CERES opens up with an interesting description of the future. Our solar system has been twisted beyond recognition by a malfunctioning stargate. “Man, monsters, and machine-gods fight for survival,” while alien lifeforms and the ashes of dying worlds are sucked through the rift. Naturally, the Earth has been ripped apart.
The game’s story centers around CERES, one of the aforementioned godly machines, and an AI that takes residence in your player character’s ship after the first storyline mission. The story content is serviceable, covering expected tropes such as space pirates and lost technology you are to recover. The odd curveball, such as a deceased Cetus (imagine a space whale looking like the ship from Farscape, and you won’t be too far off) being a conflict point between harvesters and claim jumpers is a nice twist, but it is hard to get a sense of what is going on outside of brief paragraphs describing in-game elements.
Combat is at the core of CERES. It’s the very first feature mentioned on its Steam page, and almost all of the game takes place in the close combat view. This extends to purely peaceful activities such as trading, mining, and moving to points of interest, which also uses the same Homeworld-inspired fleet maneuvering controls.
The basic principles behind the game’s combat should be familiar to any EVE player as well. Ships can be equipped with turrets, which require their respective ammunition charges to fire. Spacecraft also have structural integrity protected by armour, and can be repaired by a shipboard module.
CERES is also an RPG, matching captains and their individual skills with a ship and an associated AI. It’s hard to get a picture of the exact impact of skills, beyond a rating of 50% being average, but it makes sense that a captain specialising in missiles shouldn’t be assigned to a laser-centric vessel. AIs act on the ship stats in a similar fashion and come in a number of varieties, though the difference in AI types appears to be largely cosmetic. It feels like a missed opportunity to do something neat (if only in flavour text) when comparing a HAL-9000 knockoff to a cyborg integrated into your ship by force, or the brain of a human scanned into a mainframe.
With that in mind, I selected a combat-focused Bounty Hunter to be my avatar, and set off into the great unknown.
I soon found myself in possession of a small, temporary fleet. While they struggled to keep up, my frigate surged ahead, and ran head-on into a pirate ambush. In the time it took for my allies to catch up, I found out that the plasma weapon projects a massive cone of space fire (eat it, blaster fans), and that I could jam 200% power into all of my important subsystems during the fight. Pirate flambe.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
Unlike EVE, turrets have a limited arc, and armour repair costs valuable resources. While these aren’t bad features on the face of things, the game requires that the player perform a lot of manual maneuvering to keep their fleet moving, and with the most amount of firepower trained on targets.
While this is fine in a game that implements arcs and maneuvering well (such as Flotilla), it often felt like I was fighting the UI far more than the numerous pirates. A lot of key feedback simply isn’t easily given, such as if an enemy is is out of the range or arc of turrets, if repairs cannot continue due to a mineral shortage, and even the fact that putting more energy into ships systems damages them, in addition to draining the otherwise always full capacitor bar. Of the information that is displayed, it’s difficult to tell what is important in the heat of a firefight.
The UI is also confusing when it comes to the matter of fitting ships, offering little information on what a new module may offer. Removing parts is easy, but adding new ones was extremely difficult.
Lastly, for better or for worse, simply moving ships runs the risk of collision damage. In many of the games that I started, moving the first few temporary allies the game lends you leads to collisions, as the pathfinding took no heed of the stations or NPC vessels milling around the first area, leaving both ally and bystander with crippled armour segments.
When I loaded the game up to test if this behaviour happened again while moving towards a quest beacon, I found that one member of my fleet – far smaller than any of the ones a player can start with – bumped into a cruiser called The Wino, and nearly obliterated the first station in the game, which required only a light tap from one of my surviving ships to blow up spectacularly.
It seems that hired ships are meant to play a key part in victory, but the screen for hiring fleet members shows no information on what you’re getting for your money. Hirelings are dismissed every time you leave the map, and they’re not available everywhere. The ferocity of most encounters, and minimal loot, means that survivors are required to frequently backtrack, mining minerals and purchasing more ammunition instead of moving directly to the next point of interest.
Battles and locations in the game are entirely static too, meaning that missions and encounters with things such as pirate carrier groups are only a surprise once. Given that the player ships are unsuited to handling all but the smallest pirate fleets, this gets frustrating.
I respect the ambition that Icelandic developer Jötunn Games shows for its project. The scale of the system, the idea behind the setting, starships that look like more than just boats in space, and the variety of starship components tracked all speak to having great aspirations for the game.
It’s a shame that, in practice, so much gets in the way of those aspirations.
I really wanted to like CERES. It’s a game that may still appeal to fans of hardcore space sims, or those wanting a pretty serious challenge. For all its faults, there is some imagination shown in the various ship designs, and ambition in many facets of the game. But, if you are interested, I firmly recommend looking for a demo of the game before making your decision. If you like it, you will probably love it, but most people will be fine giving it a miss.
CERES will be available on October 16 for $20, with a 15% launch discount on Steam.
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Ryan Vincent.