November 26, 2015 1:30 PM | John Bridgman
Ambition can be a blessing and a curse to a new game. Aim too high and risk not reaching your goals. Play it too safe and you might get lost among all the competition. Beyond Sol from Praxia Entertainment is an ambitious real-time space action game with empire management and political elements that has some lofty goals, and for the most part reaches them quite well.
With its sprawling stationscapes that let you build and improve your empire's settlements among the stars, the game lets you see them grow in an appealing city-like aesthetic. This sprawl shows off the size and strength of establishments at a glance, and plays an important strategic role in the game. You'll have to choose how to build out and how best to set up your defenses. At the same time, rival settlements will need to be watched carefully and examined for weaknesses both military and economically strategic.
Asked about the decision to use this style of city-building, Zachary Beaudoin of Praxia said, "Before we wrote the first line of code and before we did the first design we were exploring ideas for our game and how we could create something fresh and interesting. During this process we came across an image of a sprawling downtown city in the clouds orbiting a planet and it resonated with us. From that moment we knew we wanted to create cities in space instead of just stations or outposts.
We took that even further and in the Beyond Sol world humans live in these cities rather than planets anywhere in the galaxy."
Originally intended to be a "space buccaneering action game which was inspired by classics like the Escape Velocity series and Freelancer - but in a capital ship." Realizing they had some stiff competition upcoming within the genre, the developers decided to take it in a new direction. Beaudoin explains, "After a couple weeks of brainstorming Eric (our Creative Director) said "what if Beyond Sol was a strategy game". Almost immediately we started exploring that idea and got really excited about it - being serious strategy gamers we had all kinds of ideas about how we could fuse the best parts of the strategy games we loved with a real-time action combat system. That's when we decided we'd try to mix action space combat with strategy.
From that point we started looking to other types of games for inspiration the previously mentioned strategy games gave us ideas for many of the game's world systems but the structure of the game was modeled after an unlikely game. Mount & Blade had already done something similar but in a medieval European context so we used that as a starting point. But we took Beyond Sol a step further by keeping the world fully real-time, not instancing any combat, and making our 'campaign' multiplayer."
This switch to strategy gives the game a strong sense of identity, while its roots in real-time action are still present. It plays surprisingly nice, and you can transition between the two aspects of gameplay quickly. There's always something to do, as there are frequent random events which you get notified of to give new challenges or collect new resources to continue your empire.
Such a grand scope could be intimidating, but thanks to some very good tutorializing, the game manages to be approachable regardless. The tutorial gives you the necessary tools to learn to play, primarily controls and how to find menus, but doesn't hold your hand through every element of the game, encouraging you to explore and study as you need. Beaudoin says, "From our own experiences playing games we know that part of the magic of any game is exploring a new world which means that discovering or learning about the mechanics, the narrative, and how the game works is rewarding. At the same time we know that being dropped in a new game with absolutely no info and expected to have to discover the basics of how to play a game can be frustrating. So in Beyond Sol we took great care to find a balance between the two."
Expanding on that, he says, "Before we even made the tutorials and the game tips it started with a clear design goal: easy to play but difficult to master. That meant making a game world that appeared simple on the surface so players could jump in and play without needed to understand how everything works. But then we create depth in the mechanics and systems that react to the actions of the players so that as you play you start to discover the nuances of how you can affect the world."
The importance of getting feedback from new players really shows, and the experience is enhanced for it. It lets genre-savvy players get to the main elements of the action quickly, which newcomers get pointed in the direction to finding the information they need. "From that starting point we crafted our tutorial with the goal of providing the absolute minimum amount of information we thought was necessary to play the game. We spent a lot of time observing new players playing with the game and made notes of where people got hung up within their first 15 minutes and that gave us the insights we needed to figure out what to put in the tutorial. Then we implemented a game tips system that would give you morsels of important game info just in case you hadn't yet discovered them."
Balance is a key factor of the game, and you're able to customize your difficulty level to your skill and desired challenge. This isn't done through a simple selection of Easy/Medium/Hard, instead you choose the number of rival empires as well as their starting strength. When asked what motivated this decision, Beaudoin said, "We play a lot of strategy games like Paradox's Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Civilization, Galactic Civilizations and we've seen the different approaches to handling difficulty each game uses. As a player we don't like how Civilization 5 increased not only the production capabilities of AIs in higher difficulty but also their combat bonuses - if you play on Immortal you need something like 4 units to kill 1 of theirs but you can't afford as large an army as they can so it gets frustrating. We do like how the Paradox games' difficulty keeps all the combat fair but the game is more difficult if you start with a weaker nation and so we modeled it after this."
It's clear that the team at Praxia had their goals clear as they worked on Beyond Sol. With its consistent, meaningful aesthetics, and its commitment to keeping the player informed and in control of their experience, the game manages to be something that anyone interested in it can play without much hassle. It instructs the player well and challenges them in a fair way that they decide when the game starts. Despite seeming like an intimidating title thanks to its ambition, I can definitely recommend folks give Beyond Sol a try if they're into space buccaneering or space empire building.