I still remember searching the Google Play store with a HTC Desire HD. I wanted something I could sink my teeth into that wasn't Fruit Ninja or some Bejeweled knock off. And as it so happened, I came across a little space trading RPG from a developer called Cory Trese.
Cory is one half of the development team known as the Trese Brothers, whose stock in trade was translating old-school, 4X-esque experiences to mobiles. Not all of their games had a sci-fi theme, but there's some common overarching themes: create your character, complete with a range of attributes, skill points, and various talents; explore a fairly large world while dealing with the random encounters along the way; and make sure you don't fall to pieces in (typically) turn-based combat.
Star Traders: Frontiers is like the most iconic elements from all of these previous games. Not all of it gels particularly well, and the spreadsheet-esque pages of management will turn some people off. But if you're prepared to knuckle through all of that, Frontiers has a particular, scrappy charm.
While the whole appeal of Frontiers is the sandbox-like quality of surviving in space, foraging through exotic wildlands, running patrol routes for factions and climbing the political hierarchy, or just trading your way up to bigger ships, there is a neat little space opera underpinning it all.
After creating your officer, you're immediately tasked with investigating a recent bombing implicating the daughter of an imperial leader. An observer to the case travels with you to gather evidence — because you're a Star Trader, a neutral party in proceedings. It doesn't help matters: even after uncovering some leads through risky spying (which you don't have to do, if that's not your style) the daughter still looks nigh on responsible.
But things don't add up. So you start taking quest missions to warp across the galaxy, hunting down leads to discover the true culprit. Along the way, you can also use a bit of diplomacy to stop the galaxy from being plunged into an all-out war, not to mention the various side quests you can take at every single planet as you build up your network of contacts and fixers.
Honestly, the rabbit hole with this game is deep.
What's really neat about how Frontiers works is how the various reputations and factions intersect with the main story, but also your general ability to progress. Say you're flying from one planet to another, and you're hit by a raider from the clan controlling the sector.
You can run, but your crew will lose a bit of morale in the process. Lose too much morale — either through not paying their wages, injury or just being a shitty captain — and there's a chance your crew will abandon the second you leave port. Your crew can even rise up and mutiny, although the various skills and characteristics of your captain, and each individual crew member, influence that.
Mind you, the game doesn't do a great job of illustrating how that all plays out. On the lower right is a log of sorts, showing all of the random encounters going on at any given time. A short trip from one planet to another could bring up several tests: whether you run into a comet swarm midway, how good your pilot is at landing, your ability at withstanding radiation waves, random illness amongst the crew, and more.
This happens all the time. Exploring, combat, spying, blockades, patrolling, basically anything that involves an action that's outside of a cut-scene. It's like an ongoing series of checks from D&D, except you're getting about a check every few seconds and it's all happening without any direct input.
It's one of those things you just have to roll with, as you wrangle the various systems and elements together.
So here's one of the neat things. On various planets — like Calagan Faen, the prince who sets you off on your initial quest — you can unlock a range of tools that let you do a range of things within that particular sector.
Because your reputation with Faen is pretty stellar from the off, that means you can pay for a death warrant. Basically: here's $1000, now I can go capturing and killing people in the name of the Cadar.
Alternatively, and equally useful, are trade permits. They let you buy and sell restricted goods at Cadar terminals. You can also pay to climb the military hierarchy, if you want, or even barter some of your reputation to buy advanced equipment (which boost your officers skills, giving them an advantage when using skills and talents in combat).
Ships are modular, so you can sell, upgrade and modify every aspect you want provided you have the money and can support the overall weight. Easy tip: if you don't rush through the first couple of story missions too quickly — there's a point early on where a clock gets put on proceedings — you can get some basic trade routes going, giving you the dollars to upgrade some of your weapons and armour to help sustain early fights.
Two other major aspects you need to know about: ship combat, and hand-to-hand combat.
Crew combat, which you can see in the feature image, is basically a Darkest Dungeon-style battle featuring four characters on either side. Each character has a preference for a particular slot, depending on their particular skillset, with some abilities only usable in certain positions. Obviously, you'll want melee attackers upfront and healers in the back, but a wealth of abilities — grenades, crippling attacks, covering fire etc. — all come into play.
Combat plays out in a turn-based fashion (for both ship and hand-to-hand combat), although in ship combat turns resolve simultaneously. In crew combat, a turn resolves in order of available initiative. Some character skills trade on initiative, while others are weapon-based. (It's also worth noting that as characters level up, they get access to different jobs — like quartermaster, spy, rifleman, so on — that have particular subskills and talents of their own.)
Ship combat is a little different. It's still a bit grid based, in that both ships start five spaces away from each other and can choose to widen or narrow the distance every turn. The reactor of your ship grants you a certain number of action points, and you can choose how they are spent, as well as the ability to use one disposable talent that turn.
Your starting ship will have multiple slots for ammo batteries, torpedos, railguns and so on, but each gun has an optimal range that you'll want to fire it from. Usually they can still do damage within one cell (or square?) of whatever that preferred range is, but you won't get any bonuses for doing so.
You can see quickly where all the systems come into play. You could, for instance, specialise your captain and gunnery team to focus on close-quarters combat, upping their skills in boarding while stacking the ship with high-damage, low AP missile batteries. Alternatively you could just fire torpedoes all day long, ensuring your crew and officers have the right talents to support long-range combat.
There's so much going on.
Frontiers' biggest problem is that the game, really, is pretty obtuse. Your starting crew offer some straightforward hints to begin with, but that doesn't even come close to helping you understand the flow of the game. It's information overload, almost all the time. In one instance, just trying to sell some crystals, I counted over 30 separate icons on the screen.
Intuitive, Frontiers most certainly is not.
Secondly, random rolls are an absolute inescapable part of the experience. It's not as brutal an experience as, say, Tharsis. But you're still dealing with the fact that this is very much an odds-based game, where your crew and captain XP is largely going into talents to mitigate said rolls. And outside of the stats and skills, there's not a huge amount of difference between the crew. They look different, have randomly generated names, but there's no sense of life among them. They're walking buffs, basically.
But if you come into Frontiers knowing all of that, you'll probably have a better shot at appreciating its scrappy charm. I grew up with a ton of space games and merchant sims, which helps. And being priced at $21.15 ($US15) is a big plus too, because that's just within impulse buy territory for a lot people. Even better is the hardware requirements: Frontiers will run on any PC with a 1.2GHz CPU or better. You could basically play this thing on a potato.
So for a certain segment of gamers, particularly those who grew up with Privateer and other trading sims of the late '90s and early '00s, Frontiers' convoluted management and interlocking systems will undoubtedly have a certain charm. It's absolutely not for everyone, especially if you have a low tolerance for RNG. But there's fun to be had exploring the galaxy in Frontiers, although I'd recommend not getting too attached to any of your characters. Xeno attacks are bloody brutal.