If you were a Mac user in the late 90s, the must-have game was an open-world 2D space trading simulation called Escape Velocity. You piloted a ship in a vast universe, warping from one star system to another taking on missions, trading, upgrading your ship, duking it out with other ships, and causing mischief. You could play however you wanted to play — be who you wanted to be. It was the greatest realization of the open-world spacefaring concept since David Braben’s much-renowned 80s classic Elite.
This is the context for Space RPG, a game that looks and plays remarkably like Escape Velocity — only less fleshed-out. It feels right at home on Android, and stands strong as one of the better space games on the platform, although EV fans might think it something of a prototype — or a lite version — for a revival of their beloved franchise. Space RPG is good, but it could be way better.
The Final Frontier
You begin in a tiny merchant vessel docked at Earth, with little direction other than to trade, plunder, and explore. Flying a short distance away from the planet allows you to warp to a nearby star. It soon becomes clear that there are pirates at the frontiers and a hostile alien race off to the east.
You have little time to settle into the world before the government starts forcing you to do its bidding, however. They think you’re a spy, and to prove that you’re not you must become their tool. There’s no real requirement to follow through on this, as you can still trade and carry out protection or transport missions through each planet’s hub. But the story does gradually unlock more upgrades and ships, and it pays handsomely.
It’s important to note, I should add, that the majority of ships — and their corresponding upgrades — will remain unavailable for use until you pay a one-time $0.99 fee. You can complete the story without paying this fee, although it won’t be easy, and it is the only in-app purchase at this point in time.
Big, Interesting, Mostly Empty
Space RPG suffers from two great maladies. One is that there’s not a lot to do, considering it’s an open world. Trading is rather shallow, involving simply buying or plundering a few tons of goods and then selling them somewhere else for a profit. Prices seem to be fixed at the outset, so you can get rich quickly by going rogue outside a planet with high prices and selling the spoils from all the ships you destroy.
Fighting gets pretty hectic.
There are only a handful of missions outside the main story — aside from a quick side quest, these non-story missions are endlessly repetitive cases of ferrying people or goods. The story is interesting, though, and it has a good arc — with plenty of twists and turns, a suitable climax, and a thoughtful epilogue. But one of the things that made Escape Velocity and Elite so endearing was that they offered endless variety. There was a compelling story just in your own adventure and your own actions.
This ties into the other major problem with Space RPG: there’s such little consequence to the things you do. If you die, you respawn automatically at the last planet you landed on — with ship and cargo and money returned to that same point in time. If you turn rogue and start killing everyone in sight, you’ll only be attacked as a pirate until you hop over to the next star system. Then you’re a good guy again.
Non-story missions are pretty generic. (And the text was super tiny on high-resolution tablets until the latest update.)
It’s maddening that these issues exist in an otherwise well-realized and absorbing universe. Space RPG has all the foundations of a brilliant open-world space epic. But it does too little to build on those foundations — like the developer ran out of money for interior walls and electricity and furniture, so they just plonked a frame and a roof down and called it a day.
It’s early days yet, as Space RPG only recently came out and is still under active development. But right now it’s just the husk of a great game. Here’s hoping the flesh comes soon.