Interstellar Space: Genesis Alpha Preview

Stellaris is a sophisticated, cutting-edge 4X space game from the premiere strategy game company in the business. Interstellar Space: Genesis is not that. It’s an ambitious little game from a plucky new studio with a vision. Its design indicates a genius eye for gameplay and design, but it’s also practically unplayable. We’re a long way off from release, and I’m not sure if I want to see Interstellar Space: Genesis triumph or see the entire development team get offers to go to a much bigger studio. It’s a strange impulse.

All of this is because Interstellar Space: Genesis is as far from polished as I can remember seeing a game in a long while. In this new, turn-based strategy game by Praxis Games, players battle computer-controlled factions in the enormous expanses of outer space, and so far it looks incredibly unrefined. Fonts and resolutions are so strangely matched that I spent inordinate amounts of time tweaking the UI to make the text legible — I never quite got there. And there’s a lot of text: the game has a lot of menus with strangely ambitious graphics, especially when you zoom down to a planet’s surface.

On the surface, the similarities between Interstellar Space: Genesis and Stellaris are impossible to ignore. In fact, I sincerely doubt a layperson could tell one game from another if they were shown side-by-side screenshots. You’ve got the same resource trackers on the top left and familiar icons on the top right. The pop-up boxes with info on planets and ships appears in the same region of the screen, and gives you similar information.  The galaxy map draws heavily from Paradox’s mammoth space sim, with colorful border bubbles emanating out from star systems and rubbing up against each other. Superficially, you’d think Interstellar Space was a cheap knock-off.

Where Stellaris (and the Galactic Civilization games for that matter) have been getting more and more focused as time goes on, Interstellar Space seems to be aiming for quantity. Most Triple-A 4X space games add and subtract mechanics to support particular objectives, while Interstellar Space is more impressionistic. This is not a game that’s aiming for lean and mean.

Compared to those strategy giants, Interstellar Space: Genesis feels impossibly huge. Part of that is because the game is unfinished — at this point, it’s still difficult to tell how some features such as research trees will actually impact gameplay. But that bloat is weirdly exciting. Research is partially randomized game-to-game, but follow broad categories like economics, weapons, and propulsion. As I played, I became enchanted with terraforming and asteroid mining, eager to see how much I could exploit my randomly generated planetary bodies. Mostly, I was succeeding in making my various resource pools (money, exotic metals) tick upwards. Were those things helping me win? Probably. Victory still feels a little opaque. But I found a lot to love about Interstellar Space: Genesis as a simulation rather than as a strategy game.

The game also boasts impressive cosmetic customization options. With so much of the game left janky and unpolished, I didn’t spend a lot of time taking advantage of the systems, but I can’t stop wondering about the possibilities. Interstellar Space: Genesis thrives as a galactic sandbox, where you can fill a galaxy with races of your own devising, piloting ships of your own design, and choosing your own adventures out in space.

One area where Interstellar Space finds its focus is combat. In most huge space games, combat feels more like a managing a spreadsheet than fighting a battle. Sometimes the opposite is true, and you only zoom in to one ship, one skirmish, one dogfight. Interstellar Space: Genesis finds a middle ground. You’ve got medium sized battles that remind me of PC whaling simulator Nantucket, of all things.Unlike the rest of Interstellar Space: Genesis, the combat has a nice number of options and lets you optimize your strategy.

But okay, you want to know if Interstellar Space: Genesis is worth playing? In this early, messy stage it is hard to recommend, though I definitely would suggest keeping an eye on it. There’s a lot of thought put into its design, as well as a lot of ambition. Too much ambition. I don’t think it’s ever going to be as tight a 4X game as it wants to be, and the early-PS2 era graphics are always going to hold it back from beating the competition. Balance and playtesting is always a tricky thing, and I don’t know if such a small team is going to be able to thread the needle.

As it stands, it seems that Interstellar Space: Genesis is trying to be a competitive strategy game, breaking into an already-crowded market. But maybe it’ll be something stranger, something more akin to Kenshi or Dwarf Fortress. A galaxy-building societal simulator. Or maybe it will always just be an ambitious mess. Either way, Interstellar Space: Genesis exists in a dimension where it has endless potential, and it’s hard not to get excited for that.

*** PC key provided by the publisher ***