Earlier this year we covered Lords of the Black Sun as it transitioned from Alpha to Beta. The preview was overall a mixed impression, as it saw both the good and the bad in the game. Optimism ruled that perhaps the game will get the attention it needed to make it an interesting title; however, realism dictated to hold our breath till we see it. Since then the game only added multiplayer and did a few changes that matched some of the criticism; overall, most of these were only skin deep. The end result is a game that feels unfinished, and though a simple game can still be deep and fun in the case of LotBS the mechanics don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Lords of the Black Sun was released on September 12, 2014, published by Iceberg Interactive and developed by Arkavi Studios. The game was formerly known as Star Lords when it was back in Alpha, experiencing its name change for Beta. The game is a turn-based space 4X strategy game with turn-based tactical combat. It includes diplomacy and espionage, and also offers ship customisation.
Despite the title offers what a lot of TBS 4X players are asking for, the overall game feels shallow, unfinished, and disappointing. The game is plagued with stability issues, an incompetent AI, and other issues with the core mechanics that prevents the game from being enjoyable. This doesn’t mean there are no good elements, but many of them get undermined by the weak AI or the opaque game mechanics.
Graphics, Music, and UI
Graphics aren’t an important criterion of a good strategy game and there are many classics that are anything but nice looking. However, having a visual style is important and in some regards Lords of the Black Sun doesn’t quite hit the mark here. The galaxy view is rather mundane and is lacking in any visual scenery. The player gets to choose the gaseous haze that permeates the galaxy, but aside from this the only visuals to be seen are the bright stars and planets that are almost lost in the overall background haze of the game.
The odd asteroid and asteroid field populate the scenery (only cosmetic), with the odd debris to explore. The game’s UI doesn’t help with the problem either, a minimalistic UI that is bland (it is a dark box with very little visual distinction), but one that is also centered on the screen. Minimalistic UIs tend to only work when they are off-centered to let the game’s main screen fill-in the dead-space caused by the UI. Most of the game’s art are small images that tend to have a colour palette in common with the UI itself, it all blends together with no discernible features.
The game is far from bad looking though, with plenty of small bits of 2D art that fill in event screens and menus. However, many of these images tend to be too small to make a long lasting impact. The end result is that the game’s visuals are forgettable.
Fortunately the music is one of the areas where the game does excel out. Atmospheric and fitting for the genre, the music gives the player the sense they are in a hostile universe with mysteries to be discovered. The sound effects are not not-worthy but are distinct enough to let the player have an audible feedback to the events in the game. Unlike the visuals, the game’s music is memorable and still lingers in your mind after you stopped playing.
LotBS has the typical race selection choice with eight playable races and several menus with options to customise your games and galaxy. There’re only two type of galaxies offered, clusters (which is more of a variable spread) and Ring. The 8 races offer variation but once the game starts most tend to play the same way. Some races do get a huge benefit of being able to colonise another type of planet at the start which can be a serious game changer at times (more on this later).
This doesn’t mean the small differences in races do not matter, but overall it will not have a significant effect on the player. The peaceful race can be equally or more effective in war than the war race if played properly. Though a player shouldn’t feel shoehorned to play their race a certain way, it is all too easy to go against the grain and feel that your choice of race is all but meaningless. The colonisation bonus on the other hand can be devastating (explained in the Exploration Section).
The lack of meaningful difference between races, except for the one bonus that is anything but balanced, is not the only disappointing feature. The game mentions that it has a storyline mode that will be presented in scripted events. Alas, this feature is merely a small quest that can be completed in a few turns (most of the time spent will be determined by how close your ships are and how fast you can get them there) that is offered to you once you united the map. It is a mere afterthought to an already won game.
There are only two victory conditions, Tech Victory and Conquest. The Game-Winner-Tech that needs to be researched is not even at the end of the tree and doesn’t require a long time to research in contrast to other late game techs (never mind you can activate your free tech glory action on it as well). Since it is easy to cap out research in the game and not be a military target of the AI (even on the Total War setting), rushing to the tech victory almost feels like a cheap way to win.
Exploration plays a slightly more significant role in LotBS; this is because the unique qualities of planets are not revealed unless they are scanned by a planet scanner, which is the first tech of the science branch. Nothing stops you from colonising but you may find the planet is not as appealing as it first appeared to be. However, outside of this addition there is not much more to space exploration. No anomaly to find, no bizarre stellar phenomenon to explore, and the only thing of note outside of uncovering new systems is to find space debris. Overall, they seem to be few and far between, and only tend to offer small bonuses; however, one outcome does destroy your scout.
As you explore, you find planets suitable for colonisation. The game defines planets into 4 categories (Gas, Ice, Desert, and Rock – which I assume means Earth-like, since it is the planet type everyone can colonise, including the humans). The other criteria that determines colonisation is the habitability, since in the start you can only colonise the top tiers only. You can research techs that unlock how low you can go in the habitability ranks and unlock other types of planets. It also seems that habitability does have an effect on growth and happiness. Planet types on the other hand seems to have no other impact. So, Large Very Fertile Gas Giants will be prosperous Eden-like worlds once you unlock Gas Giant Colonisation.
The other factors to consider will be resource richness, a value that is far more important on an empire wide level and obviously the features the planet has which can confer staggering penalties but also impressive bonuses.
Regarding the way planets are generated, it can be frustrating to find all planets near you to be filled with such negative features they are almost worthless, or find three Utopian worlds in ear-shot range. This is where races that start with an alternative colonisation type get an uneven start. While they can still claim any rock world (thus denying them from those that can only colonise rock worlds) they can also claim worlds that other races will take a considerable time to research first. This leaves the race that can colonise other planets from the start have extra planets no one can claim till much later.
Lastly, it should be noted the RNG can be game breaking. On more than one occasion there were starts where there was nothing colonisable within range. There were not even any pirate or minor race to conquer either. The time it would take to research improved range or increase the colonisation tech (all from one world’s worth of research), would result in falling so far back that even the easy AI would outpace you. These were not just bad starts for an experienced player to overcome, but impossible starts that would only be seen as a challenge for players that like to exploit the game to see against what odds they can still win.
The colony management system’s basics are pretty easy to figure out on your own with the in-game tutorial. The problem lies that the more specific details are hidden under an opaque mechanic. The player can build basic buildings which help mitigate unrest, give the ability to produce starships, or increase science. You can also build economy buildings unlocked through tech to boost income. The system is very straight forward and you will generally not have trouble deciding what to build as there seems to be enough slots per planet to accommodate all your needs.
The game does have an interesting but poorly explained mechanic of empire wide industrial output. Your planet’s production is derived from the total number of factories/mines in your empire spread out to all your worlds. However, you do not know how all these values interact with each other and how it affects your production speed, except for ‘higher is better’ and that too many resource poor worlds will slow down your whole empire as you will reduce your average industrial rating.
This is further modified by the planet’s special features. The end result is that a given world’s resource value is irrelevant for the speed of local production. Your Imperial Total (which is total resource output/number of worlds) is modified by the planet’s bonuses. So, building a tonne of factories on one planet will not make it a “forge” world. Your forge worlds will be planets that are arbitrarily stacked with special features that increase industry factored by the global industry.
The system is not hard to master, and some players may even ‘figure’ it out quickly and be able to out produce the AI even at higher difficulty levels. However, you will never know about the numbers under the hood. Also, it pigeonholes you into building up to a planet’s maximum resource value to keep your global industry as high as possible. The system probably is meant to penalise wide empires with many low resource worlds as you will have more planets that can produce but not as quickly.
The negative aspect is that forge worlds will be left entirely up to the RNG to decide as finding a resource rich world will only benefit your whole empire. Lucky worlds will always be better producers. The system sort of flies against expected convention, and though unique systems are not bad on their own, it is uncertain what the benefits of this is aside from confusing the player.
In addition, keeping populations happy is not too difficult and by late game you can even scrap some of these buildings, though you probably won’t because the extra space is rarely needed. Also, population growth seems to happen quite quickly, which makes terraforming (raise a planets habitability by sacrificing resource value) pointless. A planet’s resource value is far more important as it will affect your entire empire’s production. This also means any action to accelerate population growth via immigration isn’t really worth it either.
Another flaw is how research works but that will be covered more in the Technology section. Overall, you have a cap after which point more research buildings will not help. With a few science techs and a planet or two dedicated to research you will hit the cap easily. This probably ensures a small empire can easily keep up in tech, but it also means there is no way to increase your tech past the cap. It does discourages you to colonise everything, but it pigeon holes you to seeking out very rich worlds only. Also, there will be no reason to even fill up the slots of many of your late game planets as you’ll use them for mines and taxes only.
The main screen for imperial management is the budget screen, which lets you change your taxes and cut funding to different sectors of your economy to cut costs. This can be an alternative to raising taxes. You can also inspect which trade routes you have set up and see the ones that have been set up with you. You also have Ministers which act as advisors, but they also have an impact on your population’s views on your social policies, though this interaction is not clearly documented.
The availability of Ministers (and Generals) are via random events though, which can result in long stretches of play where you have none. This can be frustrating if you research techs that unlock additional slots for them to finish the game without ever being able to fill those slots.
Social Policies is one of the unique features of the game that does make it stand out. Think of these as empire wide laws that affect your society. These range from immigration policies to the use of lethal force by the police. You can see what the level of support is for each law and in what direction the support is trending in. Depending on which laws you have passed determines your government type. As far as I can tell, the government types seem to offer a bonus in diplomacy as races that share governments tend to have bonuses towards each other.
Though it seems the government types have little impact outside of diplomacy, the policies you have passed have a significant impact on your society. They tend to come in the form of trade-offs like having a bonus to tech research but being more vulnerable to espionage; they may even unlock budget options like being able to fund state propaganda. This mechanic is interesting to see in a space 4X game as many games in the genre tend to shy away from having civics or social policies, so it is nice to see it in this game.
They also affect the type of random events you will get. These include events such as major riots because the tax rate was set on high for too long or protests because a policy that didn’t have popular support was enacted. Seeing things like this gives the game an element of immersion that is not often seen, as these choices don’t just affect bonuses and penalties but events that will hit you later.
The one problem with this system is that the player seems to have very little impact on how these policies receive trends. They tend to be affected by the Minister but in an unclear fashion, random or espionage events that push your population into a certain direction, and just random population mood swings. So there is very little you can do to sway your people a certain way. This makes the system feel more reactionary and less about you shaping your society. Furthermore, passing a law that has no support, even at the highest happiness will trigger random events that won’t make them worth it, so counting on global happiness to accept a new policy is not enough.
Another mechanic related to empire management, is that the player can also accumulate glory points from winning battles and colonising new worlds. These glory points can be spent on activating special actions that will boost empire-wide production, research techs faster, or increasing your reputation with other races. At the moment, there seems to be only a small number of options, only 4 for each race with 3 common and 1 being race specific. More choices would have been welcomed.
Tech is broken down into three trees and most of the techs in the economy and science tree tend to be empire wide boosts, and there is only a very small number of new build options in the tree. Also, many of the new buildings tend to be merely improvements of older buildings which don’t really change much in your overall strategy, except for giving you more space on your planets which you have plenty of anyways.
Also, the system seems to cap out at around a research output of 15, which is not hard to get. Anything above this value will not affect your research speed. This also includes the AI’s ability to cap its tech. So, falling behind means you will always be behind. It also means once ahead you will always be ahead. In addition, each tech has a unique cost to research per turn which has nothing to do with any values (this is above building maintenance). Overall, everything seems arbitrary, and the order and connections between certain techs can seem off.
Example, teleportation before cloaks, and though one can possibly find a reason for that it should be noted cloaks were added later (so the real reason is obvious).
Military tech focuses mostly on passive bonuses with improvements and upgrades to the three weapons systems, engines, shields and armor (better protection to weight ratio). The only place with diversity is special ship modules, which are special abilities with cool down timers, that you unlock. There are a few empire wide bonuses here as well.
Overall, the tech tree isn’t deep and doesn’t have much that will captivate the player. There is a mechanic that higher level techs can’t be researched till you have a certain tech upgrade, which will cap your progress if you haven’t built enough labs. These locked techs are kept hidden. However, it is not hard to memorise the whole tech tree, so the discovery of what later techs are will be limited to your first play through only.
Diplomacy offers many options such as the ability to build embassies and consulates to help with diplomacy and trade. You can ask for loans from pirates and help minor races with resources so they become better trading partners and offer gifts to the player. Many of these economic deals can also be done with other AI factions. Treaties include open immigration, subsidised trade, research and economic pacts, and alliances. You can also demand submission from a weaker race.
The interesting aspect of diplomacy and war is the casus belli system. In short, you need a good reason to start a war with another race. If you choose to start a war without a just cause, you will take a reputation hit which will make further diplomatic actions more difficult.
The diplomatic AI seems to be too passive until the player starts to get involved. Once wars and trade starts happening things will have a better pace, however in the early game you will have a hard time to figure out what is motivating each race. This may lead to a few erratic diplomatic actions, as races you had no real contact with going to war with you or getting trade agreement propositions from a race that is not trading with you yet (nor do they start trading with you after the deal).
As long as you have a considerable amount of money, you can grease the wheels all too easily if you haven’t peeved off any of the races to that point. It feels like a clever player can easily abuse the system to his advantage. What helps with this, is any deal will improve diplomacy over time, which includes loans.
Here lies one of the AI’s largest flaws. The AI will accept loans that are economically devastating to its economy. Not only that but it will accept it more than once. Even if its economy balance is a huge negative it will still agree to pay you a monthly fee if you offer it enough up front money. You gains can easily be over 100% returns (example: 400 a month for 24 month for a loan of 4000).
This problem has been around as far back as the alpha. As noted above, this abusive loan-shark relationship will improve your diplomatic standing with your victims, all your victims. This can also be exploited from pirate factions as well. This exploit is game-breaking as you will be so wealthy that you will be able to buy the planets of the AI factions, which will be desperate to do so because of their bankrupt nature.
One of the better features of the game is Espionage as it offers a lot of options to the player. You can recruit agents to fulfill the role of counter-intelligence or send them out on missions. The game offers a wide selection of missions from reporting on diplomatic changes of a target race to performing industrial, economic, scientific, or social sabotage. You can even assassinate Ministers.
It seems it is difficult to immunise yourself against espionage as you will need to research a few techs and keep all your agents on counter-intelligence if you do not want to become a victim of harassment. This is welcomed for the most part as it means espionage has an impact in the game that can’t be ignored.
However, it seems all too easy to become vulnerable and there seems to be a slight tendency of several races targeting the human player which can lead to getting hit by something bad every few turns. This can lead to a lot of frustration and all your effort put into just containing the threat which leads to the player not performing any hostile actions themselves, which is a shame since it is one of the better features of the game.
Combat and Ship Designer
Combat follows the game’s axiom well, both by being simple but interesting. The tactical combat system could actually be quite good if it were not for what is the weakest link in the game’s feature: the ship designer which is then crippled by an incompetent AI. It is a pity because the tactical system contains everything you would expect from a turn-based battle system: ship facing, flanking and rear attacks, each offering different kind of damage effects.
The auto-resolve system seems to favour the smaller fleet and produces results that are not even close to what one expect from the actual tactical battle even if the AI was competent. As for the AI, since the game uses a system where all units on one side moves before the other side, the human player can easily bait the AI into devastating Alpha Strikes thus maximising damage while minimising their own casualty. It also seems the AI doesn’t really utilize special modules either in combat.
The ship customizer is lacking and this is not because of the tech tree alone. The whole system is way too simple. Simple can be good when well executed, but can also be very detrimental with poor execution. It feels the game would have benefited more from premade ships you unlock from research than having a shallow ship designer. Even the varied weapons amount to missiles having a narrow arc and a long range but a minimum range as well, lasers being your vanilla weapon (short range but wide arc), and plasma that bypass shield but tends to be weaker than lasers.
The key reason for this is the lack of meaningful options. You basically get to slot in an engine, armor (usually you get a choice between a lighter but weaker or a heavier and stronger armor), the choice of adding in shields too, a special module which is optional (a special ability that has a cool down: like teleport, cloak, plasma burn, or ship repair), and weapon systems which you can stack depending on slots available and weight permitting. It needs to be stressed that you can only fire one type of weapon per round, thus equipping more than one type weapon does reduce your maximum damage in one round. Also, all weapons will be forward facing.
The end result is that all your ships will be one trick ponies equipped with the latest tech you can muster. You still can create different ship types, like a repair ship, a sneak attacker, or a high damage vessel but each ship will only fill one function and have one type of attack in combat (if you want to be effective). You will not have ships with more than one ‘special’ quality. Additionally these special modules are so weight intensive that it is usually better to completely ignore them, focusing only on weapons and defences. There is no need to repair your own ships if the enemy dies quickly, and no need to disable anything if you can one-two shot them.
Furthermore, there are only 4 ship classes. Scouts will be only useful for scouts and explorer ships, light ships will be practically useless, heavy ships will be your early or cheap warships, and capital ships will be the only vessels that will act as the bulk of your late-game war fleet since you will be able to produce them quickly enough and have the economy to mass produce them. The AI seems to favour heavy ships for war, so once you’re fielding top-of-the line capital warships, the table has been turned to the player’s favour.
This aspect of the game really needs to be overhauled and brought back to the drawing board. A ship designer is not a must in a space 4X game, but if you’re going to have one it has to be of a certain quality. As said before, do it right or don’t do it at all, and in LotBS it’s definitely the game’s weakest element apart from the AI itself. The same axiom can be said about space combat in general.
AI and Stability
The review has already covered much of the AI’s inability to play the game effectively. Aside from the listed failing in tactical combat and diplomacy, the AI seems to build trade centers on all their planets (even with no trade to benefit) and never scraps old ships, so wars can be easily won once you killed their newer fleets. Increasing the difficulty level only seems to increase the ‘boost’ the AI gets, which is not too uncommon in games like these, but it should be the noted the AI never actually becomes better at playing the game.
The game’s stability is probably worse than the AI. The game is riddled with random crashes, some of which can also be a game breaker (reloading and still getting the same crash). Also, sometimes saves seem to corrupt and will crash the game upon loading or upon clicking something within the game after loading. Sometimes this can be alleviated by running a few turns first, but other times the crash will happen anyways. This doesn’t mean you will never finish a game, but a critical crash could ruin a game, and even if not, the constant crashing can get tedious. The record was one every 3 minutes with over 5 consecutive crashes.
Lastly, the game can’t be alt-tabbed from. Results can be from game crashes, to black screen, to even getting a GFX driver corruption. Running in windowed mode does not help either as going to another screen will lock the game or cause it to black screen. This is not excusable for any modern PC title.
The Final Verdict
Overall, the game is a fundamentally flawed. The problem lies in that the game tried to cater for too many of the elements one can expect in a high-budget game but offering each of these mechanics in a very shallow manner. Combat is simple but the AI and elements of the combat system ensure the system does not offer a fully satisfying experience. This is compounded by a shallow ship customizer that seems to only exist to say there is a ship customizer.
The AI in diplomacy and empire management means the AI can easily be tricked even at the higher difficulties or be exploited easily. Opaque game mechanics that are either poorly explained or operate in a way that is counter intuitive, straight-forward colonisation that does not require any ‘tough’ choices to be made, and pigeonholing the player to play with a single strategy add to the list problems with the game. The game feels incomplete or that each feature was only implemented so that the feature was there.
The game tries to be atmospheric and have many of the elements tie back to each other, which offers a glimpse that there was probably a vision for the game. One can also respect the desire to keep many of the game’s elements simple and straight-forward in an attempt to give a clean and smooth experience. However, something must have happened at the execution phase or perhaps too much effort was made to please everyone that it left none of the mechanics to be fully fleshed out or given the depth it should have had.
Furthermore, the numerous technical issues make it hard to recommend the game even as an experiment. It is one of the failings of the game that is harder to forgive.
The very least is we can learn from Lords of the Black Sun that there is indeed a need for a space 4X game that offers tactical combat, ship designer, espionage, and more in-depth political mechanics; as these features may have been the main draw of the game for some. However, the game also shows such features need to be properly implemented and that a functional AI is important.
As always, if the developers do put more work in the game and give expansive post-release patches that change the quality of the game, SpaceSector will give the game another try to see what improvements were made and re-evaluate it then. Every game deserves a chance to be improved or fixed, as several classics had rough origins themselves. Till then however, it is recommended that genre enthusiasts look elsewhere.
Space Sector score:
– Diplomacy and Espionage with many options for the player to choose from
– Atmospheric music that is memorable and adds mood to the game
– Interesting new mechanics that are not often seen in this genre
– Many of the mechanics are shallow and opaque, and poorly explained to the player
– Despite 3D models, the graphics are bland and the UI is too generic
– AI is incompetent and easily exploited, especially in Diplomacy
– Stability issues such as crashes and save corruption
– Alt-tabbing and windowed mode does not work properly
Edward Varfalvy has been gaming since the early days of the Atari 2600. He started playing strategy games on his NES with Romance of Three Kingdoms, but soon graduated to playing on the PC with titles such as Civilization and Master of Orion. He loves sci-fi and fantasy, as well as historical strategy games, be it turn-based or an RTS. His true love is the 4X genre. Interested in covering these titles he hopes to bring reviews, previews, and news updates for the site. See all Edward’s posts here.Subscribe RSS
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