Sometimes I get a moment where I stop and think, yeah, this is what VR was made for. This is what I envisioned when virtual reality became reality. I’m glad to report that Eternal Starlight VR evoked that moment and just kept on evoking it. Somewhere inside me a tiny, geeky kid who has watched every season of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager numerous times over is screaming in joy. This real-time strategy game uses the unique power of VR brilliantly, letting you lord it over a small fleet of ships. Let me tell you why Eternal Starlight VR might be your next reason to strap on a headset.
Yet again humanity has somehow managed to cock everything up, forcing them to abandon Earth and fly to the stars in search of a new beginning. At this point writers may as well start saying that Humans just left the planet and nuked it on the way out to save time because it was inevitably going to get destroyed anyway. But Humanity’s new home among the stars and the other galactic civilizations is threatened by the Kraya, a hostile race of bug-like beasties Their goal? Conquer everything! Their reason? Because shut up.
Eternal Starlight is breezy when it comes to plot details, even as you earn the trust of the five other species, which include aliens that looks suspiciously like oversized Hamsters. All you really need to know is that every 7 in-game days the Kraya are going to attack Proxima with a wave of ships, providing you exactly enough time to complete seven missions and hopefully get tooled up enough to wreck them. To do that, you have a flagship which you’ll use to trash pirates, fight the Kraya, search for artificial intelligence and more.
You don’t stand on the deck of your ship and yell out orders in your best Picard voice, instead you’re outside of the ship, floating in space. From this viewpoint you can walk around your ship, and it is this moment that made me fall in love with VR all over again. While I would have loved for the graphics to be more detailed, it’s still supremely cool to be able to walk around a spaceship and get up close with it. It pokes that giddy kid that still lives inside me. To poke my head right inside an epic space battle is a geeky sci-fi dream come true.
To move your ship you reach out to it, pull the trigger and then draw a line to wherever you want it to go, or to whatever you want shot to a million tiny pieces. It’s a system that feels instantly comfortable and natural. It replicated the many hours I spent building the Enterprise out of Lego and then zooming it around my room, fighting off Klingon Birds of Prey before inevitably smashing into a dozen pieces. Shifting your view of the battlefield is just as easy; using the grip buttons lets you grab and drag yourself around space in any direction, while holding both grips and pulling your hands apart or pushing them closer together zooms the view. Again, it takes a minute to become attuned to this control scheme. After five minutes you’ll be flying across space, zooming in and out and pointing orders to your fleet.
Grabbing one of your spaceships also opens access to their special abilities and equipment. For fear of repeating myself, these are a breeze to use. Want to blast something with a Neutron Laser? Grab it from the ability bar under the ship and drop it onto whatever idiot enemy you no longer wish to exist. Want to activate a Nova Jump that lets your ship leap across space while triggering a huge explosion? Grab it, drop it. Easy.
You can interact wit the enemy ships, too. By grabbing a larger vessel you can see its sub-systems and specifically attack any of them, such as the engine, weapons and so on. It can be a helpful thing to do, especially if you manage to knock out a big threat’s engines and leave it limping on the edge of the fight while you clean up the smaller support ships.
It’s not exactly a tactically rich game, mind you. The primary thing to keep in mind is positioning; the majority of ships are most effective when pointing directly at the target, and are weaker at the rear, so the main goal is to get behind them and give them a good spanking. Ahem. This is slightly undermined by ships sometimes failing to register your commands, or even occasionally trundling around on the spot, clearly confused and bewildered by the intricacies of navigating in space. Some updates should hopefully be able to fix these issues and make for a smoother time commanding battles.
A little extra twist comes in the form of explosions. Ships and asteroids alike have an alarming tendency to explode when destroyed, dealing damage to any nearby vessels dumb enough to be caught up in the bang. It doesn’t add much to the combat, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the expanding balls of lights look awesome in VR and made me cover my eyes with my hands, a fruitless gesture but one I couldn’t help making. There are also clouds in space that cloak ships within them, perfect for launching a sneak attack or for cursing at when a barrage of bloody missiles comes out of them and smashes into the side of your flagship.
Between missions you get to spend the resources you’ve gathered on repairing and upgrading your fleet. More slots can be unlocked on vessels to increase how much weaponry you can install, for example, and that’s a pleasingly tactile experience as well – pick a weapon up from the side-menu and click it into place. There’s a reasonable amount of gear to choose from when it comes to outfitting your vessels, and each weapon comes with an upgrade slot, too, so that range can be boosted or better targeting systems installed. Or you can focus on boosting core stats like hull integrity, shields, speed and the amount of fighters that are automatically deployed into the battle.
Once you start buying or being rewarded with new ships the action gets much more interesting. With a primary ship and a few support vessels in the fray the action is faster and more frantic as you keep track of where everyone is, choose what enemy to focus fire on and try to keep everything in optimal range or out of trouble. If you’re flagship is taken down, it’s game over.
Oh, and I do mean game over. Eternal Starlight uses a rogue-like system, so while it’s possible to fail some missions, the destruction of your main ship means having to start the game over. Unlike other rogue-likes, nothing actually carries over, either, so you really are starting from scratch.
This extremely simple approach to rogue-like mechanics is easily the weakest part of Eternal Starlight. It could have been stripped out and it would barely make a difference. Technically the missions are randomized but that doesn’t mean anything because most missions feel the same anyway. The only things that truly change is what equipment you get or which relationships are built up quicker. Failure sends you back to the start without anything new or interesting to show for the effort, and you rarely learn anything from it. Most times, death occurs because you took your eyes off the flagship a little too long, or in the darkness of space you didn’t quite spot that one other enemy ship.
The good news is that it isn’t a long game, making having to restart it less of an annoyance. All the missions, which usually involve destroying everything in sight or protecting something while destroy everything else in sight, typically only last a few minutes at a time. You can complete the whole thing in a few hours, although I will admit if you fail toward the very end and have to restart, those few hours kind of feel annoying.
And I do like the idea of building relationships with the other alien races. The more you help them out the more of their technology you unlock to buy, and they might even dispatch some reinforcements to help out during the Kraya attacks, something which becomes more and more vital as time goes on.
I’m happy to say performance was never an issue. It’s graphically quite basic so I don’t see it taxing systems very hard. That means the battles aren’t visually as impressive and chaotic as I’d like to see, but it’s still surprisingly easy to get immersed into the sight of a few spaceships trading shots and lasers across the void of space. Mind you, the audio could do with some work; bigger bangs from those big guns, if you please. And yes, I’m quite aware there’s no sound in space, thank you very much.
And if you play on the Oculus Quest 2 then you get the option to use full hand and finger tracking, letting you ditch the pesky controllers for an even more immersive experience. I have to admit, I would love to play Eternal Starlight in a nice, big room with the Quest 2 and finger tracking. But alas, I can’t and thus I also can’t tell you how well this feature may or may not work.
The main singleplayer mode will take you anywhere from 2-5 hours, I reckon, depending on how many times you snuff it. Once you’ve wrapped that up there’s a Skirmish mode where you can set up your own fleet and take on an enemy. There’s really not much to say about this mode except it works and the core gameplay is just as fun as it is in the main campaign.
I really would have loved to see multiplayer in the mix, too. Sure, the action slowing time when dishing out orders wouldn’t work, but frantically pointing orders to a fleet of ships while a real-life person is busy doing the same thing could be awesome.
Could Eternal Starlight be bigger and better? Absolutely. I’d love to see something like Battlefleet Gothic but in VR and I hope that Eternal Starlight’s developers are the ones to make it happen, because they’ve laid down some truly excellent foundations here. The way you control ships feels awesome and fun and immersive, instantly recreating the feeling of being a kid and whooshing little toys around in the air. I’d almost say this is worth buying solely to support the developers and give them a chance to make a stronger, more fleshed-out sequel. But thankfully I don’t need to say that because Eternal Starlight is worth checking out anyway. Yeah, I’d like a more substantial campaign and the rogue-like elements weren’t doing it for me, but everything else is heaps of fun. It’s not often I legitimately lose track of where I am in my room with a headset on, and yet I constantly found myself facing the wrong way or nearly walking into my bed, such was my immersion. And yes, I did sit in a chair, point to the stars and say, “engage.” Had to be done.