The past couple of years have seen a massive explosion of sci-fi 4X strategy games, especially in the indie and low-budget scene. Astra Exodus is a game that follows in that wave of inspiration and tries its best to make its mark on the genre in this crowded market by harkening back to the game design principles of classic 4Xs like Master of Orion. For the most part, it succeeds in confirming the strength of the 4X sub-genre, but overall fails to push the envelope.
Astra Exodus, developed by Atomic Kaiser and published by Slitherine, is a single player space opera strategy game set in a distant future where humanity has been forced to abandon Earth in the face of a mysterious threat. The remnants of human civilization successfully founded a colony in far away space and are now in the process of retracing their steps and rediscovering their tragic history. Astra Exodus’ story focusing on the theme of rediscovery and working through tragedy gives it a narrative backbone that helps contextualize the player’s actions in the campaign.
The game has two modes: the campaign and a sandbox mode. The campaign is both an elongated tutorial as each mission slowly expands the tech tree and diplomacy. Most importantly, the campaign has branching paths affected by the player’s decisions, actions, and completed primary and secondary objectives. This adds a layer of replayability to the campaign not found in other similar 4X games.
The narrative is presented mostly through dialogue screens between missions. This is where the first major criticism arises, as the dialogue is poorly written and shows a lack of polish in the game’s production. The dialogue is poor not in the sense that the information conveyed is uninteresting, but simply because of poor sentence construction and numerous typos. Though this does not affect the gameplay experience, it is annoying nonetheless. It also doesn’t help that the AI is generally passive even on higher difficulties, which makes the campaign less engaging to play.
One of the many strengths of the game that counterbalances the poor dialogue is the excellent artstyle and aesthetic direction that helps define the world of Astra Exodus. Each faction’s starships have unique designs for each class and each faction, at least aesthetically, is distinct and full of character. None of the factions play differently from one another, but their appearance sets them apart and make any playthrough unique. The backgrounds and planets are bright, colorful, and information is generally easy to understand; however, the reliance on bright colors sometimes make it hard to see system and planet ownership on the strategic map. The art style reminds me of 2016 indie 4X Stars in Shadow, which itself was inspired by the classics.
The sandbox mode foregoes a branching campaign in favor of randomly generated maps where the player chooses or creates their own faction and plays the game to fulfill one of the many victory conditions. The sandbox mode is good with lots of flexibility in map shape, starting technologies, planet variety, amount of galactic threats, and random events. The faction creation system is robust where players can write up the lore of their own faction and choose unique characteristics for it. Unfortunately, at launch players can only choose ship designs and faction portraits from those already in the game, but this is offset by Steam Workshop integration for easy modding available out of the box.
In the campaign and sandbox modes, the game is split into a turn-based strategic layer and a real-time tactical layer when two enemy fleets meet in a star system. Astra Exodus doesn’t do anything revolutionary with the strategic mode, though all expected mechanics of a 4X strategy game, such as population management, stream economy resource management, and hero recruitment and missions are minimalistic at worst and functional at best. There are several highlight features in the strategic layer that add some interesting ideas or simply standout from the rest.
The first highlight feature is the game’s approach to research. The research system is split into 11 tabs or fields, 9 of which cover various aspects of faction from ship weapons to new colony structures, with the other two relegated to further specializing in existing technology and research special unlockable projects. Each of the 9 main fields has 7 levels of technology in addition to the starting and already researched level 0 that all factions start with.
To go from level to level, players must research a single technology from a previous untouched level to get to the next one. In each tech level, the player will be offered 3 random techs and they can only choose to research one. Techs not researched will be locked. Players, however, have the option of getting locked or unresearched techs through diplomacy. Players have to choose carefully which techs to research at any given moment.
The strength of this research system is threefold: meaningful choice, replayability, and emphasis on diplomacy. By forcing the player to choose one of three techs to research, it puts the player in a position to carefully consider their enemies, current military standing, capabilities, and faction traits. In essence, players must make difficult decisions in deciding which paths to sacrifice and which to take based on their current conditions. Technologies, except for the starting ones, are never set so the entire tech tree is randomized for every playthrough, which means players will have to consider new strategies and approaches to the game every time they start a game. Finally, to expand their technological capabilities and open new strategic avenues, players will have to rely on diplomacy for technology exchange, which adds more weight to diplomatic decision-making.
The second standout feature of Astra Exodus ties strategic and tactical layers together through meaningful ship design and combat. Ship design is surprisingly detailed with each faction having 5 classes of ships available from the start of any game. When creating a new design, each ship class has its own weapon classes and firing arcs and players have to consider weapons, engines, armor, shields, support modules, and ship behavior when creating designs. There is a lot of flexibility in ship design letting player design a fleet to their heart’s content.
The ship design directly ties into the real-time tactical combat system as players will be commanding their ships and fleets considering directional damage on their ships, individual ship performance, ammunition, and active abilities. Though this combat system isn’t as involved and detailed as Battlefleet Gothic Armada 2 or other tactics-focused space combat games, Astra Exodus’ combat system is far superior than even higher budget games like the Endless Space series, the Master of Orion remake, or Galactic Civilizations 3.
Astra Exodus is simply acknowledging that even in a game that primarily focuses on strategy, tactical engagements still affect the strategic landscape and can add to the enjoyment of the game. The respect for tactical combat is on such a level that there is even a simplistic turn-based ground combat system for planetary invasions. It’s not as complex or prominent as the space battles, but it’s still an enjoyable and simple mini-game.
Mechanically and conceptually, Astra Exodus is solid. However, the enjoyment of the game does falter somewhat due to lack of polish and some technical issues. The game includes a DataVids tutorial collection of videos where players can familiarize themselves with the mechanics. The videos themselves are good enough, but the voice acting, and. in some videos. text-to-speech just shows that there was less care put into the presentation of the game.
The UI is good enough but can get clunky as players have to flip through menus to reach specific planets and their production queues. Map movement is oddly slow as if there is low framerate, even though the game is not hugely taxing graphically or processor-wise, but menus open quickly and smoothly. For a turn-based strategy game, this isn’t critical, but noticeable when it happens and shows a lack of technical polish or lack of optimization.
The options menu is barebones with no ability to change graphics levels aside from resolution, anti-aliasing, VSync, or full screen mode. Due to the overall slowness of the map and occasional input lag from the controls, this indicates poor optimization, despite the game not being too taxing. I also encountered some graphical bugs, but nothing serious and I didn’t experience any game crashes.
Astra Exodus is a good game, no question about it, but in this crowded market of 4X sci-fi strategy games, I don’t know if it stands out from the pack, especially from other Slitherine published 4X games. Everything the game does is functional and perfectly enjoyable, with some interesting elements, but it’s almost like the game is scared to push its limited budget to the max and truly innovate on the genre. Astra Exodus is a safe pick for anyone interested, but I would recommend giving other 4X games another look or picking this game up on a sale after some patches and technical improvements.
Steam key provided by publisher for review purposes
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Astra Exodus is a fairly decent 4X strategy game with some interesting ideas and a surprisingly good tactical combat system, but it’s bogged down by a lack of polish and some technical issues.
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