Unless you count the awful non-RPG StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel or the last five minutes of Might & Magic, Starflight is the first science fiction CRPG that I've played since starting this blog. I confess that I have very little experience with sci-fi gaming in general, with the exception of the Knights of the Old Republic games, but I agree with George Lucas that these are better described as "space fantasy" than "science fiction."
I therefore began Starflight with a little trepidation, but I can already see the potential. It says something when a 24-year-old game still inspires such dedication on the Internet; searching for the original game documents, I came across dozens upon dozens of active pages, mods, remakes, and tributes. This game has an enormous fan community.
Starflight's fascinating backstory (told in part through a mood-killingly goofy set of "religious writings" at the end of the manual) begins in the year 4620 on a planet called Arth, home to several races, including humans, androids, tree-like Elowans, dinosaur-looking Thrynns, and insectoid Veloxes. Isolated in space, the planet has just discovered, 15 years before the start of the game, that it was originally colonized by travelers from Earth calling themselves "Noah 2." At the time of colonization, Earth had become the seat of a galactic empire which collapsed during a Great Interstellar War with several alien races. Cut off from the empire and bombed, Arth collapsed to a "dark age" society but slowly regained technology over 1100 years.
Arth recently recovered spaceflight, including faster-than-light travel using a rare crystaline element called Endurium. A scientific group on Arth called Interstel has used this technology to construct a fleet of starships and is now interested in exploring the galaxy. An original exploration mission involving 13 ships ended in disaster with only two ships returning, one of them having encountered distant ancestors of the Elowans and Thrynns (who hate each ohther). You begin the game as part of a second wave of exploration with 12,000 "monetary units" to outfit a ship and train a crew.
You begin the game in a spaceport with five doors labeled "Operations," "Ship Configuration," "Personnel," "Crew Assignment," "Bank," and "Trade Depot." In the "Operations" room, you find various notices, including an initial one that outlines your basic quest.
In the "Ship Configuration" section, you purchase upgrades for the basic ship that Interstel has provided you with. The manual explains that Interstel doesn't have enough funds to just give you the best ship available, so you have to head out and mine planets for minerals and find other ways to make money. I could only purchase a few upgrades and still have a little left for crew training. You also name your ship in this section.
"Personnel" is where you develop your characters. You can choose from any of the five races, but the game manual warns that you cannot have a crew with both a Thrynn and an Elowan. I decided to go with Elowans because the Thrynns seemed a little suspicious. Each race excels in a particular area: humans are good at science, Veloxes at navigation and engineering, Thrynns at communication, Elowans at communication and medicine. Androids are a special "race" because although they start with high statistics in navigation and engineering, they can't be trained past their starting point. The other races, you can spend money to boost their skills.
This Elowan is my medical officer. Toyed with calling him "Branches" but figured that would be a fairly obscure joke.
After creating your characters and training them with as much as you can afford, you head over to "Crew Assignment" and determine what role each crew member will play on the ship.
The roles correspond with the various skills, of course, but I'm not entirely sure what skills the "Captain" draws from. It also seems that you can assign multiple roles to the same character, so I'm not sure if there's any disadvantage to having only two or three characters and giving each multiple roles. In any event, I went with six separate characters.
I also don't know if it makes sense to train the characters in skills that don't directly effect their assigned roles; naturally I'm going to train my communications officer in as much "communication" as I can afford, but does it help any of my other characters to have communications skills?
I imagine the answers to these questions will become clear as I play, so I launched my newly christened ship. The game has a little copy protect scheme that depends on a codewheel, but I found a little applet that some awesome programmer named Pat Shearon made.
The game's learning curve started to hit me here. I really have no idea where to go. In the "Operations" room I got some hints about possible quests to be found in various parts of the galaxy, including a lost ship, mineral-rich planets, the ruins of the lost Old Empire, and some "alien activity." These come with coordinates, but I haven't figured out how to enter these coordinates or see what coordinates I'm currently at. Moreover, I got the sense from the game manual that I'd be better off trying to make some money and improve my ship and skills first, but this involves landing on planets, and landing on planets involves analyzing the various sensor readings you get when you fly over them. I haven't fully figured this out yet.
...except that landing on a planet with an atmosphere of ammonia is probably a bad idea?
What I can tell you is that in space, you have a number of options based around your five officers. The doctor can examine and treat crew members; the communications officer can hail ships (haven't encountered any yet) or send a distress call; the engineer can assess damage and make repairs; the navigator can fly, raise shields, arm weapons (haven't bought any yet), and engage in combat; the science officer can take and analyze sensor readings.
The captain can order a landing or take-off, inspect the cargo, and make entries into the ship's log. This latter option is actually very cool: it's the first time in a CRPG (that I can remember) where the player can type his or her own notes and annotations. Even today, many CRPGs don't offer this capability.
So my goals right now are to figure out how to land and mine minerals (or otherwise make money), figure out how to go to these various coordinates I've written down, and otherwise just explore without getting killed.
On the latter note, the game promises to be a little difficult. I learned the hard way that you can't simply quit Starflight; if you do, it corrupts your save game file. You have to make sure to "save," but saving also makes you quit. You can only have one saved game at a time. Hence, I suspect if you die in Starflight, the death is permanent. However, the game manual recommends that you back up your saved games, so I'm toying with not regarding this as cheating.
Oh, and I have to figure out the game map, which confounds me just to look at it. None of the planets (I think they're planets) are labeled, and I have no idea what the various lines, whorls, and colors mean.
Again, Starflight seems very promising and fun if I can get past this learning curve. Remember, I'm forbidden from looking at walkthroughs, so I'd appreciate any (non-spoiler) tips in the comments.