Starpoint Gemini Warlords is a marvelous space sim blended with various other genres, but an oversight at the core of progression design might put the best parts of the experience just out of reach for most players.
Going into Starpoint Gemini Warlords and, especially, during its brief tutorial, I was left under the impression that I could fly around space, have some adventures, explore anomalies, and engage in space battles, while at the same time leading a small upstart empire to domination and glory. The former is true on a technical level, but it lacks variety and manages to frustrate where it should engage. The latter is made near impossible by a resource bottleneck that felt more like a dispassionate stranglehold than part of a sensible progression curve.
It would be difficult to describe what Gemini is trying to do exactly without referencing the genre it resides in, and for once, I have no quarrel with assuming prior knowledge on the reader's part, because the game does the exact same thing with the player. In addition, Gemini doesn't seem like it's aimed at anyone who isn't already a fan of space sims of some sort.
Starpoint Gemini Warlords wants to blend the arcade feel of Freelancer while adding a station and fleet management system that would be right at home with the X series of games. Unfortunately, it does this by removing Freelancer's cliched but somehow endearing narrative, and foregoing the complexity of the X series, which are the essential components that made those games work in the first place.
During the close to 30 hours I've spent with the game, it became clear that there is vast untapped potential hiding somewhere between all the grind infested flights from waypoint to waypoint.
Gemini starts you off with three types of resources plus the obligatory credits, a space station to call your own, a small fleet of ships and a blonde sidekick lady piloting a frigate. A vessel she managed to qualify for, but I never did. This was a result of the game's biggest flaw - the resource system.
The player has to harvest ore from asteroids, space gas from gas pockets and salvage materials from scrap yards. Harvesting happens automatically on a weekly basis once you have the proper facilities constructed, and resources can be acquired through missions or sending out civilian fleets on tasks that yield them as well.
There are two problems with this. Having three separate resource pools becomes completely pointless when the only thing I was scrambling to accumulate, at all times, was materials. While they aren't really essential to upgrading or equipping your ship, they are absolutely vital for expanding your home station and building and growing your fleet. The game forces you to carefully spend these materials because the rate at which they can be acquired are slow beyond any point that could be considered reasonable, so slow in fact that I was tempted to leave the game running and go do something else while enough resources for a modest fleet or a few station upgrades would pile up. But I didn't.
Instead, I opted for checking out some mysterious signals scattered across the fairly large map, and giving the freelance missions a try, in the hope that there would be enough resources stockpiled when I return to allow for some fleet battles. The missions and signals turned out to be quite simplistic. It's standard stuff, patrol and destroy all hostiles, one-click-scan anomalies, assault/defend a space station or convoy, deliver cargo, and my personal favourite - salvage derelict ships. The salvage missions were the only ones that seemed to be moving things along, as they were helping with the aforementioned materials problem, but they only managed to increase the resource gathering rate from a passive to an active crawl.
After a few hours of freelancing, I ventured back home, Concordia station. A couple of station upgrades later, I was out of materials, again. All of the upgrades that would increase material gathering rate were so expensive that it became absurd to even pursue them, and once I eventually did, I was forced to realise that their impact was minimal. Well, I would have to get my materials from somewhere else. That somewhere was the neighbouring sector that had another scrap field in it. Raiding the facilities there proved to be too risky and costly. I learned this the hard way, after I was forced to pay twenty weeks worth of material salvage to resurrect blonde sidekick-lady, who managed to get exploded during the raid. About 100 materials gained in the raid, which was roughly my weekly yield, and 2000 lost, owing to blondie's little accident - not to mention the rest of my small fleet, as I was the only one to make it out alive.
It was a strange and sudden jump in difficulty. I had no problems in combat prior to that setback, so I figured a larger fleet was necessary to take the entire sector and the salvage rights to those valuable scrap yards along with it. That fleet would require more materials and since no one in the vicinity was willing to trade for them, which made my investment into a trading module on Concordia station seem foolish, it was back to being a space junker. I had a lot of money laying around, so I decided to purchase a corvette and ditch my gunship. Surprisingly, the competition in the area had the same idea, and I would learn that they would also start producing frigates as soon as I did. This kind of defeats the purpose of character progression as it felt like the world was scaling with me, but it would all become a minor point if I could just get that fleet up and running.
Little Green Men Games
A lot of grinding back and forth later, necessary to restock on salvage drones, blonde sidekick lady was back among the living and I was the proud owner of a fleet consisting of about 10 gunships, 10 corvettes, and 5 frigates. The game rated my fleet strength at about 5,000. The fleet strength of the sector I was assaulting was 20,000. Things did not end well. Luckily, this time I saved the game in case something went wrong. What did go wrong was that I wasn't informed that fleet strength statistics are a thing. Armed with this new knowledge I noticed that a different sector, one entirely useless to me from an economic standpoint - as I had more gas and ore than I knew what to do with - had a puny fleet strength of 1,000. It was time to vent some frustration.
The battle was very one-sided but visually spectacular. Fifty or so ships dogfighting around the central space station with plasma canons, beams and heavy weapons going off everywhere. Explosions, risky manoeuvres, and victory, with a frozen asteroid field on one side and a hazy nebula on the other. Finally, some progress. My fleet, now in defensive positions around the space station managed to fend off the first few counter-attacks with minimal casualties, so I decided to trust them with the defence of the installation while I rushed to investigate a mysterious artifact in the next sector. A quick scan of the space artifact provided me with upgrade points for my character, but by the time I returned to my newly conquered outpost, it was already swarming with enemy ships. My fleet was reduced to scrap and the sector lost.
Rebuilding and creating a fleet capable of defending the outpost, maybe even upgrading the outpost into something more defensible, would take days. I was done.
While you might be able to sense my frustration from this little story, consider the following - Starpoint Gemini Warlords allowed for that story to happen. For a week, I was a space junker with dreams of empire. The beautiful visuals, unique ship designs, spectacular fleet engagements and gentle musical backdrop; everything about the game is ripe for some good fun - but the game won't let you have it, because of those damn salvage materials.
The resource bottleneck doesn't just hinder progression, it hinders the game at doing what it does best, and the only way to bypass this that I could find was some clumsy role-playing and a generous stockpile of patience. It felt like the developers had a brilliant system on their hands with the fleet battles, but decided that the player has to experience the rest of the game if he wanted to enjoy them - whether he liked it or not.
Little Green Men Games
If Starpoint Gemini Warlords is to be your first venture into space sims, then I would suggest you get acquainted with the genre elsewhere. For more experienced pilots and fleet admirals, Gemini is a unique blend of space combat and trading sim, a 4X strategy and an RPG very much worth a look. Most of the problems the game has at this point, are a matter of fine tuning functional systems that are already in place. Given a few patches most of my grievances could be a thing of the past, but with the state in which the game is now, it's an adventure for hard-core space junkers only.