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Starside Arena iOS Review

Starside Arena is a game all about planning and waiting, and much less about actually playing. You spend more time setting up tactics than you do seeing how they play out. Your main efforts go in ahead of time, and you are left to hope the work you put in was good enough not to lead to disaster. This may mean nothing to some people reading this, but the game ended up reminding me very much of my time with Football Manager – albeit on a much smaller tactical scale. I am no longer managing overpaid footballers on a pitch, I am now blowing up ships in space. Unlike SI Games’ longstanding series, this is a free to play mobile game, and as such brings with it a lot of baggage that may instantly turn many of its suitors away.

First things first, I have to applaud Epic Owl for building a F2P game that treats me like a person. Starside Arena never once forced adverts in my face, or bullied me into buying items. I’ve never once seen popups showing me supposed limited time deals. I never felt that the game was aggressively trying to monetize me either. It made me feel like an actual human, and not a statistic to squeeze money from. The simple act of a game such as this seeming someway humane to its end users gets a whole lot of plus points from me.

Even though Starside Arena has a winning mentality when it comes to monetization, I found the gameplay was not as alluring. It never asked enough of me to keep my interest piqued, and is perhaps overly simplified in many key areas. The core gameplay loop, like many other F2P games, is to better yourself. To start with players are presented with an empty carcass of a ship that has no weapons or defences fitted. The first task is to attach items to make a battleworthy craft. The ship itself consists of a bunch of blocks, and the items to place within will take up a varying number of these blocks. The items consist of armor, shields, turrets, lasers, power cells, warp drives and more. Seeing as the starter ship is minuscule in size, it does not take long to fill all available slots.

With the items fitted you press a button, and the ship goes into battle. You are left to sit and watch as the ship you created does a merry dance in space against another. The ships you fight are AI controlled, but they belong to other players that have played the game. No one has direct control of a craft during battle, it is simply your component parts against theirs. I guess it would be nice if there was an option to issue tactics to ships as they fight – maybe tell them to focus fire on specific parts or push more power to compromised areas of the ship – but no such option exists.

There is an underlying rock, paper, scissors style logic at play whilst in battle. Shields work well against lasers, and armour is more resilient to rockets from turrets. Part placement is important too, with power cells prone to exploding if they take too much damage. It is best to locate power cells near the ships center to keep it safe. You need power cells, otherwise shields, turrets and lasers will not work. Finding the right balance between equipping enough items to be competitive but not having to place too many power cells in compromised positions was the most compelling part of the game for me.

The longer you play the game, the higher you level up, and the better items you can unlock. A higher level character means bigger ships, and ultimately that means more slots to place the newfound items into. Once these bigger ships come into play another F2P mechanism makes an appearance – cooldown timers. Whilst you can tackle unlimited missions with the smaller starter ships, the bigger the ship you own the bigger these timers get. They grow from 15 minutes, to 1 hour, to 2 hours and so on.  The game’s conceit for this is that the engines need to cool down between encounters. It is a losing battle to try and stay with the smaller ships too long, as you need to cause at least a tiny bit of damage to the opposition to gain XP. As a res ult you cannot continually send out the smaller ships and hope to level up. Ultimately the timers begin to rule where and when you will get a chance to play again.

Celestium is the name for the in-game currency you can buy with your real-world money. It can be used to speed up those timers – as you would expect from a F2P game. It also lets you gain early access to certain ships that are otherwise locked behind a level requirement. Using Celestium to remove timers always seemed like an unwise spend for me, so I just let them count down on their own. This meant that over the past week I played the game for about 5 minutes once every few hours. This was aggravating, as even though the core gameplay was interesting, it took a hell of a long time to get there. On the plus side, the game seems to hand out Celestium on the regular, so when you find a reason to use some more will arrive at some point. If you do feel like paying, the exchange rate does not seem extravagant. A sub-£2 spend gets you access to a high level ship should you so wish.

Starside Arena is a great idea for a game that has not reached its fullest potential. Players who play it sparingly over the course of a few weeks will get the most out of it, but those who try to rush through will expose a multitude of flaws. Whilst the lack of interaction in battles may be problematic for some, the large countdown timers after each round of encounters are much more egregious.

For players with the right mindset Starside Arena may be the ideal game to spend a few weeks with soley to see numbers go up and feel happy about it. A quick glance at the current state of the App Store shows you could do much worse.

6 out of 10