Stellaris Review: Part 1/2 – Intro, Art & Sound

Cassius Sonoda

by Cassius Sonoda

YouTuber, blogger, PC hardware seller, and PC gamer.

Part 1/2 of my Stellaris review, on the aesthetics of the game. Includes a brief introduction to the game.  Look out for part 2/2 on the gameplay

Review Essentials

PC titleStellaris
Ashen Glow Rating (7.5 / 10)
Genre4X, grand strategy, space
Year published2016
Publisher / DeveloperParadox Interactive / Paradox Development Studio
ReviewerCassius Sonoda
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The transcript follows:

Intro

Depicted: Space ship among asteroids.
The game kicks off in the year 2200 at the dawn of first contact and the colonial space age, and follows the sharp progress of your civilization over the next few of hundred years… (t=00:52)

Stellaris hails from a genre known as “RT4X”, which is short for Real Time 4X.

The 4X stands for the goals of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating, all in the name of building of empires.  “Real time” alludes to the fact that Stellaris is a real-time take on a traditionally turn-based genre.

The game kicks off in the year 2200 at the dawn of first contact and the colonial space age, and follows the sharp progress of your civilization over the next few of hundred years, with your capable hands at the helm.

For a short introduction to Stellaris, check out my other introductory video in the description below.

Overall, this is a superb game that I can recommend with a few reservations.

The game is notable for its spectacular and showy space battles and gorgeous celestial environments.  It’s unique for its semi-random draw card system of technology discovery, and shares many features common to other 4X titles, including a complex, multifaceted system of empire management, a diversity of perk trees, a modular system of ship design, a diametric spokes wheel of government ethics, and a sweet arsenal of weapons to be unleashed onto all those that would challenge the supremacy of your empire.

The sublime soundtrack deserves an honourable mention.  Bite-size storytelling elements are conveyed through exploratory discoveries and random events.  The net result is an immersive experience that excites the imagination, and makes one envious of distant posterity.

Stellaris represents good value for money, value which is further extended on by cosmetic as well as substantive DLCs, and fervent community modding.

I rate this game 7.5 out of 10.  However, the game wasn’t without its flaws.  So, let’s dive into it then.

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Visuals

Depicted: Stellaris event cards.
Stellaris features some nice art assets (t=04:09).

Stellaris has some fine 2D art assets: firstly we have the exotic alien avatars which are cartoonised and animated with breathing and subtle movements.  This is stylised in a way that is quite unique to Stellaris, a style is elegant and dignified – thank goodness for the lack of orcs and squirrel aliens.  Thanks Paradox for not ruining immersion.  I’ll let the peacock aliens slide on this one.

There is some evolutionary credibility to the arbitrarily surreal and semi-realistic way the aliens are designed, with all kinds of vestigial structures and appendages.  As a fan of science fiction and thorough scientific realism, this scores points with me.

The inclusion of aliens with a gritty, humourless and bizarre appearance is much to my liking.  I’m not a huge fan of literally anthropomorphizing animals and calling them aliens.  This extends to orcs and other gaming tropes that were borne out of a non-science fiction universe.  That approach would have been lazy, lacking in creativity, in plausibility, and frankly, lacking in alienness.  So kudos to Paradox for their original and credible portrayal of aliens.

Aside from alien avatars, static art features in anomaly and event cards as well as loading screens.  These images are important when it comes to player immersion, because they capture the wonder and exoticness of futuristic scenarios.  They represent sci-fi art of a high calibre of the sort I would associate with the cover of sci-fi novels.

A practical limitation is faced, on the diminutive size of the graphics that are an accompaniment to dismissible event cards.  The point is that these event cards were which were designed to be small and un-intrusive to the flow of the game.  Larger images would have been more immersive, but I understand it doesn’t fit with the constraints of the game.

When it comes the 3D in-game models and environments in Stellaris, the visuals are without a doubt some of the most satisfying in the genre, though not quite as cinematic in quality as SoASE, and the camera angle is restricted to the hemisphere above the horizontal plane – so that there’s no viewing from beneath the plane.

In Stellaris, there are two planes of view: the galactic plane, and the system plane – and you can snap between the planes, using the E key.

Stellaris at the system level, features gorgeous models in terms of celestial bodies and ship designs.  The weapon particles are very crisp and opaque unlike the cheap, gaudy see-through particles you get in some other games.  Missiles feel especially satisfying to watch.

Depicted: A trail of torpedoes in flight.
Missiles feel especially satisfying to watch.  (t=05:07)

The ship models are elegant and dignified on the whole, unlike the Fisher Price-like blocky units you get in some other 4X games like Civilization: Beyond Earth, or the deliberately tacky, uncoordinated feel of Space Battle Core.

And how about this for a fine point of detail: you can see the flashing visual artifacts of weapon fire on the imaginary glass of the players’ point of view.

At the galactic plane, the different territories are well demarcated.  However, somewhat to my annoyance, no effort is made to forcibly impose a unique player colour and symbol coding scheme.  Here, you can see how my neighbour’s territory manifests in the same color as mine, which made it very difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.

The use of icons is intuitive.  For example, the xenophilia and xenophobia icons articulate rather abstract concepts quite well.

The user interface is trim, crisp and clean to look at.  The frames and boxes use a subdued dark green colour palette which eschews attention and allows the contents to take centre-stage.  By the same token, the GUI containers are rather opaque and mute, lacking in futuristic bells and whistles, a dashboard texture, transparency or holographic, visor effects.  Yet the GUI still manages to pass off a decidedly futuristic style, in large part due to the aesthetically-indented frames, and geometric containers and tabs.

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Soundtrack

Depicted: Member of the orchestra performing on a flute.
The music can be described as a heady blend of orchestral and synthetic… (t=08:18)

As we move onto music, it is fitting that you’ve been listening to a sampler of Stellaris’ in-game soundtrack, which will continue to run until the end of this review.

In 4x games, soundtracks really affect the quality of play given how long games can run for.  Playing on mute for long periods can be boring.  But whilst implementing a soundtrack it’s important to avoid player tedium and audio fatigue.  There needs to be sufficiently long soundtracks so as to not overexpose the player to short audio loops that will drive them crazy, and the music needs to be slow paced and calming on the whole, with a few faster tempo – perhaps situational – tracks littered in between to change up the pace every now and then and keep things interesting for the player.

The music needs to be spacey, lofty, mystery-invoking and intriguing to reflect the kind of game that this is.  In most of the respects above, Stellaris has excelled.  A few tracks featuring organ music are reminiscent of the movie Interstellar, which I thought would have been a fitting tribute if it was indeed intentional.  The music can be described as a heady blend of orchestral and synthetic, with the synthetic component giving it a gamey and futuristic vibe.  It is an effective cocktail of awe-inspiring, relaxing and jubilant, and uplifting and energizing.  Whilst Stellaris, and any 4X game more broadly, could always use a longer soundtrack to extend the period of player engagement and reduce audio looping fatigue, what is offered is an OK length.  Stellaris does lack more action-oriented and situational tracks altogether; a few I thought wouldn’t have hurt, particularly to liven up and demarcate combat.  Combat-specific music could conceivably fade in and out as the player zooms in and out of combat.

The music could have also reflected different eras throughout the game to give the player more a sense of progression.  Eras are well musically-demarcated in 4X games like certain iterations of Sid Meier’s Civilizations, which have distinct technological eras, but Stellaris does not have eras per se, so instead landmark historical events such as first contact and colonization could be marked by a change in music.

I had a random epiphany that would see musical influences from FTL, the widely acclaimed indie space game, which I thought had a badass 8-bit/electronic soundtrack.

I enjoy seeing periodic additions to the existing Stellaris soundtrack, included in DLC.  And I’d be even happier to see music additions as a goodwill gesture from the developers included in updates every now and then to keep the game fresh for its staunchest adherents.  But, since music costs to make, I’m not sure if I can reasonably expected it as a freebie.

Lastly, on the subject of music, many players will appreciate the inclusion of an in-game music player which allows the player to pick and choose which tracks play.  You still can’t add your own music per se, for that, it appears you have to hack the game, or use mods.  A layman’s workaround isn’t really that hard to conceive: just mute the in-game music and have a media player running in the background of your desktop.

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Sound Effects

Moving on to sound effects.  The ambient sounds were well-implemented in this game.  The soundscape is dynamic in the sense that it changes with respect to zooming in and out, so that you hear the universal ambience when you are viewing from afar, but up close you can hear the sounds of ships and planets humming prominently.  There is also supposed to be several layers of ambient sound for the solar system.  Again, well-implemented, though sometimes it goes underappreciated when you have the music on.

Depicted: ships in combat zoomed in versus out.
The soundscape is dynamic in the sense that it changes with respect to zooming in and out – listen to the difference.  (t=11:41/11:39)

Sound effects make effective impressions: the one impressed in my mind the most was the exotic fauna of the gia planets.  Also the hissing/gargling/trumpeting sounds of aliens encountered in diplomacy.  Weapons also benefit from the implementation of soundscape depth, with sound muddied from afar versus clear and detailed up close.  This really adds a sense of a depth to the zooming dimension.

Celestial objects and player units have unique signature sounds when viewed up close or selected.

The GUI interface sounds, including clicking and hovering, are pleasing to the ear and coalesce together to create a calm but lucid HUD environment.  Confirmation sounds have the confirmatory punch they need.

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Closing

That wraps up PART 1 of my review, on the aesthetics of the game.  For PART 2 on the actual gameplay, please follow the relevant links.

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