May 3, 2011

Dark Nova

Dark Nova is apparently an adaptation of an old Palm OS game, Space Trader. I owned a couple Palm devices back in the day but never played Space Trader. The game looked interesting, though, and contained the magic "RPG" words in its description, so I was willing to give it a try. I figured that any game that people wanted to bring back from obscurity like that had to have something going for it.

Dark Nova is a sci-fi RPG, where you control a single adventurer piloting a single ship. You assign skill points to your character across four different skills and then are let loose into the galaxy. The help does a decent job of explaining the basics and controls, but is somewhat light on the nuances of the game (using the galaxy map to find planets, for instance). At any rate, your first flight will quickly be under way. There are two main approaches to success in the game: trading and piracy. You'll need to engage in legitimate trade for a while to build up a powerful enough ship to become a pirate. There are a bunch of commodities available, and the game has a decent interface for looking at what the prices are in the neighboring systems. Along the way, you'll encounter a variety of ships, from pirates to fellow traders to police. Upon reaching your destination, you can sell your cargo, perform repairs, upgrade your ship, read the newspaper and occasionally have a special quest to deal with.

Combat is pretty straightforward in the game. Whenever you encounter a hostile ship (or make another ship hostile), you will have a choice between attacking, fleeing or surrendering. No matter what you choose, you'll simply be presented with the results of that round of combat and then are presented with the same choices again, if appropriate. One thing that the help should have made clear is that the damage on the ships is represented by the amount of red showing on them. It took me a while to notice that, and it made it difficult to make the fight/flee decision. Combat can take many rounds to complete, and there's an unfortunate decision made with the interface to use a toast (popup message) to convey the results of combat. Either you have to wait for each message to resolve, rendering combat slower than it needs to be, or they stack up and you can't necessarily tell what is going on.

The goal of the game is to make enough money to buy your own moon and retire. That can take quite a while, and it's a little bit of a grind getting to that point. Once your character is established, there's not a ton of risk involved in running trade routes, as you'll be able to easily escape from anything you can't handle, because your shields can deflect plenty of damage. The piracy route does involve more danger, but it's again fairly easy to get established and have a pretty straightforward run toward the end. I will note that I haven't yet played on the more difficult levels of the game, so it's certainly conceivable that the difficulty is higher. Most of the danger in the game comes at the beginning, when you have a poor ship and you can get destroyed by enemy ships even if you flee from them all at first sighting.

I enjoyed Dark Nova a fair bit, although after completing it, I haven't been back yet. I suspect it'll be the kind of game that runs hot and cold with me. In some ways, it feels a little like a roguelike game set in space, where you start out vulnerable and have to build up a viable character, and then carry through your execution until the end. I appreciate that there is a fixed endpoint in the game, and the actions of planning out routes was entertaining. I do feel like the combat and travel is too repetitive, and I found myself wishing there were more of the special events and quests to liven things up. Some more variety in the game would have been welcome. The game does fire up quickly and it's very easy to play in small segments, which is very useful. I'd give the game 3.5 stars, recommended for folks who are looking for an adventure game that can be played in bite sized pieces or are looking for a trading game. The game is on sale right now for $1.99, so it's a good time to buy.


  1. I had the original Space Trader on my HandSpring Visor Edge back in the day - it was a free game then :( My overriding memory was that parts of it were sufficiently repetitive that I managed to scratch the screen with my stylus because of the repeated tapping in a fight.

  2. Have you tried Star Traders RPG by the Trese Brothers? Same type of game, with a TON of depth. There is a very good free version available.

  3. The flights are pretty repetitive, but I got into a groove with them and it didn't really bother me. This game really did play best in small slices, though.

    I've downloaded the Star Traders RPG, I'm going to give it a try here at some point.