I’ve learned, over my extended play-through of Starpoint Gemini Warlords, that there’s a primal part of me that loves seeing legions of spaceships firing multicolored lasers at each other and exploding in loud blazes of hot red and orange flame, scientific accuracy be damned! Rest assured, Warlords features plenty of epic interstellar skirmishing between enormous dreadnoughts, fighting over the ultimate fate of the galaxy. There’s visceral pleasure in eviscerating a fleet of smaller ships in a wave of weaponized energy. It’s the bits in between all that wonderful sci-fi action that become frustrating. A personal rule of thumb for games with RPG elements is, “If you can safely remove a quarter of your game’s runtime by eliminating or reducing the amount of grind in your game, you have got to ditch all that grinding.” That’s the issue Warlords has: While it’s undeniably fun, there might be a little too much space in between everything.
Understanding that all RPGs, to some extent, have grind in them, it’s important to take the gameplay in a holistic perspective. Take one of the campaign modes: you fill the shoes of a captain tasked with rebuilding the space station Concordia, and reestablishing the Solari Concord as a powerful faction in the galaxy. The amount of lore in the game is fairly astonishing, especially considering much of it can be missed in a less rigorous play-through. With the depth of the story, it becomes frustrating that the most engrossing parts of the campaign are hours apart from each other. Too much of your captain’s time will be spent hunting down petty fugitives, repairing faulty satellites and mining stations, and delivering parcels. With the hours between each story piece, it’s impossible to become involved in this tale of political intrigue. If the side missions had more variety beyond “Kill this, repair that, and go here”, it would be easier to commend the game for its story and its gameplay. I sincerely wish I could become more involved in the campaign’s narrative, since from what I could tell, it was well written and interesting.
In some ways, Warlords feels like a “conquer the world” type game, in that your main tasks throughout the game’s various modes, including the campaign and conquest modes, seem to encourage conquest through arms. You sweep through the different zones, wiping smaller factions off the map and befriending others that seem useful. Yet Warlords seems eager to include much more than that. Warlords drowns its story in gameplay mechanics, from the goal of conquest, all the RPG elements, and the 4X style micromanaging of different tasks and fleets. As the game begins, it feels as though there’s an absence of things to do, leaving the player to fill their time with business of their own (there was a brief time in my captain’s career where she pursued a career in “intergalactic fishmongery”, which is possibly the most fascinating combination of words that I’ve seen all week).
However, when the game shifts into a higher gear, it overloads itself with stuff to do, without really fleshing out any individual task. While there are side missions that appear as the player explores, in my own play-through there was only one that appeared. This could indicate a scarcity in fleshed out side missions, or a misplaced emphasis on exploration. To be entirely frank, exploration doesn’t take the forefront of the mind when it takes absurd amounts of time to get from place to place, and what amounts to a fast travel costs in-game currency, which you’re hoarding for the next ship upgrade. With more inclination and more leisure, I could see myself pouring hundreds of hours into this game, but with everything as it is, it’s just too much to do with too little variation on a task to task basis.
While the dearth of interesting tasks during the grinding portions of the game can be frustrating, the game does somewhat redeem itself in other ways. Its visuals could be seen as crisp and vibrant, or as fairly standard for today’s sci-fi. The UI is appropriately cluttered, and each menu has an abundance of options. With time, though, the feeling of being thrown in the deep end subsides, and menus do become familiar and navigable. It features a wide range of spaceships, each with unique designs, though no design in particular is revolutionary. Glowing colored lights are omnipresent in every design. Nonetheless, its impressive that one can tell by design alone which ships were made by one’s own faction, and which were constructed by another faction. The game does have a few issues with objects not loading on arrival, with stations, outposts, and ships being invisible and inert for minutes before popping back into existence, but nothing approaching a game-breaking bug ever occurred.
And of course, as mentioned earlier, there are plenty of intergalactic skirmishes to be found in this particular galaxy. In fact, one would have to make a concerted effort to avoid getting involved in combat. Nonetheless, it truly is a wonderful experience to pick a fight with a fleet of battleships guarding an outpost and have your entire posse there to back you up. When plasma cannons fire and lasers fly, and the battle truly begins, that’s when the game really becomes enjoyable. In the Conquest modes, the game really leans into the combat, and that’s where I found myself enjoying Warlords the most for what it is, instead of what it tries to be.
Like many tales of intergalactic intrigue, Starpoint Gemini Warlords strives to cover all the ground it can, to be a game that can conceivably be anything. The end result of this desire is something that feels well-rounded, yet stretched far too thin over too much space. When it’s fun, it’s fun. That’s all there is to say. I have and will continue to recommend Warlords to the folks who I know will enjoy it, and it’s difficult to say that it is an unenjoyable game. With so many different game modes and campaigns, there’ll be something in it for almost everyone. Just prepare to be in it for the long haul. If you really want to, you could probably bring a book along, because flight times in space tend to be awfully lengthy.