Lords of the Black Sun Review
Lords of the Black Sun is the first major release from Portuguese indie developer Arkavi Studios. The developers describe their game as an “epic-sized complex and dense 4X strategy game,” so I was naturally thrilled to have the opportunity to review the title and put it to the test.
Before delving into the depths of this review, it is probably prudent to note that Lords of the Black Sun is not an entirely new release. Released to Steam Early Access late 2013, the final version of the title initially hit Steam in full release on September 12th of last year. Unfortunately, it didn’t do so without hitting some significant snags along the way.
From the outset, Lords of the Black Sun was hit with intense criticism from its player base, primarily over reported stability issues and, as such, has garnered a significant amount of negative feedback on Steam. In late November, Arkavi released its biggest update to the game, focusing mostly on ensuring the game’s stability during play. I mention this at this juncture in order to clarify that the remainder of the review will focus solely on the gameplay of Lords of the Black Sun. As I did not play the game until after the aforementioned update, I cannot attest to any of the stability issues that were present. I can, however, attest that I have experienced only minor issues with the playability of the game from a hardware standpoint.
On we go, then!
Lords of the Black Sun is highly reminiscent of a few other 4X space titles (Horizon; Ascendancy) but has a few features not offered in either of those titles. All the typical features of a 4X are present (exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination), along with research and diplomacy. Generals and ministers represent the “heroes” of the game, influencing your empire in unique ways. Some of the game’s more interesting features include intelligence agents, pirates and what I shall call “empire policies”. More on these later.
In my initial playthrough of Lords of the Black Sun, I chose to play as the Humans. We’re such a bunch of lovable rogues, aren’t we? As it turned out, after our sun began to die and our world was plagued with all the effects a dying sun can be expected to cause, a friendly group of roaming aliens found us. Gathering up the remnant of Earth’s population, the aliens transported humanity to another dimension where, along with the help of advanced alien technology, our species rebuilt on a new world, christened Terra.
Although I haven’t yet played every race available, of those that I have, the humans proved no exception when it came to how their background was communicated: a graphically dull cut scene with bland voice over. Couple that with a litany of grammatical errors in both race descriptions and the initial “news” feed in-game, and I have to admit my skepticism about the title was rising. Nitpicking? Perhaps, but I’m a stickler for high quality in an end product being sold to consumers, and these types of errors can be indicative of a lack of polish/finish on a game.
Visually, Lords of the Black Sun isn’t spectacular. For gamers used to modern, high quality visual production, the game certainly falls short, but it isn’t so terrible as to be unbearable or, worse, indistinguishable. The soundtrack is reasonable enough for the genre (it has a “space” feel to it), but lacks any significant variety throughout the game. Unfortunately, this theme of mediocrity continues beyond just the visual and audio aspects of the game.
Lords of the Black Sun, unlike many other 4X turn-based titles, is actually a surprisingly fast moving game. Turn-time, especially early on in the game, is relatively short with only a few decisions to be made off-the-cuff. Despite a horrendous tutorial, which occasionally even uses terminology that is counter to what the UI actually states, Lords of the Black Sun is not a complex title and should be easy to pick up and play for most players.
Your empire begins with a homeworld, along with a shipyard and a scout. Exploration of the galaxy around you is usually the first order of the day and the game utilizes an easy, intuitive point and click system for movement (avoiding the complicated menus seen in other titles). Your ships can travel independently for quite a distance before they must have another colony nearby in order to go further, which is usually far enough to find a suitable planet for colonization or a world with a native population that can be conquered.
Initially, your first encounter with others in the early stages will most likely be with pirates. The pirates will usually offer your empire the opportunity to pay them a sum of money in order to receive their protection (yes, racketeering at its finest). Choosing not to pay can result in the pirates more easily developing an unfavorable attitude toward you that’s less than ideal in the early game.
In time, you’ll discover other alien races in the galaxy around you. The diplomatic options available are actually quite reasonable, include several options, and can be very useful, especially as the AI reacts well most of the time in response to your actions. Diplomatic victory is certainly achievable through careful and deliberate manipulation of this aspect of the game.
As your empire grows and you colonize new planets, you’ll have the option to begin to specialize different colonies for different tasks. Each planet only has a set number of spaces for buildings, so careful planning is needed. The benefit here is that the planet’s output is not restricted only to that colony, but forms a general pool of all resources for your empire. Thus, industry (factories) and research (labs) are conducted efficiently across your entire empire based on the total number throughout your colonies. This adds to the flavor of the game, and definitely improves the speed as you don’t have to build ships on one side of the galaxy and wait several turns for them to cross it. Rather you can have several planets with shipyards all benefiting from the same empire-wide industrial output.
In addition to choosing specific buildings to specialize the planet with, players must also consider empire policies that are in effect, and deal with issues such as health of the population and crime rate. These factors in turn can have a positive or negative influence on how the planet performs in terms of industry/research or currency generation.
Players can also shape their empire in a way that suits their personal style, although this can be a gradual process, through the empire management screen. Allowing and restricting certain laws; delivering speeches; establishing trade routes; hiring/firing ministers and generals, and establishing espionage operations are all part of the system the player has access to in order to ensure their empire stays on top. These features represent some of the best aspects of the game, but sadly never see much use, mostly due to a lack of truly being fleshed out..
Take trade routes, for example. Freighters (specifically the module needed for cargo) first need to be researched, fitted to the largest size of hull available in ship designs (also requiring the most industry to build) and then assigned to a planet. Trade routes are limited (although slightly expanded later through technology advancements), and so players are left wondering if it really is worth all the hassle.
The research tree in Lords of the Black Sun is lackluster at best. Identical for every species, there are three strands to the tree: military, economy, science. Only one of these strands can be researched at a time and, even after the first few levels, rarely add anything to gameplay other than following an uninspiring “+1 to this output” or “Add x% to this skill.” Some technologies are even confusing in exactly how they play out and how their effects directly correlate to the empire’s income or output, and it can be difficult to determine what is really worth researching at any given time.
The one saving grace of Lords of the Black Sun should be the turn-based combat system. In a “fast-paced” 4X like this one, with simplified controls and management, the door to providing enjoyable combat experiences is open. Sadly, the game just does not deliver. Although the system itself works well mechanically, battles are just plain boring and outcomes are easily predicted. The auto-resolve option appears to be the equivalent of a suicide button, as I regularly had extremely wide ranging differences in how manual battles versus auto-resolve battles would turn out against similar opponents. As with other aspects of the game, combat can be enhanced by technology, but the lack of any real difference between races means that ships mostly look and behave identically.
Put simply, Lords of the Black Sun is a mechanically sound game (i.e. all the pieces, although not flashy, work and serve their purpose) that fails to blend together to create a harmonious whole. The game often feels disjointed, lacks real depth or innovation, and is mediocre even in what it tries to do differently from others (i.e. espionage, empire-wide management).
While it might be worth a few hours of gameplay, Lords of the Black Sun lacks the fine detail and substance that make players return to games over and over again. This will likely be played once and gather proverbial dust in the Steam library for most players, especially fans of the genre who have come to expect much more from 4X titles.
Lords of the Black Sun is available on Steam at the retail price of $29.99.