"NO FREE-TO-PLAY! NO LOOTBOXES! NO GRINDING!" proclaims the eShop trailer. Developer EvilCoGames boldly assures players that Star Story: The Horizon Escape contains "ONLY FUN!" While it’s amusing to throw tired conventions and unpopular trends under the bus, ‘fun’ is a vague descriptor. What’s fun about this turn-based RPG/text adventure?
You play as Van Klik, a Star-Lord wannabe who crash lands on Horizon, a planet filled with hostile raiders and sand shrimps. You’re given an initial choice which leads you down one of three branches. The game is primarily a text adventure, with a liberal dollop of turn-based battles and crafting, and your AI companion Verdana provides occasional commentary and assistance as you meet people and uncover the secrets of the planet.
Your choices fall into three categories: ‘Resolve’ (aggressive), ‘Insight’ (intelligent), or ‘Goodwill’ (friendly). Every decision made will bag you a spec point which goes into a ‘Technologies’ tree back on your ship, gradually unlocking new craftable items using scrap you find on the planet. Better gear opens up narrative options; for example, jump boots might enable you to avoid a hazard or save a travelling merchant from a gang of raiders. Points remain after dying or reaching one of the endings, so you’ll eventually max out each category regardless of your initial picks.
The user interface is generally clear, although everything’s a mite too small for our liking. Pleasingly, touch is fully supported, and ship-based crafting is considerably easier on the touchscreen, although things can get fiddly elsewhere. When using the Joy-Con, the left stick navigates the environment and dialogue options while the D-buttons control your inventory. Holding ‘X’ brings up tooltips and, in general, overt instruction is pleasantly absent. Having said that, the method to recharge weapons took a little time to figure out – they are fuelled by scrap and must be recharged on your ship via a toggleable button as you gather your expedition gear.
The battles themselves are functional, if unremarkable. It’s all very familiar – burn/corrosion weapons do damage over time and different shields offer protection to specific attacks. The battles lack punch, though – there are none of the visceral animation or audio flourishes that make number attrition exciting in the best turn-based games. The soundtrack is inoffensive, and while the bone-based animation and steampunk aesthetic recalls Steamworld Dig, Star Story is unfortunately characterised by a lack of variety and polish. Things like mismatching fonts or the developer logo seemingly displayed in the wrong aspect ratio don’t make a good impression.
Despite the trimmings, this game is really a text adventure. Van Klik’s story of ancient artefacts, androids and aliens is told in the past tense and while the script has some fun moments, you’ll soon start playing ‘spot-the-typo’. Some sentences are simply unfinished, likely due to display errors – "I want to meet new people and make new". The quality of the dialogue itself is inconsistent, swinging from admirably colloquial to stunted and awkward. It’s relatively entertaining the first time around, but repetition is Star Story’s biggest weakness.
Following the initial branch choice, the narrative forks a further three times, splitting each run into four chapters which lead to 24 possible endings – and finding them all becomes a slog. Non-story events are somewhat randomised every run, although the game doesn’t have a huge repertoire of encounters. On top of that, the necessity to craft every consumable item means you’ll be teleporting back to your ship repeatedly to restock and recharge. A loading screen which accompanies each trip doesn’t help matters – it’s a few seconds you’ll repeat hundreds of times. For a small adventure game, Star Story gives the Switch’s internal fan a surprising workout and leaves a 2.4GB footprint.
Once you’ve built up your inventory sufficiently, a complete run might take around 30 minutes, although dying will send you back to the very beginning. Your resources remain, but you’ll replay the same content a lot. Even on entirely different routes, environments and characters reappear. In fact, as we idly tapped through a scenario for the dozenth time, our mind drifted to the branching course map from Out Run – regardless of which finish line you aim for, the route there unavoidably retreads old ground. Then we thought how we’d rather be playing Out Run. As a text adventure, there’s just not enough variety to make finding all those endings worth it.
Star Story: The Horizon Escape is an inoffensive time sink with some competent gameplay that's ‘fun’ for an hour or two. Once you’ve seen a couple of the endings, though, it quickly palls. If you’ve run out of things to play on your Switch – and given the current flood of software, that's highly unlikely – and you’re willing to forgive a lack of polish, you could do far worse, but look elsewhere if you’re after a meaty adventure game.