Starlight Inception review for PS Vita

Platform: PS Vita
Publisher: Escape Hatch Entertainment
Developer: Escape Hatch Entertainment
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-8
Online: Yes

The pessimistic view of Starlight Inception would probably go something like this: it was unplayable when its beta released back at the end of 2013. It was barely any better when it got a proper release a few months ago. And now, even after developers Escape Hatch have released a patch intended to fix many of the game’s most glaring issues, it still has more than its fair share of problems. At some point, this line of thinking would go, you have to think that perhaps whatever issues face Starlight Inception are endemic to the game, rather than something that could be fixed via patches.

There is a more charitable view, of course, that would be something like: yes, the game was pretty broken during its beta, but it made significant strides forwards by the time of its release. Likewise, now that its first major patch is out, you can see how far Escape Hatch have come from the initial versions of the game, and how hard they’ve worked to make it playable. Issues undoubtedly remain, but there’s been enough progress made so far that you can see a point in the not-too-distant future where Starlight Inception becomes a genuinely worthwhile game.

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I include both points of view because I’m honestly not sure on which side I fall on. This game unquestionably has issues, and, patch or no patch, some of them are still game-breaking. At the same time, however, when everything is working correctly, Starlight Inception is pretty fun. I may be mistaken, for example, but I don’t think the Vita has any other games in which you get to fly around in a spaceship, blasting enemies with missiles. Not only that, there are places where the game’s scale dwarfs everything else on the system — after all, what other game allows you to fly around the infinite expanse of space? And, of course, considering the vast number of indie games on the Vita that stick to the tried-and-true formula of 2D retro gaming, it’s nice to see someone embrace the 3D world.

And yet…those issues. Now, some of these issues are things that can’t be fixed — i.e. the fact that the few times characters are on screen, they look like refugees from a mid-tier PS2 title. Likewise, some issues can be chalked up to incomprehensible design choices — case in point, the fact that a space shooter features levels where you have to fly around a lifeless city, scanning for survivors. The folly of this latter choice isn’t just that the developers are taking you away from flying around in outer space (because again, space shooter), it’s that the game doesn’t have the graphical muscle to render cities, which in turn means you literally spend the level flying around in a fog, a victim of barely-existent draw distances.

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In the big scheme of things, however, those are just minor offenses compared to some of very real problems. Like the fact the game has a seriously lousy hit detection system: all that you’re given is a small number in the bottom right corner of the screen, with no indication of where enemy fire is coming from. Yes, you can sometimes see the enemies in front of you, but seeing as this game takes place on a 3D plane, more often than not, you can’t. Also annoying: the crappy steering. I get that, in real life, turning a space ship around would be no small feat, and that it’s ridiculous to expect a ship to turn on a dime. At the same time, however, I find it hard to believe that steering couldn’t be significantly more responsive than it is here.

By far Starlight Inception’s biggest offense, however, is that its checkpoint system is still hit-and-miss. It only works about half the time, which means that the rest of the time, you’re at the mercy of a game that sometimes notices that you’ve done something, and sometimes doesn’t. Once I had to intentionally fly my ship into the ground just to restart from a checkpoint, after I completed my objectives and the game refused to recognize it. Even more annoying that that was the time when the game found a checkpoint immediately after I’d failed an objective, which meant that restarting from the last checkpoint save meant failing over, and over, and over again, until I finally gave up and restarted the level. Topping the list of most annoying broken checkpoints, however, was the time that I finished a level, flew into port…and somehow, the game didn’t notice, so my only option was to abort the mission and start all over again.

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I’ll admit, that last thing alone was enough for me to knock a few points off of Starlight Inception’s final score. It’s all well and good to be annoyed by iffy graphics and whatnot, but sometimes that can be chalked up to personal preferences. If, however, a game is sufficiently broken that you can call it, well, “broken” without any exaggeration whatsoever, then that’s another matter entirely. For the time being, though, I’m willing to give Escape Hatch the benefit of the doubt — after all, the distance between where the game was on its first release and where it is now is light years (pardon the pun). If they keep working on it and patching some of the bigger problems, I can see Starlight Inception becoming a genuinely good game. If they don’t, though..well, then you’ll probably want to go away from it at warp speed.

Grade: C+