Review: Starsector, or how I learned to thrive in the galactic dark ages.

Starsector focuses on piloting ships, strategic combat skills and what to do with the freedom of humanity. Photo courtesy of

Justin Farris

Have you ever wanted to be a space pirate, sowing death and misery across the stars to procure personal wealth and power? Have you ever wanted to explore the reaches of a lost interstellar empire? Perhaps you want to strike a trade convoy headed to an enemy colony, just to watch the resource shortages send said colony into complete anarchy. Starsector gives you the freedom to either build or destroy the galaxy, however you may please. 

Starsector is a very freeform space game. It falls closest to the genres of 4X strategy and RTS; but, neither of them are really representative of the game’s scope and possibilities. You can go from a beggar with nothing but a gunship and a civilian shuttle to mastering an entire fleet of warships better equipped than the state military and supported by an interstellar empire of your founding to literally anywhere in between. 

Currently, in my save, I’ve built a decent warfleet able to beat nearly any other fleet in the game, (sometimes two at once) supported by six colonies. This includes four terrible death rocks that produce raw minerals, consumer goods and all the machines/ships/weapons necessary to run an empire, an ocean world that farms rare seafood and trades extensively with other empires and a distant colony on an idyllic tundra world that digs up long lost technological relics. There is an extensive variety of worlds to choose from- some are idyllic, and some require full super hazmat suits everywhere at all times.

The story of Starsector is a bit complex and a bit vague. Humanity was ruled by the Domain, which controlled multiple galaxies. The only way to travel between galaxies was to use giant gates to teleport across intergalactic distances in an instant. Key word being was. 

206 years ago, all the gates in this little sector of space (the Persean sector) went dead. The colonization efforts weren’t complete, leaving the colonists cripplingly low on both food and the knowledge necessary to build and maintain advanced technology. Now, humanity is reduced to about 20 star systems in a sector that they used to rule entirely, split between warring factions and threatened constantly by something lurking beyond the safety of the surviving colonies. 

Now for a quick crash course on Starsector’s factions. 

The Hegemony are the only people still trying to rule democratically, composed of the remnants of the Domain military in the sector. Tri-Tachyon is a hyper capitalist megacorporation that is directly responsible for pioneering unregulated artificial intelligence. The Persean League is a loose alliance of many local governments that are unified only by their opposition to the rule of the Hegemony, which they see as an illegitimate successor to the Domain. The Luddic Church believed that the fall of the gates and the resulting tragedy was divine punishment for technology going too far. The Luddic Path are Luddic Chruch extremists that utilize terrorism and suicide ships in the name of forcing people to give up modern technology. The Sindrian Diktat is a small military dictatorship ruled with an iron fist by former Hegemony Admiral Andrada, who went mad with power after a planet in the system had its population bombed to extinction. It’s unclear whether Andrada ordered the genocide himself or if it was executed by rogue soldiers or even a third party. What is clear is that it no longer matters to the people suffering under him- they are more concerned with survival. 

Surviving this sector won’t be easy. Starsector has a fairly steep learning curve and when you start out, you will most likely be blown up by the first serious pirate fleet you encounter. After that, you’ll have to struggle with setting up a proper income. Making money in this game is very possible, but not effortless. If you can manage that, then you can start worrying about venturing out from the relatively safe core worlds colonized by humanity and into the ruins of the Domain.

You’ve got options, but all of them have their pros and cons. If you take contracts to survey lost ships and explore distant planets, your jobs will be mostly safe; however, if you do encounter any trouble or run out of resources, you’ll be stranded far from any help. Bounties are usually closer to the safer core worlds and pay well, but also, by nature, involve combat. If you go after a bounty you can’t handle, it’s a good way to get killed by a battleship while you’re still flying a little frigate. Meanwhile trade contracts are low profit, but quick, safe and don’t leave the safety of home. 

Also, taking quests isn’t the only way to make money. For legal means of profit, you can take commissions from some of the factions (sort of like an alliance). The faction you join will pay you, the faction’s fleets will bother you less and getting a high enough reputation will even let you buy high-end weapons and spacecraft directly from the state military. The downside of this option is that you can get dragged into any wars your new allies get involved in. 

Let’s take a look now at some of the less savory options to pursue.

Piracy is always an option. Making enemies of everyone will make your life exceptionally difficult, so it’s best to keep at least one or two factions friendly so you can have a place to safely resupply. That being said, a pirate’s life still isn’t easy. You’ll have to play very carefully to make sure you’re not using more resources in a fight than you get out of it or you’ll be scrounging together two wrenches to repair an entire fleet. 

A much more lucrative option is smuggling. Starsector has a real-time economy and different planets will require more or less of different resources based on the industries they hold. Disruptions in trade, like the loss of a merchant fleet carrying vital food or volatile chemicals, can cripple a planet’s output. Conversely, sometimes a colony will be relatively prosperous and have surplus resources to purchase at a lower cost. Play your hand right and you can make double or triple the cost of buying a resource by finding it cheap and then reselling it to somewhere in need.

How does this tie into smuggling? Well, naturally the most profitable resources are the dangerous and illegal ones. Recreational drugs and heavy weapons will fetch a high price almost anywhere, but especially in colonies in need. Unfortunately, the authorities are not blind. Trade illegal commodities too much and they begin to notice. There are a few ways to combat this. Your fleet has a transponder that acts as fleet identification. It’s illegal to have it off in civilized space, but leaving it on means that authorities will get suspicious of you very quickly. If you want to trade on the black market, you’ll have to find a way to get to a planet without the transponder on, at least as long as you want to remain anonymous to the government. I recommend going dark and approaching through an asteroid belt or planetary ring. 

Eventually however, there will come a time when, like it or not, you must engage in combat. This is where Starsector shines. Battles aren’t over in seconds, nor do they take hours to complete. A good fight will often be over in ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Every ship can equip a dizzying array of custom modifications and varying weapons. Most have shields and all have a special ability- of note are the ability to teleport short distances, massively buff weapon firing speed, becoming temporarily nigh-invincible, the like. One of the most terrifying ships possesses teleporting, short fuse bombs that it can launch at you while inside another dimension. 

Managing combat takes some strategy. You can order your ships to focus on certain enemies, escort one another, capture and defend objectives, send a small detachment off to take out an enemy or even harass an enemy ship without direct intent to kill it. You can also pilot your flagship manually (of which I am very bad at, even after a couple dozen hours in game). 

Piloting a ship is hard- you have to manage a lot. For one, all ships have flux. I like to think of it like reactor stress for your spaceship- your reactor can only take so much before it needs to shut down to avoid exploding. Flux is increased by firing weapons and using shields and you can typically only decrease it two ways- leaving shields down for an extended period of time or by venting flux, a process that gets rid of flux very quickly, but leaves you unable to use weapons/shields/ship abilities while active.

Weapon management is also important. You can choose whether your weapons fire automatically or if you have to aim them manually. You can put them in numbered control groups- a group for missiles, one for cannons, one for the machine guns to shoot down incoming missiles, etc. When piloting your ship, you also manually control its movement with WASD. My ship of choice is the basic Wolf frigate. It has a reactor that’s hard to manage, but decent damage output, significant missile racks and a teleporter as the ship’s special ability that allows it to run away very quickly when I make terrible mistakes.

Once you get the hang of combat, the world is yours to conquer. You might even build up enough money that you want to start a more permanent enterprise. If you happen to find a nice, earth-like planet out on your travels, nobody’s stopping you from colonizing it as your own. That opens up a new world of possibilities. Get a colony and you can make your own source of fuel production or food, ores, whatever you need, as long as you have the money. Get enough industry up and running and you can start to build your own ships with any blueprints you find on the edge of the galaxy. Then, you reach the endgame.

What would you do if you found yourself powerful enough to contest control of what’s left of humanity? What would you do if you knew you could rule the galaxy? Would you become a benevolent democratic leader, leading a peaceful federation into a new age? Become an ally to a standing regime and work together to remake the stars? Become a hated conqueror bent on raiding every world till their governments fall so you can step in and pick up the remains? Or perhaps you would go furthest of all and bombard every inhabited planet until no human life remains. They’re all options.

After all of that, you might feel ready to reach deeper into the void. To probe the very edges of the sector for lost secrets. You might even find a blue giant star, burning angrily into the cold void, with a small structure seemingly on its surface. There is something out there. It is angry. It wants humanity gone. It has already begun its bloody work.

“This is Captain Janus of the Smiler 1. I transmit this distress call from the star known as Beta Benzon Disk. We found something that looked like it was touching the star. We had spare supplies, so we went to investigate. My fleet was strong. I had three Eagle cruisers, an Onslaught battleship, a Legion battle carrier, a Hyperion gunship, six destroyers, and ten frigates. My crew had taken out a dozen pirate bases, won battles against the Pathers and the Church and the Diktat and the League. We’d already been to the furthest reaches of the galaxy on five expeditions. I say this to illustrate my next point fully. We never stood a chance. 

It was only two of them. Two of- something. Something unholy, something unlike anything I’d ever seen. My officers were top notch, half of them experienced admirals saved from cryosleep in wrecks centuries old, the other half fifteen year veterans under my command. It tore us apart in seven minutes. Picked off my best friends one by one in front of me as I watched, fired over and over to no avail. Tsuki was the last one to die, that glorious bastard. Even with those things both sides of her, shields down, reactor critical, she kept firing the Onslaught’s guns, even as space itself came alive to strike her. She was the only one to land a hit. The rest of the combat ships are gone, except for mine. A Wolf frigate. I’m taking volunteers to man the Prometheus super-fuel carrier and three derelict fuel ships we found in the system, alongside my own Wolf.

 I’m sending everyone else home. They’ve got enough supplies and fuel to make it, if they don’t get caught by pirates. As for me, I’m going to make a run on those two nightmares, try to ram them with the fuel ships and blow up the fuel tanks. If we can hit them, I doubt any shield can hold up against four thousand tons of detonating antimatter. It probably won’t work- we’ll get shot down before we reach them. But it’s my only shot left, and I’m not leaving this place for some other poor fool to find and die the same way we did. If you find this message, tell the Hegemon to bring the entirety of the 14th fleet elite, plus some regulars. I’d blow up the star to be safe. Don’t assume I killed the things, unless you want to gamble on ending up the same way. Janus out.”

-Last known transmission from Admiral Janus, posthumously awarded Hegemony Valorant Eagle and an honorary admiralty due to fifteen years of combat service and dedication to duty in warning the sector of |REDACTED| incursion.

Starsector is one of the deepest games I’ve ever played. The combat alone could sell the game, but it also being attached to a functional campaign in a procedurally generated world just adds even more value. I’ve sunk more time than I’d like to admit into the game in between writing this piece because writing about the game just makes me want to play it again. All this for fifteen dollars is quite a steal.