I love space, and I have a fondness for real-time strategy games. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s hard to combine those two things into a competent game. That said, there have been few good ones, with the biggest that comes to mind being Homeworld. The prospect of a 3D space real-time strategy game in virtual reality is an exciting one, too, with the impressive BattleGroup VR releasing into Early Access last year. Another game in the same vein, Eternal Starlight released recently, and I spent some quality time with it with my Oculus Quest 2 headset.
Eternal Starlight is a virtual reality real-time strategy game with some roguelike elements. Humanity has been forced to the stars after Earth’s ecosystem died out. Forced to recolonize, all of humanity’s efforts have been put into the Proxima 1 space station. But recently, a warlike race of aliens has given humanity one week to vacate the current location, with little explanation, and at the threat of maximum violence. You have only a limited time to complete missions for the five other alien factions in hopes of gaining favor with them so you can get access to better equipment and ships, and you’re going to need all the help you can get to protect Earth’s fledgling colony.
Combat in Eternal Starlight is fun and intuitive, but it isn’t perfect. While you shop for items, repair, equip your ship and even travel from system to system on the bridge of your ship, once you get into combat, you’re given a detached view of the three dimensional battlefield. Moving ships and issuing orders is as simple as grabbing the ship you want, and either dragging it to its destination, or dragging the ability you want it to perform where you want it to go. For instance, if you want to fire your fusion cannon it’s as easy as clicking on a ship, and dragging the fusion cannon to the enemy vessel you want to be destroyed. Moving around the battlefield is a breeze—all it takes is to drag yourself through space using your controller grips. If you’re playing on Oculus Quest 2 and want to eschew a controller, Eternal Starlight has absolutely great hand tracking controls that make me feel like I’m really in the future, issuing commands to my tiny ships.
Combat isn’t always great, however. While you can move around the battlefield easily, you don’t have as much control over your ships as I would hope. You can set which way your ships face, but only after moving them—it doesn’t seem like you can turn them in place. Also, I ran into quite a few pathing and movement bugs, with my ship either not following my commands, or inexplicable flying backwards once it reached its destination. In Eternal Starlight your ship’s facing can be essential, and having to constantly tweak my ships into position felt frustrating.
Space can be boring, and while it would be easy to have battles take place in empty star fields Eternal Starlight keeps it interesting by littering battlefields with anomalies that can either help out, or give you and your fleet a really hard time. Battlefields can sometimes feel cluttered, though, and if you get stuck dealing with multiple anomalies back-to-back, it can be frustrating.
There is more to do than just combat in Eternal Starlight. Various quests will have you destroying asteroids, assisting in recovering cargo, and things of that nature. Invariably, however, pirates will attempt to thwart your activities, and even if they don’t, you certainly don’t clear out the asteroids by asking nicely. That means your guns are extremely important, and what types of weapons you load out your ship or ships with can drastically change the feel of a playthrough.
Eternal Starlight isn’t meant to be played through once and finished. Each run can potentially be different. The longer you play, the more ships and weapons you can unlock, giving even more variety to each playthrough. It’s possible to fail a mission and to keep playing, however, if you lose your main capital ship, that run is over and you have to start over. Permadeath can be a bitter pill to swallow in a game that lets you customize so many aspects of each ship and fleet—but there are so many potential weapon combinations and items to collect, starting a new run can make you quickly forget about the last.
Production-wise, Eternal Starlight is a bit mixed. Graphics are just okay, but at least it ran excellently on my Quest 2. While there are a few lines of dialogue, most interactions are through text—and there are quite a few grammatical and spelling errors I encountered. But I appreciate the world building that has been done in Eternal Starlight, as it has five races you can help out, each with their own quirks—and even more importantly, ships and technology you can buy if you curry enough favor.
Eternal Starlight is a bit FTL: Faster Than Light meets Homeworld, and it’s a game that takes advantage of VR pretty well. I had a blast playing with controllers, and surprisingly Oculus hand tracking worked great, and really added immersion. While it doesn’t have the most polished presentation, its combat is fun, and there’s enough variety to make further playthroughs incredibly enticing.
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