It takes a lot for a game to stand out from the crowd these days. An awful lot. Stellatum is a vertical scrolling shooter which looks pretty pleasing on the eye, seeing you play as a member of an extraterrestrial race looking to conquer the entirety of space. And thus you set off, battling enemies and collecting resources to upgrade your craft as you do. For those always looking to be educated, Stellatum is actually Latin for “Star-like”. However, is the case here that Stellatum is one best left in the infinite void of deep space?
There are two modes of play on offer in Stellatum – Campaign and Arena. Arena is basically an endless survival mode which plays incredibly similarly to the Campaign, and so it’s the Campaign mode which will draw most of your time. And it’s long enough too, effectively rendering the Arena mode redundant in all honesty.
Campaign is loosely story driven, consisting of over 80 missions. You kick off with a quick tutorial, where your HUD is explained as well as the basics of how to play. Being honest, the story is secondary to the gameplay and there’s no complex narrative to follow here. RT is used to fire your regular gun, which can overheat and has a brief cooldown period. LB meanwhile fires a much more powerful secondary weapon which cuts through enemies like butter. You can also shoot enemy bullets out of the sky, which is essential when you’re surrounded and backed into a corner.
Both thumbsticks are used to navigate your way through the levels; LS to move and RS to pivot direction. Your ship controls like a hockey puck on ice though, so you’ll need to be very careful not to go careering into asteroids and other hazards as you fly through space.
The hangar is where you upgrade your ship and, as you unlock new blueprints, boost your attributes. The menu is a bit confusing and clunky at first, but you’ll soon get used to it. What remains difficult is trying to figure out which blueprint does what, and the best one to take along for your next mission. A lot of the time it feels like a *ahem* shot in the dark.
Each enemy will have a green health bar above them. The bigger they are the harder they fall, as you’d expect. As you destroy enemies on missions you’ll collect “materia” which you can use to craft new components, which in turn you can use to bring your new blueprints to life. Some enemies will also drop ready-made components, so keep an eye out for them.
You’ll encounter new enemies as you play, but they are all so similar in looks that you may not even notice. Bosses will appear at the end of some levels which are a little more exciting, but all are still pretty basic encounters.
Stellatum starts as a slow burner, and things are pretty straightforward at the start. Your health bar is generous, meaning you won’t feel threatened with failure to begin with. Even if you die, you have lives and respawn immediately to continue from where you left off.
Then, a few missions in, things get much more difficult. The missions become longer and more frantic but fail to properly diversify, basically turning them into endurance tests. This means that the gameplay gets stale fairly quickly, although you’ll need to upgrade your ship correctly. In fact it is essential, otherwise you won’t stand a chance.
The game looks pretty good, with a combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated effects. The cutscenes between missions are all hand-drawn, and do look impressive. The only downside is that the on-screen text is unnecessarily small. It makes reading it very difficult indeed, and the text colour doesn’t help either. The music is decent and suits the action well, but won’t make any great impression on you.
The translation is a bit off in Stellatum too; the text doesn’t read quite right. I optimistically wanted to put it down to the fact you play as an alien race, but sadly I think it’s just been translated poorly into English. The game is also a bit glitchy at times – sometimes enemy ships will vanish right in front of your eyes, and every now and then the game will temporarily freeze before an explosion. Somebody at quality control has been slacking off.
Stellatum on Xbox One certainly catches the eye at first, and the upgrade system adds a basic element of strategy. However, despite being playable, it runs out of ideas quickly and starts to feel like a grind, which makes it hard to recommend.