Stellar Sovereigns is the self-published first game from German developer Imagined Reality, a turn-based space 4X with real-time combat. There is no price yet on Steam where it’s releasing on March 8, 2023, but it is currently $25 on itch.io where the game went through two years of early access development. There is a lot to enjoy in this game and it is obvious it was a labour of love for the developer, but it is held back by a lack of standard quality of life features, and a number of features that while present are not fully fleshed out. There is no story mode which is fine by me as deep repeatable sandbox action is where it is at, but anyone looking for a narrative will be disappointed.
The game plays out at a medium scale in a customisable 3D star cluster and a small scale in battle, where each individual ship is a relatively large investment compared to games like Stellaris or Distant Worlds where ships are much more common and expendable. Expanding your empire can be time consuming and expensive as is tradition, so getting the balance of economy to war right is important. Your citizens are happy to
be milked dry invest in their future so increasing tax early helps, as does selling some resources so you can pump your planetary economies harder.
The combat is definitely the highlight of the game and the most fleshed out major system. The depth of the gameplay here is very engaging, with a large assortment of weapons and modules usable on a nice variety of hull types, each of which has suitably different statistics to specialise them. There are a number of meaningful tradeoffs like management of power to ensure your sensors have enough strength to detect enemies at the range you want, your ships can maneuver at the rate you need, your weapons can recharge and continue firing optimally, and so on. This all factors in on ship building, research, and modification and plays out nicely during combat.
The graphics and sound are consistently good across the galactic map, interface and combat. The music is atmospheric, the combat sounds are suitably distinct and flow together nicely and the interface sounds are crunchy and responsive. The combat looks beautiful too and comes with cinematic and battle cameras, the latter is a nice way to see better what’s going on in a little centered window while you command, and the former is great for when the outcome is decided or when you want to take screenshots. The ships are all well designed and cover a nice range of sci-fi themes, the combat graphics are good across the board from weapon effects to ship damage and explosions.
The research tree is better than most, being split into many specialised categories and works well. You can research multiple technologies at once depending on how much you’re willing to invest, and the mechanic of rushing research – with the chance for problems it entails – is a very nice trade off to be able to choose. Planetary development is also good as you balance your population, their employment and happiness, building requirements and investment with your economy and current situation. The governor works well to keep things going by itself within the budget allowed and, unlike bureaucrats in real life, won’t use more of the budget than is needed.
Some of the systems feel bare-bones – they are there, and they enhance the game with their presence, but they could be meatier. The political system has an interesting approach of spending points in certain areas which are themed in a way that defines your ideology. This opens up new government types, but the traits and government types themselves have little impact. Using mining ships to obtain non-planetary resources in a solar system is a fine idea but all that happens is you build a mining ship/fleet, and it sits in a system and resources flow in, there’s no interaction to make it a fun system.
The galactic map is cumbersome to use – it’s nice that it is not flat like is often the case, but it could really use some improvements to help make it clear what is where in the 3D plane. Not being able to use WASD to navigate around also makes it harder than it needs to be and the inability to zoom out further so you can see everything at once isn’t ideal either.
Quality of Life issues. As is tradition for German games it seems (looking at you Gothic), genre standards of interface usability are quite literally a foreign concept, much like PC optimisation is for Japanese games. One of the most standard of standards is using the escape key to close windows in order and then when none are open, to open the system menu. Neither happens in this game – windows must be closed with their own X (can’t click outside of them to close them either), or you have to click on the menu to open it.
The game also suffers from the same “indie Unity game” interface problems as The Pegasus Expedition (reviewed here) where windows are oversized, contain too little information, rely on tooltips to provide some of said information, and do not use tooltips for the standard practice of explaining what something is. It also prevents two commonly desired things – having multiple windows open at once, and still being able to interact with the main interface while a window is open. Even simple things like no spaces or underscores in save games is a minor annoyance that is nothing by itself but that adds up with all the others. There were a few bugs mainly forgetting the map/interface settings and crashing on load/exit, but they were minimal.
It is hard to decide whether to recommend Stellar Sovereigns or not. There’s fun to be had, but the game makes you walk up hill in the summer sun to get to it. If TBS/RTS combo 4X is your thing this will be an easier sell. All the expected elements are there – empire, colony, and military management, exploding spaceships, pretty aliens and citizens to
exploit help prosper. If the interface issues don’t seem like a problem and you prefer the sandbox over the story, I can see this being a lot of fun to play through a number of times, but the constant interface frustrations really hold it back for me.