Many role-playing games these days put the player into the role of a great hero or antihero: some terrible evil threatens the world, and your character is the only one with the right combination of strength, intelligence, and allies to defeat it and save the day. Sure, there may be plenty of other activities to partake in along the way, and you may not have to play as the nicest character around, but in the end, your goal is clear. Star Traders: Frontiers, a new RPG from indie studio Trese Brothers, takes an entirely different approach: you’re the captain of your ship, and no one can tell you what you can and cannot do. Your goal is to survive, keeping your ship afloat and your crew paid through whatever way you see fit. Star Traders: Frontiers is not a simple sci-fi power fantasy; it’s a simulation of what it would be like to captain your own spacecraft, down to the finest of details.
Violence: During the game you engage in combat, both ship-to-ship and hand-to-hand. Naturally, if an entire ship is destroyed, its entire crew dies, though that death is not depicted on-screen. If a ship is captured, you have the option of holding the crew for ransom. In hand-to-hand combat, you fight with swords and guns, and small amounts of blood are briefly shown when you inflict damage on an opponent. Bringing down an enemy’s health bar causes them to kneel and disappear from the screen, which, depending on the context of the particular encounter, may signify that character’s death. You can also blockade planets in hopes of catching a merchant ship and attacking it.
Sexual Content: Some of the female characters’ outfits are skin tight, but none reveal a whole lot of actual skin.
Negative Themes: You have the option of smuggling illegal goods across the galaxy for profit.
In Star Traders: Frontiers, you play as a spaceship captain—referred to in the game as a “Star Trader”—who has inherited your uncle’s ship and crew. The game begins with character customization, in which you can select your character’s gender and appearance, as well as their class, associated stats, and the faction you want to align yourself with. After watching the initial cutscene, you are dropped into your ship in friendly territory and offered your first story mission: an independent arbiter, Estelle Brokstrom, needs passage to a nearby world as part of an ongoing criminal case. If you accept this mission and escort her there, you encounter the Faen court, a noble family at the center of the case. While each family member is ostensibly on the same side, you quickly discover that they all have their own agendas and are eager to embroil you in their political intrigue.
It’s an interesting start to your journey, but perhaps more interesting than the story itself is the fact that it’s completely optional. Every story mission in the game can be skipped; as a Star Trader, you are free to take on or ignore any mission you so choose. As long as you earn enough money to keep your spaceship afloat and your crew paid, you can do whatever you want. You don’t even have to stay friends with your initial faction; over the course of the game you interact with all the game’s factions, and you can make friends or enemies with any of them. As such, the game doesn’t exactly have what most people would consider a “main story;” rather, it contains numerous questlines that are only important to your story if you want them to be. This freedom sits at the core of the Star Traders: Frontiers: you aren’t bound to anyone, and your story is whatever you choose to make of it. The downside of this approach to storytelling is the lack of a strong overall narrative, despite the game’s diverse cast of characters.
Time in the game world marches on regardless of your actions, though; take too long to complete missions and they’ll pay less or disappear from your quest list altogether. Certain major, galaxy-wide events inevitably take place, although you can alter how they play out if you choose to run errands for their associated movers and shakers.
Star Traders: Frontiers is ultimately driven by its gameplay systems, and there are a lot of them. Hiring and upgrading your crew, exploring uncharted worlds, engaging in combat, buying and selling goods from world to world, making contacts across the galaxy who can provide access to new missions and services…the list goes on. On the surface that sounds great, and to an extent it is: having so many different mechanics allows for tons of player choice and the freedom to play the way you want. This depth serves as one of the game’s strong points, making you feel like a real ship captain as you juggle multiple tasks and carve your path through the stars. The problem is that the game does a poor job of introducing all of these mechanics to new players. These mechanics are accessible as soon as you start the game, and I found myself overloaded with far too much information than I could handle at one time. Even during the character customization screen, before the opening cutscene, the player is presented with stats and the option to pick a class before they truly know how the strengths and weaknesses of any given build will play out in the actual game. There really was no solution to this problem other than to dive in and learn the game as I went along.
Despite this steep learning curve, I ultimately came to appreciate the game’s depth once I became accustomed to the mechanics. Star Traders: Frontiers serves as a simulation of what it would be like to run a spaceship, from dramatic battles to mundane maintenance. Keeping your ship in good order requires a crew capable of handling a wide variety of jobs, such as manning the guns or repairing the engine. A small box near the bottom corner of the screen shows all the events happening on your ship as you fly across the galaxy, and alerts pop up whenever your crew fails to take care of an issue. If something goes wrong mid-flight, your crew can get injured or your ship can take damage. Fail to keep everyone paid on time, and your crew might abandon you at the next port or even mutiny. This emphasis on the importance of the day-to-day tasks of space flight gives the game a unique feel that you won’t find in most other RPGs.
One particularly cool feature is the game’s approach to difficulty. Where many games simply scale the challenge of combat across three or four difficulty settings, Star Traders: Frontiers offers seven preset difficulties that alter not only the combat prowess of crew and enemies, but also the XP and money you receive for completing missions. The three hardest levels introduce permadeath: if you, the captain, die at any point, it is game over, and you have to start from scratch. You can even customize the difficulty settings to suit your exact preferences. The presence of a permadeath option may help explain some of the other design choices that the developers made: the narrative is optional because many players won’t live long enough to experience all of it, and the tutorial is limited so that you don’t have to sit through it every time you restart the game. For seasoned veterans replaying the game multiple times, these decisions make sense. It is just unfortunate that new players are not also given enough guidance to ease them into the experience.
Combat in Star Traders: Frontiers is entirely turn-based. When engaged in ship battle, you can choose from several different actions: firing guns, moving closer to or farther from the enemy ship, and activating one of your crew’s unique abilities, which you unlock as they level up over the course of the game. The game’s emphasis on customization shines through here, as you can approach ship combat in numerous ways depending on the types of guns you equip and special abilities you use; you can stack up on long range weapons and fight from a distance, or bring the battle up close, boarding the enemy ship and attacking its crew directly.
Hand-to-hand combat involves two teams of four characters attacking one another with both swords and guns. Crew members also have special abilities for this type of combat as well, based on what weapon they use. Hand-to-hand battles take place not only when boarding an enemy ship, but also at times when exploring worlds or completing specific missions.
When exploring, patrolling, or blockading a planet, the game presents you with five cards representing the potential outcomes of your efforts. Some of them provide rewards, such as information, sellable goods, or the successful resolution to a mission; other cards penalize you with lost time, injured crew, or alien attacks. The game randomly selects one of the outcomes, although using one of your crew’s unlockable special abilities, such as removing a risk card, can tip the odds in your favor. It is an old-school approach reminiscent of dice rolls in tabletop RPGs, and fits well alongside the turn-based combat.
Star Traders: Frontiers’ approach to gameplay—from the depth of customization to the massive list of opportunities and responsibilities laid out before you—offers a sci-fi experience unlike many other games. As ship captain, the galaxy is your oyster, and you decide the kind of role you want to play in it. This approach comes with some drawbacks: the narrative lacks punch, and the sheer amount of gameplay mechanics necessitates a whole lot of tutorial for new players, which the game largely fails to provide. If you can make it past the initial learning curve, though, you’ll find that the freedom the game provides is worth the effort.
Review copy generously provided by Novy Unlimited.
The Bottom Line
Star Traders: Frontiers offers a spacefaring simulation experience with far more depth and customization than most other RPGs. Just be prepared to overcome a steep learning curve in order to get the most out the game.