Endless Sky is a game of space exploration, adventure, trading, and combat created and maintained by Michael Zahniser. You begin your game in one of three starter ships, a humble but practical shuttle, a slow and vulnerable freighter, or the smallest available combat ship. From here you will wander the galaxy completing quests, trading, and battling among the stars.
Endless Sky is an open-source game, and as such is free to play. As of this writing, it is still in beta at version 0.91. That said, while the game is perhaps unfinished, it is none the less very playable with minimal bugs and a good deal of content to explore and play with. The graphics are top-down 2D and the pace of gameplay is leisurely except when engaging in combat. You will spend most of your time in one of four main activities: Completing Quests, Trading, Fighting, and managing your fleet of ships.
A Galaxy to Explore
The galaxy represents a series of star systems connected by warp conduits through which ships can travel from one system to another. The network of conduits divides the known galaxy into various regions by way of various choke points so if you want to get to a planet you can’t always take a straight path. You begin the game with knowledge of only a small piece of the galaxy, as you explore and purchase maps you discover ever more worlds and civilizations.
When flying within the system, you can control your ship in real-time using directional arrows and other commands for combat, scanning, and the like. Movement is inertial so a burst of thrust will carry you indefinitely in one direction until you correct. For routine operations, you can let the computer land on planets, make jumps, and otherwise maneuver your ship for you. In combat, you will have to sort out how to fly effectively.
Inhabited systems have planets you can land on which takes you to a management screen where you can make trades, build ships, visit the bank, or see if there are any special missions in the starport. Simple graphics and text are all you get here, but it is more than enough to convey a feeling for the planet and it’s culture.
Quests come in two flavors: simple procedurally generated missions and story line missions. The generated missions include carrying special cargo, escorting merchants, ferrying passengers, and hunting down pirates. The game will generate missions for you that are generally within reach of your character’s reputation and your fleet’s capabilities. As your fleet grows larger and your list of victories in combat longer, you will be offered more lucrative and challenging tasks.
A Space Story….or More.
Story quests vary from fairly short episodic adventures to long chains of related adventures in which major events unfold in the galaxy around you as you play through them. Currently, the game includes one significantly long and impactful story mission where you end up siding with one of the 4 human factions in an adventure to save all of the human-occupied space from chaos and destruction. These are delivered as exposition text while visiting planetary star ports.
Generally, the quests are linear, though the game allows for branching narratives and there are a few occasions where key decisions can be made. Perhaps one of the games biggest flaws is that once you break the chain of a quest by refusing a request, or abandoning it on accident, there is no way to pick it up again. Since so much of the game’s most compelling content is tied up in the single major story quest, it’s quite easy to entirely miss out on the game’s most thrilling moments. Currently, your only recourse is to start the game over or hack the save files to get your adventure back on track. At this stage of the game’s development, it is worth your while to look on-line if you get stuck or can’t figure out how to get into the larger quest chains.
Trading in Endless Sky is a fairly straight forward affair. Your ship(s) have a number of spaces for cargo and at each planet, you can buy or sell goods. Each system has the same goods for sale but prices vary based on the local needs and production. For the most part, prices are fixed, though in the most recent updates they can shift based on large shipments you are making that meet local demand or deplete local supplies.
Get Ready to Grind
Trading tends to be a slow steady way to make money in the game, and along with doing simple quests is going to be your mainstay occupation until you have established yourself. It doesn’t take deep strategy to find a good route where you can buy low, and sell high without too much risk from pirates or the like looking to blow you up. Generally, the safer it is, the better, but it can get a bit tedious, especially early on when your cargo capacity is pretty small.
As you fly around the galaxy you will be attacked by pirates, aliens, and rival factions and you can always turn pirate yourself if you choose to. The action takes place within a star system in real time. You fly, aim and shoot your command ship, while any other ships in your fleet are run by the AI based on general commands you issue like attacking your target, or holding their position. The action is fast and small ships can be destroyed in a second. So can large ships if there are a great many combatants at play.
Bigger is Better
There are various tactics you can employ, both in how you outfit your ships and how you pilot them, but there isn’t much deep strategy or careful planning. Bigger, more powerful ships almost always win engagements, especially in group encounters, which are very common. If you choose the combat ship to start the game with, good luck, because it can die in the blink of an eye if you try to go on the offensive with it. Knowing when to run away is a key combat skill you need to learn, and the best rule of thumb is anytime you are outnumbered or outgunned you should turn tail.
Go on the Offensive
Your fleet’s combat abilities could and should be used beyond simply defending against aggression. You can attempt to board disabled enemies and either steal their equipment or capture their entire vessel. You can try to exact tribute from planets giving you guaranteed income for the rest of the game. There are also missions to hunt pirates and defend merchants as they deliver their goods. Finally, there are moments in the storylines where you have no choice but to do battle and emerge victoriously.
For me, this is where Endless Sky really shines with it’s most engrossing gameplay. There are a large range of ships in the game of many different types and flavors from little cargo shuttles, to monster carriers and battleships. Beyond that, you can extensively customize every ship by replacing any and all components with a huge range of gear that you discover and unlock as you play.
Always Improve Your Fleet
You can try to create super freighters with impenetrable shields, or fast sleek transport vessels for exploring deep space. The further you progress in the games story and the more funds you accumulate the more doors for fun play and experimentation open up. Even after the game’s existing storyline comes to a close, there are many strange and powerful aliens to encounter and attempt to subdue to get new and wondrous weapons and other technology for your fleet.
Praise for Endless Sky
Considering the core game was a solo project and it is now an open-source game, Endless Sky is a great achievement. Not only is it a very solid game, but it also has the potential for endless community contribution and improvement. The graphics are up to snuff as is the game engine as a whole, and there are relatively few games impacting bugs, even in the “unstable” beta releases. Quest dialog and storylines vary from decent to excellent. Because it has a small game feel, the lack of voice acting or other elements is not missed. I felt very involved in the story and intrigued by the backstories of the characters and races as they were revealed through the story.
The user interface is simple and for the most part very effective. You will want to read the manual as there is only minimal tutorial support and some aspects of gameplay, especially shipbuilding and customization, are inscrutable without an explanation of what some of the stats and terms mean. Likewise, there are some “hidden” interface features like pressing shift and alt to bulk trade that you wouldn’t be aware of but for the instruction manual.
Especially praiseworthy is the ship customization system. There are numerous types of systems and factors you must consider when building ships. You have the propulsion, generators, batteries, weapons, heat systems, hardpoints, weight limits, and many other factors to consider. It is simple enough that it’s easy to just swap some parts around, but complicated enough you may spend hours trying to design the perfect warship or exploration vessel.
Flexible for Content Creators
Having tinkered around with the save file to try and get the story mission back on track without restarting, it’s easy to see the developer has put together a very versatile system for creating content and quests for the game. It is both simple and elegant and in the main storyline, you can see how flexible it is at creating a dynamic galaxy to live in and explore. This makes sense given that the game relies on an open-source community.
Graphics for the game are very good and entirely appropriate to the type of game it strives to be. They are iconic and imaginative making you want to get certain ships just because of how cool they look. While it’s clear the planetary views are mostly locations on earth, they none the less capture the feel of an alien world when paired with the textual descriptions which are almost always well written and evocative.
Critiques for Endless Sky
At the time of this review, I found the UI and management for story quests under-developed. As I mentioned before, a critical flaw in the current game is how easy it is to unknowingly cut short the main story quest and thus miss out on many of the game’s most exciting moments and compelling features. Turn down what seems like an innocuous request, and you will never experience the best the game has to offer. Accidentally click dismiss on a quest in your list and there is no recourse.
The quests can also be hard to follow if you don’t play through in a sitting. There is no way to review what had gone on before or see what quests you have completed. If you set it down for a while, it can be hard to pick back up. The game would benefit greatly from a story quest log separate from the procedurally generated quests that both give you greater detail on what you doing and the ability to see what took place in the past. It would also be nice if the story quests could be picked back up even if you at some point decline a mission on the critical path.
Wishing for Better Trading
Trading in the game is somewhat lack-luster. When you first begin, it’s fun, but when you get to see how much larger ships cost and compare that to how much you make on a run, you can quickly get a sinking feeling. The only way to really make trade work for you is to run it like a business. Find a good route, work it hard, invest your money in more trade ships, and keep working that until you have made significant sums. While I think this is a fine thing, there needs to be some alternative, unique or infrequent opportunities for especially high trading profits, risky routes that pay greater yields, or other trading situations that can give you a thrill when you pull them off.
Combat Issues…in the Beginning
Combat in the game is problematic when you are starting out. It’s hard to imagine how skilled and lucky you would need to be to take the starting combat ship and embark on a life as a pirate or pirate hunter. One broadside from a bigger ship and it’s game over, and there is only so much you can do to maneuver your way through combat. The AI is ruthless and sticks to you like precision glue. The distribution of pirates and the like is also challenging in that you never really know how strong the enemies you face will be within human space. There is no real “kiddie pool.” You are either in almost completely safe systems, or you could run into a pirate dreadnought and die instantly.
The combat side of the game tends to sort itself out once you can get into a medium or larger warship. This will you a few moments to jump out of a system when you find yourself out-gunned or out-numbered. Once you get a capital warship you might actually have a little time in combat to think on how to best your opponents and combat becomes more and more fun. As you get into running your own fleet, you finally get a sense you can take on whatever comes. Then you start looking for challenges, battling alien starships, and the like. The game actually does an excellent job of always providing some greater challenges in the combat sphere.
Room for Improvement
I think the early game needs some zones where there are easy combat opportunities much as how in the late game there are zones of increasing challenge. While the game does warn you that those who start life in the combat ship have a low survival rate, as it stands, choosing the combat vessel is something of a cruel joke.
As a final note, while the graphics are very good the type of game it strives to be, the sound could use some work and for the most part, I played the game in silence rather than listen to all the engine and laser noises. It would be great if someone with the appropriate skills could contribute ambient music, or improved sound effects for the game to bring the audio up to par with the visuals.
Early Game Advice
I recommend you start with the shuttle as your initial ship. It’s designed to move passengers around and the passenger quests tend to be the safest and best paying option early in the game. They will also get you moving around the galaxy and exploring. The shuttle can’t really engage in combat, but it can take a few stray hits and is quick for running away, something you do a lot of in the beginning. Doing a little trade on your passenger routes is a good way to maximize profits.
Pick up Quests for Story Lines
Keep an eye out for early story quests and be sure to take any you are offered. You may want to wait to complete quests that you suspect will involve fighting and more than just surviving and running away. Just stick with it until you can afford some of the media to large warships. The “main” story quest starts out in the southern end of the galaxy in the free-worlds area. Be their friends and further the cause of freedom. Skipping those quests leaves large swaths of the game inaccessible and you miss out on a lot of fun stories.
Once the passenger work gets dull and you have a little bit of a bankroll, get ready to grind for some trade. Find a short, safe, two-way route that offers a good profit both coming and going. Buy whatever trade ships you can afford that maximizes cargo space vs the price of the ship. Take a reasonable bank loan that you can pay off in one or two trips to invest in more ships. Take what you earn and buy more ships. You can always sell the trade ships later for what you paid for them so they are like a way to invest your profits. Every X runs take all the money you have and buy more ships. When you reach your goal, sell your trade fleet and buy what you really want… sexy warships!
Aiming for Profit
When you do start fighting for profit, you have two choices. Try to capture ships or steal cargo and equipment from them. The latter will certainly make you money. In addition to being an easy method that requires little more than besting your foes and learning how to get them disabled (rather than dead). Capturing ships may seem cool, but you need a ship with a hefty crew to make the capture. Each of your men that dies in the attempt will cost you expensive “death benefits”. Often they can be as much as 80% of the cost of the ship you captured. To get the most profit, you want overwhelming odds on your side. That way you won’t lose a single man in the boarding attempt. This often means creating a specialized boarding ship and having other combat fleet ships do the disabling for you.
Late Game Fun
If you want to figure Endless Sky all out for yourself, skip this part, but if you want some distilled knowledge or shortcuts, read on.
Get the Bactrian
For a general-purpose ship, buy the Bactrian. What makes it so good is that it is the most customizable ship in the game. It is also fairly easy to get as you only need sufficient cash to get it, rather than any special permission. It is expensive, but hardly the most expensive ship in the game. By default, it is a big, somewhat slow ship with lots of cargo space, good defenses, and middling weaponry. It can fight, trade, carry passengers, and capture other ships. Once you get to customizing it, you can make it do nearly anything. If you want to capture other ships, this is the king. It has a huge crew and you can increase that by turning cargo space into outfit space, then turning outfit space into more crew bunks.
Head to Hai for Trades
If you want to trade like a madman, make your way to the Hai area of space. You need to search the uninhabited planets in the north-east area of the map for a wormhole, then jump through. The Hai are a peace loving sort and they keep their planets free of pirates. They also have the best trade routes in the game. Sadkly, their trade ships are terrible. I suggest that you buy trade ships in humans space, outfit them with extra fuel capacity, and then fly them over to Hai space where they can make you big, easy profits. The Hai do have one excellent ship you can buy, the Shield Beattle. It’s their heavy warship and has the heaviest shields of any ship you can buy and nearly the highest weapon capacity.
The very end game is mostly hunting aliens for their technology and/or ships which can’t be bought — only taken by force. This involves either building massive fleets or very clever tactics with heavily optimized single ships. That said, the sheer number of techs and ships makes this activity compelling. This makes it rewarding if you like hunting ever bigger games and tweaking your ship builds.