Adventure Gamers Awards
Adventure in space has been a common theme in video games over the years, running the gamut from alien invasions to space pirates to journeys across other worlds. There is virtually no limit to what can happen in science fiction, but STARDROP takes a more low-key approach than many. It stars a woman named Aryn who is employed as a salvage worker, not a space marine, and she and her partner John have a much more benign mission at hand. Aryn’s adventure is focused more on solitary exploration than hardcore gameplay, but despite the occasional flaw it has a fairly deep and interesting story to tell.
The game starts with Aryn beginning her "morning." (As her early dialogue with John makes clear, what constitutes time of day is open to interpretation.) They soon accept a new salvage recovery job, which results in Aryn venturing out to a small nearby drop-ship suspiciously devoid of life while John radios in with advice and technical support. It turns out this craft is from another ship, the Stardrop, famous for having vanished without a trace many years prior. I don't want to spoil any important aspects of the story, as discovering them for yourself is the main draw of the experience, but it’s not saying too much to reveal that the pair do end up finding the missing vessel. The Stardrop is also curiously abandoned, though otherwise in perfect shape with no obvious reason why the crew would be gone. From then on, Aryn and John must work together to solve the mystery of just what happened so many years ago.
Players control Aryn from a first-person 3D perspective, freely moving around the different areas of the three ships using the standard WASD keys and mouse or a gamepad. There isn't much more to the mechanics than that. You can pick up random objects, though there's pretty much never a reason to do so, and you can collect small datapads with logs or info on them. There is also the occasional terminal to interact with, as well as manual save stations scattered about to record your progress. A unique spin on the standard hotspot highlighter comes in the form of a scanner that can be activated to indicate any nearby datapads or other key items, which is very helpful as they tend to be very difficult to see on certain surfaces.
It's the lack of variety that makes STARDROP feel less like a game and more like a barely-interactive story uncovered through exploration. The simplicity of the gameplay didn't detract from my enjoyment, however, just make me readjust my expectations a bit. It's not that there are never any puzzles – there are, but they feel more like an afterthought than a core aspect of the experience, consisting mostly of manipulating androids into opening new areas, or figuring out which terminal currently needs to be activated. The majority of the time all you need to do to progress is find the next passcode, usually found very close to the terminal or keypad it unlocks.
Later in the game, there are sections where security cameras and patrolling androids become obstacles. If either sees you for too long they'll set off an alarm, requiring you to find the nearby security station to deactivate it before moving on. There is no risk of failure, no time limit, no enemies who can harm you, but nothing else will work until the alarm is shut off, which feels more like an inconvenience than a consequence. While the androids present an occasional hindrance, it quickly becomes evident that simply running past the cameras is an option, as it takes them too long to lock onto you to register you as a threat. These sequences are an attempt to add some excitement, but they aren’t ambitious or thorough enough to do more than distract from the story for a few moments at a time. I can't help but feel that it would have been better to either make these sections more challenging with real potential danger to the protagonist, or to remove them altogether.
The real strength of this game is its narrative, about which the less you know going in, the better. Suffice it to say that the Stardrop encountered something quite unexpected that resulted in the androids acting oddly. Beyond that, it’s enough to know that it's a slow burn but with a compelling story arc that becomes a pretty great sci-fi tale by the end. This is helped by the voice actors who do a quality job overall. There are a few lines here and there that feel a little unnatural or forced, and at one point when Aryn is in an extremely dangerous position, John seems to be taking it all much too calmly. But in general the light-hearted banter between the two keeps the dialogue entertaining throughout.
While the narrative is excellent and the voice actors deliver, the actual characters come off as a little shallow. As amusing as their repartee is, Aryn and John don't really share much of themselves by the end of the game, instead feeling more like vehicles to move the story forward as a whole. This is also true of the various logs and messages you find around the Stardrop, which don't reveal much about the crew. One of the more intriguing aspects of settings like this is uncovering the backgrounds of a diversity of different people with their own personalities, quirks and motivations, even if you never meet any of them in person, but that’s largely missing here. There's one character who appears later in the game and is given a much more personal focus, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
The ship itself feels like a functional, almost austere place to work, with only a few decorative areas here and there to contrast this effect, but the graphics are beautiful, with a polished sheen on pretty much everything from the bridge to the crew quarters to the darker industrial areas. There are some really great views of space as well, on the rare occasion you find yourself near a window. Another place STARDROP excels is in its soundtrack. Soothing synthesized background pieces accompany your exploration, and they fit the tone and leisurely pacing of the experience very well. There's something haunting about being on a deserted spaceship in the middle of the vast void of space, and the score conveys this mood perfectly. The sound effects are also on point, with everything from Aryn's footsteps to the various computers and machinery sounding authentic.
STARDROP opens with a message from Joure Visser, the game's designer, expressing that its creation was both a learning experience and three years of hard work. Both of these things are clearly evident in the finished product. There are some noticeable flaws – or perhaps omissions – with regard to player interaction and overall challenge, and the central characters could have been fleshed out a bit better. But in place of more substantial puzzling is a slick presentation that nicely shows off all the work put into it, along with a pretty solid sci-fi tale that takes about five hours to finish. There's more story than game here, but if that doesn't bother you then there's a fair amount of fun and intrigue to be found on the titular spaceship.