Istrolid is one of many free-to-play games that get released on a weekly basis via Steam, but it is already generating buzz in the indie game community as one of those true free-to-play games that indeed could have been a satisfying retail release in another era. It's one part crafting game that asks you to build a fleet of unique space ships with available parts, and one part real-time strategy title that has you maneuvering said space ships into battle in order to gain resources, capture points and, naturally, defeat those who oppose you.
At the risk of insulting Istrolid, I must say that the game's best quality is the fact that it is indeed truly free. You will not find a single microtransaction or donation option anywhere as, for the time being, every piece of content that developer treeform made for Istrolid is available to all Steam users at absolutely no cost. While this quality alone does earn Istrolid a moment of applause, the question then becomes whether or not the game's content is worth investing your time in rather than your money.
It's here that things aren't quite so free and clear. As a crafting game that allows you to design spaceships, Istrolid is rather interesting. It's clearly trying to be a bit obscure in how its mechanics actually work, meaning that even the early parts of the game that just let you design simple spaceships are going to take some time for new players to understand. Commands like "Weapons must be placed on a mount" are made all the more difficult to understand due to the fact that Istrolid doesn't tell you which piece the mount is, while later builds that present you with hundreds of available pieces require a strict understanding of the underlying systems that govern which ships are deemed to be spaceworthy.
However, if you so happen to enjoy this particularly style of DIY game design, then it's hard to imagine you won't fall in love with this element of Istrolid. It successfully captures the simple joy of building within a video game and eventually does offer the most creative minds enough components to build some truly fantastic creations. Best of all, the game does a fantastic job of making sure that component placement does indeed affect the abilities of a ship as much as its visuals, so there really is quite a bit to explore regarding form vs. function.
As for the strategy elements, this is where things go off the rails a bit. At its core, Istrolid is a game about capturing points. These points grant you money which in turn allow you to build more spaceships. Meanwhile, the enemy is trying to capture the same points thereby turning the entire experience is something of an elaborate tug of war match. This is certainly a functional approach to the strategy genre, but it's not a very exciting one. Whereas the building aspects suggest a game of creative depth, Istrolid's combat reveals that there is very little actual strategy involved in the experience outside of choosing how to best build your ships. This is especially true in the single-player campaign which takes some time to incorporate elements that make the combat more than just a matter of who has the most ships. Multiplayer is a bit more exciting, if for no other reason that the human element leaves room for additional chaos.
By far the game's most bizarre problem, though, is its performance. For such a relatively simple game graphics-wise, Istrolid has problems keeping up when things get hectic on-screen. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the slowdown plagues the game but, even on faster computers, there are too many moments of unnecessary slowdown where the combat just halts to a crawl. Ideally, this could be remedied via a patch, but it's certainly worth noting that it affects the overall experience as it stands right now.
Truthfully, there is already a game that does what Istrolid is trying to do much better than it can called Reassembly. The biggest difference between the two games - besides the superior graphics and deeper combat that Reassembly boasts - is that Istrolid will cost you $15 less. Whether or not you should download Istrolid over Reassembly, then, really is a matter of whether or not you have the extra cash floating around or not. As a preview of an interesting concept that is indeed truly free, Istrolid is a fun enough way to spend a few minutes here and there. However, it is ultimately little more than a really good browser game that is currently hindered by some strange technical issues.
- 100% free
- Ship-building is fun
- Multiplayer can be a joy
- Strange bursts of slowdown
- Combat is far too simple
- Mechanics are a bit too obscure sometimes
- Enemy A.I.varies between easy and cheap