unless there was a message I missed about places I could save further out in space. I just might have missed that because it was too subtlety delivered. That's not to say that these features don't work well, because they certainly do. It's just that finding your way around can take more time than it should.
And to top it off, the number of publicly available builds that were gone through, along with bugs/absence of certain basic features that have come and gone, are things that should've been fine-tuned before Dawnstar ever hit the market. Whether it was missing save buttons, sound dropping out sporadically, or guns failing to fire abruptly, the game consistently found ways to make me question whether or not to keep playing.
The folks at Wraith Entertainment are selling this for $10 on Desura and Gamersgate, and are committed to constantly improving it with new versions. They're also hoping to make it on Steam via their Greenlight system. However, I couldn't find any mention anywhere if this was an attempt at a “founders” style business model. That is to say, that people put down their ten bucks, get an early version of the game, and then watch it grow into what it could truly be. With that, it's hard to say anything besides this: Dawnstar has a cool concept and loads of potential, but this ship should've stayed in the hangar to tighten its nuts and bolts before its maiden voyage.
4/10 - Lacking
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