If an RTS had a drunken one-night stand with a tower defence game in a seedy neon-lit motel, the lovechild would be Starlight: Defence Command. But that kid turned out good.

Planet Defence Simulator

Nanite Games Ltd’s debut game puts you in the hotseat of a Unified Protection Force (UPF) Lieutenant, tasked with dialling into Quantum Relay Stations (QRS) in warzones and managing the deployment of defence turrets with your Adaptable Nano Tablet (ANT) – all with the assistance of your Artificially Intelligent Defence Assistant (AIDA).

Two things are probably springing out at you right now:

  • Remote working is here to stay.
  • That’s a lot of initialisms.

Almost like it’s riffing off other three-letter agencies that already exist…

That’s exactly what I thought, too! I knew we could be friends. For me though, both add weight to the framing device of the game, that you’re a military commander in the far-future. Anyone who’s been near the armed forces can empathise with not risking valuable personnel for no reason, and the unreasonable affection-erection for acronyms.

Before we go any further, disclaimer: this game was given to me for free by a friend to review. However, I was clear I wouldn’t be pulling any punches with my comments. I also do not write about games I think others wouldn’t enjoy – what’s the point? That said, as with any review I’m only ever talking about my subjective experience.

I’ve seen some action. Did a push-up after falling over in McDonalds.

 

Problem? Add more gun

Once you’ve jacked-in via the stylised faux-fingerprint scan of the tablet app you can either do a quick tutorial or jump right into the action. Either way you’ll be plunged into the high-contrast landscape of your ANT’s combat display, where you’ll plonk various murder machines down to defend your QRS from incoming bots. Losing your QRS is like your car falling apart while you’re hurtling down the motorway… a messy end that you could’ve stopped, if you’d paid attention when everything started wobbling.

Units are the metaphorical nuts in your out-of-control vehicle. They’re the currency used to buy towers, activate special abilities, and in an interesting twist the more you have the faster they generate. Holding off on that upgrade as long as possible really pays off.

Turrets themselves come in an arsenal of types, including bullets, missiles, explosives, slow-down, piercing, etc. You have a limited number of spots in which to place them, so you can’t just spam loads of cheap peashooters, but towers can go in any slot. This encourages you to consider the best mix of turrets for the perfect cocktail of destruction.

Speaking of, your towers can also be destroyed, adding another layer to the strategy. Do you put a turret out in the open where it’ll get the most hits, or do you hide it behind a weaker but tankier / more expendable one?

Beyond health, you’ll also want to consider things like the Sight and Range radius. Sight pushes back the fog of war, letting you see the map and identify units. Range is, simply, how far your turrets can shoot. There are a whole load more modifiers for your turrets, but we’ll talk about those a bit later.

This is all if you can brain a good strategy. Me? I just place the rockets until the bad mechs get blowned up.

Pictured: tactics?

Taking aim

Zooming out a bit, let’s look at the other user interface elements.

Bottom-right you’ll see the targeting menu, which lets you decide on a global and individual scale where your guns are gonna shoot the bullets. It’s nice that you can demand your heavy-hitters target the beefiest baddies, and ask your lighter fly-swatters to handle the fast moving pests.

Opposite that is the QRS panel, showing you how close your company-issued AI router is from destruction and the units you’ve got to play with. Underneath that you’ve got some global abilities to boost the damage or defence of your turrets, or repair everything (including your QRS). This means you have some leeway for correcting mistakes, invaluable if you’re as cack-handed as I am.

Downside, using these abilities turns off unit generation. Sacrificing long-term profit for short-term survivability is an interesting choice, especially considering the exponential growth of units. This choice was one I made in every level, trying to judge the perfect time before disaster to use these abilities – they’re not just an ‘oh shit’ button, but a tactical necessity.

Top of the screen you’ve got your various info bits. Intel shows you how many and what kind of enemy bots you can see, mission time and alert level (how tough the enemies are) is in the middle.

On the right you’ve got hits by damage type and times resists upgraded, namely how many of what type of damage you did to the enemy and how many times they bothered to do something about it. Another layer to the strategy cake – relying on a ‘dominant strategy’ or one type of turret will provide diminishing returns until the enemy are crushing the shattered circuit boards of your QRS under… foot? Tread? Whatever.

What’s new?

So far, so tower defence, with some nice extras. For me, where S:DC goes from solid tower defence to unique hybrid is outside the mission map.

Blueprints let you make and customise your very own turrets, an option I turned to frequently after getting my arse kicked. Did I lose because I lacked piercing damage? Area effect? Range? Rate of fire? Damage variety? Turn speed? Here’s my chance to swap-out my toolkit and bring the best and fiercest equipment to bear.

But these turrets are better, because they go up to 11

More dakka, tougher dakka, better dakka, or cheaper dakka, respectively

Not enough options for your liking? Then level up your commander and spend some Talent points in the game’s own tech—tree, unlocking passive bonuses, more turret slots, and access to even more damage types and loadouts. These can be chopped and changed at will, so you’re free to spend those points without succumbing to analysis paralysis.

Ender’s Game meets Command & Conquer

S:DC is not my normal fare. I’ve dabbled in Boom Beach and Plants vs. Zombies, that’s about it.

However, this game pulled me in with the risks it takes. Merging genres, playing with mechanics, trying something new while telling a story. Even within missions there’s variety, including defending multiple points and paths, and encountering unique events and considerations.

And after pulling me in, it kept me there with the cohesiveness of every element. Graphics, dialogue and music all work together to sell the idea of being a remote officer in charge of a futuristic battlefield – an incredible achievement considering this is all done (or at least curated) by one person.

An unpolished gem

Obviously, it’s not perfect. No game is, and for indie titles the edges are nearly always rougher than in AA or AAA.

The tutorial throws flying enemies at you despite you having no way of dealing with them. Turret graphics, while striking, don’t communicate what they can do. A lack of stats before placing turrets makes it hard to know how it’ll function…

Clearly bugged. 1/5 stars, I demand to see the manager

None of these are big issues, but there are a few of them – more than mentioned above. But the key thing is, these are at the edges of the experience. You’ll encounter them, feel a pang of frustration or amusement, and then you’ll carry on engaging with the core of the game.

Promising start

If you are looking for a challenging (if you’re as bad as me) game that tries something new, then Starlight: Defence Command is a solid choice. As a one-man operation we could be looking at the next Stardew Valley – a project game that grows over time into something truly remarkable.

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