Couch multiplayer is back, baby. With games like Speedrunners, #IDARB, and Crawl, the golden days of killing your friends in your house without having to break your back digging shallow graves have returned. Now, Zanrai Interactive LLC is adding a little space opera to the mix with its deathmatch between starships and giant mechs, Stardust Vanguards. Competition is stiff in the genre, though, and while the game’s giant space battles sound interesting, the limited stages, simple combat options, and plain presentation prevent the game from standing alongside its competition. Stardust Vanguards is fun, but just not for very long.
Stardust Vanguards allows up to four players to engage in several different match types. The game has a standard deathmatch, where players fight for survival by ending each other’s lives. There is also a cooperative mode where the players face waves of enemy ships, working to keep each other alive as they bring the enemy down. Finally, there is a sports-style match where players try to knock a glowing orb into the opponent’s net. These modes give the player a bit of variety, depending on how they want to play out their matches for the night.
In each mode, the player’s combat options are the same. The mechs all possess a sword and a limited amount of gun ammo. You can use the sword as much as you like, swinging it in whatever direction you’re pushing when you press the button. Firing the gun works the same, but its rapid fire means quickly running out of bullets. A single hit from either the bullets or sword means death, but players can also activate a shield for a few seconds that will protect them from harm. If you don’t have time for that, a swipe of the sword also destroys oncoming bullets, and barring that, you can also do a quick dash in any direction to get to safety. Smart use of shield, sword, and dashing ensure your survival in some near-death moments.
Zanrai has also added AI-controlled ships to the mix, to make things more interesting. As players down their enemies, they gain energy that will let them call in backup in the form of mixed waves of three different ships. You get bigger ships for more energy, which means your opponents have to work harder to get rid of them. Summoning them takes a few seconds, though, so players cannot just call in a huge force to turn the tide at the last second. Still, hiding behind an asteroid and calling in ten ships to back you up does often shake up moments where losing is certain.
The game itself summons ships as well, using a faction of pirates to spice things up. These forces show up with little warning and at no particular time, so even when players feel like the fight is under control, a huge wave of enemy ships could be coming. Pirates home in with no rhyme or reason, so these moments leave everyone scrambling for cover, slicing bullets with their swords and frantically blocking.
It’s moments like this where Stardust Vanguards shines brightest. Players whip around the screen as beam swords cut through the air and bursts of gunfire snap against energy shields. Suddenly, two players call in forces of ships, filling the screen with small starships that open fire on everything in sight. Then, the game warns that pirates are incoming, turning almost every tile of the screen into a deathtrap. The game practically crackles with frantic energy in these moments, as death looms just one wrong move away.
The trouble is, this scenario is really the only exciting moment in the game, with little sense of variety. Each match takes place on one of several single-screen maps, and most of them look the same. Space is space, so there aren’t always that many ways to vary a background consisting of starlit darkness, but Zanrai did try. There are a few asteroid belts and floating mining colonies, but many of these are in flat, drab colors. They make seeing the various character models easier since you don’t have to work to pick them out, but nothing about the stages stand out or make the match any more interesting. Spots for cover are typically rearranged in these stages, with few gimmicks and little visual flare to make them appealing.
Combat, while interesting, has little customization. While the gun/sword/shield combo works with the constant barrage of enemy ships, a few different weapon and sword variants might have made combat more appealing. As it stands, the combat is interesting in small bursts, but with four people playing the same style over and over again, things do get stale after a short period of time. My group had fun with the game for a while, but were soon looking for something with a little bit more variety to its gameplay. The matches we did play were highly enjoyable, it’s just that the appeal wears off quickly.
This is normally where the co-op and sports-style matches would jump in and add some appeal, but neither of those modes add much to the game. Co-op is fun for a little while, but the game only has three styles of enemy ships. All of them behave in similar ways and shoot the exact same shots, so successive waves don’t end up being that much more interesting. You just fight different groups of the same three enemies over and over again, and since none of them really behave differently, it just feels like you’re repeating the same match until you get sick of it or win.
The sports-style match could be interesting, but can be more frustrating than fun. In them, you can push or bounce a ball with shots and sword strikes, aiming for a goal. The difficulty is that aiming the ball is really, really hard, so scoring goals on a net, even if no one is trying to stop you, is quite difficult. Often, these matches come down to luck as players bounce the ball back and forth, hoping the ball happens to go into the opposing net. The various maps for this mode don’t help it become more interesting, either, as the mechanics don’t seem suited for this match type. It’s just too hard to get the ball to do what you want as you play, and in such tight quarters, it just feels like there’s no strategy involved beyond ‘just hit the ball and pray.’
The music does add a bit more life to the game. There is a strong Hatsune Miku/space opera thing going on with the music, and it absolutely works. The music has this stirring power to it, with a futuristic sound to it that gets the player ready to do deadly battle in outer space. Even so, it seems to play very quietly on the default setting, whereas the annoying announcer and some of the sound effects are loud. I recommend adjusting the volume settings if you want to hear some of the game’s great songs and really get into the mood to shoot some mechs.
A single match of Stardust Vanguards is a thing of delightful chaos; slashing through waves of bullets and weaving through dozens of starships until you slice your opponent in two is a lot of fun. It’s only fun for so long, though, as the experience lacks the customization and variety that makes playing through many local deathmatch games exciting. With the additional modes offering little to make the gameplay more interesting, Vanguards unfortunately falls flat after a short time. It’s a fine experience in short bursts, but it’s a very specific experience that just won’t last you and your group of friends for a whole night of gaming.