We first played Stardust Vanguards back in August 2014, spending a couple of sessions with it at Gaming At Rob’s. Back then, all of the elements of gameplay were there, and in very good shape. Since then, 2-man developer Zanrai have tweaked the combat further to strike a perfect balance that emphasises skilful play, and have added a bunch of new maps and modes that all feel worthwhile and enjoyable. Each of the 4 players control agile space mechas, and everything drips with ‘80s anime space opera character that looks so authentic that it will have you guessing whether it’s based on a real series. You’re armed with a laser sword with a deliberate reach and speed, backed up with a limited ammo auto-pistol, a limited duration bubble shield, and a dash move that will get you across the map but if overused will burn out your engines for a short period. It’s an exciting moveset that makes you feel very cool when you successfully use them in combination. This slick and entertaining combat system is joined by a couple of unique features that set the game apart within the local multiplayer single screen scene.
Firstly, everyone is accruing Reinforcement Points by simply staying alive, and additional points are gained by defeating enemies. Spend a small amount of RP, and you’ll see a single allied NPC ship float into view and begin attacking your opponents. Spending more points at a time requires you to charge up and leaves you vulnerable to attack, but your reward is a larger fleet of friendly backup that can act as a real threat to the other players.
The second twist is a rogue force of NPC space pirates that will randomly arrive to the battle, looking for trouble and capable of completely disrupting the fight and even winning matches by picking off the remaining players at the close of a round. Dealing with these two additional complications is the real challenge, the victor needing to not only handle themselves in direct combat with another player-controlled mecha, but also know when to retreat, when to bring in friendly units, and how to use the distraction of an incoming pirate wave to their advantage. Matches are fast paced and become more and more hectic as additional units join the battle from all sides, and players desperately low on remaining lives will try and avoid conflict, using whatever distraction they can to stay relevant to the match. Elements of shoot-'em-up genre enter the mix as you look to dodge bullets from multiple directions whilst dueling with your main rival.
The default mode (Deathmatch) and maps represent the game at its purest and most balanced, giving players the best experience possible to help them understand how combat works and which tactics are available to them. Beneath that, though, are several additional rulesets, game modes and maps, which are unlocked by simply spending more time with the game. I was able to unlock all of the arenas and stadiums by winning a match on each level in the wave-based survival mode, which is intended as a 4-player co-op mode but serves as a neat training ground for a single player looking to learn the ropes.
The later levels feature varying scenery that you can use as cover, and interactive elements like asteroids which you can shove towards your enemy by using running into them with your bubble shield active. Multiplayer modes that are also unlocked through play include a Conquest mode which tasks players with maintaining possession of a base, and a capture the flag-alike mode called Space Ball. Each of the versus modes can be played in teams, as well as in free-for-all.
The game is clearly a labour of love - everything is finely tuned, every on-screen element considered and carefully placed, and there is a hidden depth to combat that I’m looking forward to seeing us learn about as a group. The best players will be those that use all of their options in unison, and we’ll be adding the game to our favourites playlist in the hope of witnessing some high level play for ourselves.