A hostile universe in the palm of your hand
Funded through Kickstarter, the team behind Sidius Nova made some grand promises. They told us it was going to be a translation of the epic and much-revered space-civilization genre to mobile phones, and that it would seamlessly combine real-time and turn-based strategy. Ambitious—some might say unlikely—but since the game is out and initially free we can all play it and make up our own minds.
For something belonging to a group of games known for their complexity and micromanagement, Sidius Nova is amazingly easy to grasp. You start with a mothership, which moves around a galaxy map conquering planets and sucking resources from nearby planets you own. These resources can then be used to build other ships, fighters, missile launchers and mine-layers.
When fleets of these meet, the action translates to real time and the ships face off across five lanes, the player controlling what launches when and where. Combat is built on a triangular model whereby each ship type will beat one of the others and be beaten by a different one in turn. You win by fighting over, and destroying, the opposing mothership.
To add spice and longevity to the experience the game is played as a campaign, subdivided into different missions which are in turn separated into missions. External to individual face-offs, success in a campaign earns research points which can be spent to increase the range of technologies and ships at your disposal.
Sadly the overarching plot is trite and uninteresting, which saps away much of the sense of epic scale and involvement that is part and parcel of the 4x genre. But most of what lies underneath is interesting, compelling, and fun, and Sidius Nova just about succeeds in fulfilling its lofty goals of bringing the essence of the vast space-civilization game to a device you can hold in one hand.
It does this by focusing down in all the right ways – such as having a single resource collected through your mothership rather than by some other unit, but still tied to map positioning and territory ownership. Or by the clever separation of technological advancement into something you do between campaigns rather than being part and parcel of the main game.
The real-time combat is built on a model of such deceptive simplicity that early on I thought it was easily gamed and broken. But I was wrong. The tripartite system of one-upmanship is harder to master than it sounds, and pleasingly allows a clever and skilled player to beat larger fleets. When you consider that the three ship types move at different rates, battles can actually become frantically exciting at times.
Unfortunately both the turn-based and real-time portions of the game suffer from a problem endemic to explore and conquer style games, which is predictability, repetition and tedium. Sometimes you’ll have an overwhelming battle force and be sure of victory, but you still have to fight it out in full. Sometimes you’ll have overwhelming map resources and know you’re going to win, but you still have to build fleets and slowly maneuver them into position to attack a foe on the run. It happens toward the end of every map, is grindingly attritional, dull, and most annoyingly of all could have been easily avoided with better usability and sensible short-cuts.
But you’ll keep plodding through the slow bits. Why? Because Sidius Nova has that indefinable one-more-turn quality about it, that cunning artifice of quick turns and a sense of progression that leads to it being three in the morning before you realise it. On occasion, you might be aghast at yourself for sinking so much time into a somewhat repetitive game. But you’ll still do the same thing all over again the next day.
I’ve remarked before that in order to get a truly epic feel from a game, it has to be epic in scope and length. That pretty much rules out phone-sized devices and is a big ask for tablets. Playing Sidius Nova hasn’t changed my mind on that score: it has neither the variety nor the narrative to match the big titles that inspired it. But it comes as close as a mobile game probably ever can, and is a lot of fun to play, too.