Remember when you had friends over to play video games? You would all pile up on the couch or lay on the floor playing your favorite co-op games on your Nintendo. Whether it was teaming up with one of your buddies to take on the alien invaders in Contra or trying to smash their face in a intense game of Super Dodge Ball, it was a blast to get together in one room and play for hours on end.
There aren’t many games in today’s atmosphere that capture that type of gaming climate. Besides Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart ,and Madden, most local co-op and competitive multiplayer modes are an afterthought to most developers, as their focus is turned towards the online multiplayer experience.
That is why Zanrai Interactive’s Stardust Vanguards is so unique: It has no on-line component, and instead focuses on the local multiplayer experience only. You heard me right. They want you to invite your friends over to sit in the living room and play together, with the only difference being you have enough money to order take out on your own now.
Taking a page out of Nintendo’s playbook, Stardust Vanguards is local co-op and competitive multiplayer game that has a retro 8-bit look and Robotech inspired mech combat. You choose one of four different colored mechs that represent a different space colony: Scarlet Kingdom (Red), Azure Singularity (Blue), Amber Federation (Yellow), and The Emerald Government (Green)
Other than the different colors of each mech, there are no discernible differences as far as stats or abilities. I played each color multiple times, with The Scarlet Kingdom being my preferred choice mostly due to the Red Ranger being my favorite Power Ranger (professional analysis at its finest), and each played exactly the same. Much like Rocket League, your skill and understanding of the game’s mechanics is going to ultimately decide how successful you will be instead of gaining power-ups or stats to make you better. This gives everyone an even playing field and, with help from the simple and intuitive controls, makes it quickly accessible to new players.
Each mech has a laser beam sword that can deflect enemy fire quickly turning it into devastating offense, a laser gun with limited ammo, and the ability to call in a fleet of various starships to aid you in battle. You are also equipped with a shield that has a 3 second protection time that you can either use all at once or quickly deploy it when needed to get you out of a jam. Once the shield is gone, you don’t get it back for the duration of that match. You also have a quick speed boost that can overheat if you use too much at a time, leaving you burned out and unable to quickly dodge for a period of time. You will have to use all your resources in order to be successful while working together with your friends in Cooperative (Co-Op) and trying to vanquish them in one of the Competitive modes (more on both of them later).
The fleet system is the most unique battle ability in the game as you earn “reinforcement points” (RP) that increases the longer you stay alive. You can also gain more RP by killing enemies with each one having it’s own RP value. However, if you die during battle your RP goes back down to zero. The bigger the RP number the bigger and better your fleet will be when you call it in. This adds a strategic element to both of the Co-Op and Competitive game modes as you decide whether to earn more RP for a bigger and more powerful fleet or not risk losing your RP and calling for them earlier resulting in a smaller and weaker reinforcement group. Each strategy can have its benefits, but it can ultimately swing a battle quickly for or against you a matter of moments in both modes. I’ve deployed large and small fleets and have won and lost using each. For example, in Competitive mode sometimes you can catch your opponents off guard early and send out a smaller fleet to preoccupy them while you get in position to take them out. Or you can use the opposite and save as much RP as you can in an attempt to overwhelm your opponent with bigger reinforcements packing more firepower. In Co-Op, you can coordinate your deployments so you can best utilize each other’s RP to clear a stage before each mechs RP goes back down to zero when the next wave of pirates show up. The system is a unique element and, when deployed correctly, can feel very rewarding.
Speaking of game modes, you have two modes to choose from: Cooperation (Co-Op) and Competitive. With the game completely built on local multiplayer, there is no dedicated single player mode. You can play Co-Op with one mech, but you won’t get too far and your frustration will grow each time you see your mech blow up for one last time.
Co-Op lets up to four players fight waves of space pirates as you work together with your teammates to vanquish each armada and advance in Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulties. Each difficulty gives you more challenge and larger numbers of ships to destroy. There is a bit of competition even in Co-Op as you have a counter that keeps up with how many enemies you destroyed and gives you a bit of incentive to achieve some bragging rights over your teammates. Even with the score being kept, this mode’s challenge is to clear each level on each difficulty using a team strategy to defeat those no good dirty space pirates. Once you attempt each difficulty level one time it unlocks Endurance mode that allows you to play from Easy to Hard and giving you a chance to “beat” Co-Op mode if you choose.
Competitive lets you choose from 3 different versus modes: Deathmatch, Conquest, and Spaceball.
Deathmatch pits everyone against each other with the last mech standing taking the crown. All your weapons and defenses come into play as you formulate the best plan to take out your friends one by one. This sounds pretty standard, but Zanai also throws in random space pirate attacks which forces you to make a decision: Team up to eliminate the enemy or continue to try and take out the competition? This makes the mode extremely fun and separates it from other Deathmatch modes I’ve played before. One of the best moments in the game is when all the players have deployed their fleets and then a random pirate attack happens causing the whole screen to fill up with ships ushering in true chaos. I found it to be a blast, but some of the people I was playing with found it easy to lose their mech on the screen which I can easily see happing. Nevertheless, that moment, for me personally, was one of my favorite moments in the game and on my PS4 overall. Another great addition to this mode is the Bounty Target which puts a large RP on the player that is winning the match. The player that destroys the Target will be rewarded wth the RP. This creates a deadly game of chase that is fun for both the pursuers and the Target. It’s another gameplay element that makes Deathmatch even more enjoyable.
Conquest gives you a highlighted area that you have to take control of by flying your Mech into it and trying to accumulate 30 seconds of total time holding down the area using all your resources. You have a timer at the top of the screen in your mech’s color that you and your opponents can see ticking down as you spend more time in the area. This small touch makes the game have more urgency as you see the seconds tick away for you and your friends as you try to hold on for that last second or scramble to take someone out before they can win.
Last, but certainly not least, is Spaceball. You basically have a goal in your color in one of the four corners of the screen depending on how many players are participating. A ball is placed in the middle of the selected course and you try to score the ball into your goal. Pretty simple right? The problem is that the ball ricochets off of everything and makes it a challenge to put it in your goal and not the other player’s. The more players you have the more chaotic and fun this can be as it plays more like air hockey at times than soccer. Add in the ability to use all your weapons including calling in your fleet, and this turns into one of the best multiplayer experiences I’ve played since Rocket League.
All the modes can be played in a wide array of levels ranging from open space to one with floating asteroid debris that can both harm you and be used as an offensive projectile. Some stages will take a bit more strategy (there is that word again) to achieve victory. One of my favorite levels is called “The Grid” and it’s filled with boxes you have to destroy in order to get to the your opponent. It forces you to try an make a path for you go move, but to also trap your opponent in a compromising situation. After playing it, I started to feel deja vu and realized I was playing it a lot like I would Bomberman and upon completion of the Deathmatch I received a trophy named “Super Bomber Vanguards!” which made me grin and chuckle. A callback to games of yesteryear is always much appreciated.
The more players you have the more fun you will ultimately experience. I didn’t get to play with all four players, but even going from two to three players made the game much more enjoyable. The more I played it with three people the more it reminded me of playing classic multi-player arcade games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game or X-Men. Obviously different genre of games, but the experience of playing Stardust with other people in the same room gave me a welcomed feeling of nostalgia. Even the player select screen is a throwback to the classic arcade ones. The good news is that Zania did include settings to adjust the gameplay to help making a two player experience more enjoyable. You can adjust how much time it takes to accrue RP to giving each player unlimited ammo. It was a great addition to the game and helps make it fun if you are limited to only two players.
The game achieves being an enjoyable local multiplayer game, and that is the biggest problem it has. Zanai has already been very upfront with why they can’t achieve online multiplayer on the PC version of the game in September of last year. And I’m sure it’s even tougher to do on a more structured home console, and, like I said above, I like the fact Zanai took a risk making a multiplayer game that depends on getting friends over and playing on the couch. However, if online multiplayer wasn’t an option, I would have at least liked to have seen some sort of single player campaign. I was intrigued by the world they created with just the factions and space pirates and the foundation of that conflict possibly leading to a really good space opera. A 3 to 5 hour adventure in this world would have been a great addition and make it a fuller gaming experience. If the game wasn’t so fun and accessible then this wouldn’t be a problem, but it is and it leaves you with no choice but to stop playing when all your friends leave. Zanai did what it set out to do, but left us with a void that cuts the legs of the game off at the knees by giving us nothing beyond the local multiplayer experience. The game leaves you wanting more, a goal every game developer wants to achieve, but leaving the player with no option to continue to enjoy your game after all your friends are gone may leave some players with sour feelings on the game overall. In short, it’s like watching a great movie with no ending.
Stardust Vanguards succeeds at being a great local multiplayer game. It’s a blast to play with your friends, its simple game play mechanics make it accessible to more causal gamers, and its strategic gameplay makes it a challenge for more hardcore players. If you have a scheduled game night with friends, I would highly recommend Stardust being added to your multiplayer rotation. And it must be mentioned that the development team consisted of only two people, Jason Koohi and Simon Inch, making Stardust an even more impressive endeavor.
However, it feels more like an appetizer than a full meal. And I, for one, hope that Zanai isn’t done preparing more of Stardust Vanguards for us to order up.
We would like to thank Zanai Interactive for providing us a review copy of Stardust Bandits and the screenshots of the game! We really appreciate it! Stardust Vanguards is also available on PC and Linux through Steam and Humble Store!