“Please press ‘A’ to play”.
Never before have I been greeted like this by a game. Usually it’s simply “Press ‘A’ to start” or even more abruptly, “Press ‘A’”.
Star Hammer greets you this far more polite way after the usual developer and publisher logo screens, and it’s almost like it’s giving you a choice as to whether you would like to play or not. Sadly though, pressing A at all may have been the wrong choice.
Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy, to give the game its full title, was released back in 2015 on Steam, but now finds its way on to consoles. Developed by the Australian studio Black Lab Games, the game is a sci-fi strategy title where you control small fleets of ships. It is published by Slitherine who have a rich history with strategic games.
After pressing ‘A’, the games main menu opens and the rousing soundtrack kicks in. It’s worth noting that the soundtrack is pretty good and of a high standard. The music will not be stuck in your head for days on end, but it does do a good job of setting the scene for the sci-fi space battles. The opening menu screen has a few different options including a Skirmish mode for players who want to create their own games and scenarios, as well as a main campaign. Skirmish mode will only unlock after being a few missions into the main campaign however. Also in the top right corner are the credits on a constant loop. One thing that is clear from playing this game is that a lot of time and effort has gone into creating the whole universe lore and gameplay elements, and it’s good to see those people getting the recognition, where other games are happy just to put their credits hidden away in the Options screen.
The main campaign is said to offer over 60 missions in a branching storyline. Before each one, a little bit of backstory fills in the details, all text – there is no speech in the game – and designates each mission as either Neutral, Aggressive or Defensive, to indicate the type of tactics you need to employ. Disregard this completely. The game tells you that depending on your playstyle certain missions may become unavailable to you: for example if you go in guns blazing every mission the more defensive ones may not be open for selection. But the game makes it impossible to treat a mission as defensive. It may start out as an escort mission or having to reach a certain point on the map, but invariably, due to some speech bubbles in the top left (more on that later), every mission will end with you being required to shoot down every enemy ship. It goes back to Star Hammer having a lot of good ideas regarding gameplay, but being poorly executed.
To ease players into the campaign, there is a tutorial of sorts. Text boxes litter the screen everywhere in an attempt to explain all of your available options. As with any decent strategy game you have a large number of options to tinker with, making sure your ships are ‘ship-shape’. But rather than drip feed these options over two or three missions, Star Hammer chooses to give you them all at once; which may seem like a good idea on paper, but on screen comes across as a mess. It’s made doubly hard as well by the tiny fonts and text boxes not being a solid black so any writing behind the help boxes also appears. This issue also applies to the mission select screen where News Articles icons appear for selection after certain missions, but their icons aren’t in ideal locations and can either be missed or cover up something more important. It is far easier to simply ignore the tutorial messages and figure out what to do your own way. Pressing ‘X’ will bring up the menu and all the actions your ship can perform and you can play around with this; all actions need to be confirmed by pressing ‘A’ so nothing is definite until you say so, and this I found to be the best way to figure out what did what.
Back on the Main Menu, and there is an option called Data Archive, along with a warning that a web browser page will open if you choose this option. Here though, you will find the extensive Star Hammer wiki. It has pages and pages of lore and is really quite impressive. It’s also vital to understanding the story of the game, as the game itself does a poor job of explaining what’s going on throughout the main campaign. The speech bubbles mentioned earlier appear in the top left and form a conversation between the ship captains (all text as there is no speech remember), but in the heat of battle you simply don’t even realise they are there. From the bits that I have caught the story wasn’t ground-breaking; main themes involved a rebellious daughter whose father is a high ranking office, The Second Conflict War and obviously, aliens.
Glitches are prevalent in the game too, particularly in the achievements and more importantly, game saves. Half the achievements are currently unobtainable, with all related to recruiting new team members, but also some story related ones also. But the game save glitch really affects the enjoyment of this game. A number of times I had to repeat the same mission I had done the day before, simply because it did not save despite the details on the save file stating that it has. The game has been out since the end of August and so far there is no update either. Another thing that just has to be taken into account.
Star Hammer: The Vanguard Prophecy, as a name, perfectly sums up the overall experience I had with this game. It’s long, confusing, sounds promising, yet doesn’t really explain anything. Which is a shame because it’s evident from the amount of backstory available for this that a lot of time and effort has gone into making this. With a bit of polish this could be a decent RTS, but as it stands there are far too many little issues dotted throughout. And they unfortunately add up into one big issue overall.