When Fast Travel Games first told us that its next project was to roll out a game based on 4X sci-fi strategy game Stellaris, I thought it may be similar to its work on Cities VR, which was more of a one-to-one VR adaptation. Color me surprised when, in a recent hands-on with an early edition, I was treated to a real-time VR action/strategy roguelike set in the Stellaris universe. Ghost Signal is not at all what I expected, but my time with it left me craving more.
A mysterious journey
In Ghost Signal: A Stellaris Game, players take on the role of a ship captain in the Stellaris universe. While on routine patrols, your ship comes in contact with a mysterious signal that seems to be some strange and encrypted form of AI. However, it also seems to send out a wave that reverberates through the galaxy. With the help of your ship’s own voiced AI computer, you go on a journey through sectors, fighting off hostile ships and space creatures, searching for the signal, and unraveling its mysteries. There’s a twist, though; If you fail and your ship is destroyed, you will warp back to the point at which the signal appeared. Your memories and those of your ship AI will remain intact. You are caught in a strange loop and the only way out is to find this signal.
This sets the stage for a roguelike adventure in the Stellaris universe. You will not be engaging in the development and well-being of a galactically-involved civilization and its interaction with other such civs. Instead, you command the one ship as you desperately try to reach the mysterious signal and break the loop. When you engage in your journey, you’ll warp to sectors of space following the trail of the signal. Each sector acts as a virtual arena in which you will fight off different threats, engage with alien beings or anomalies, or simply shop and repair your ship.
Controlling the game through a VR third-person perspective of your ship and the sector, you’ll direct your ship around the space by casting waypoints from one of the VR controllers, as well as selecting weapons between ballistic guns, lasers, and missiles. With your other hand, you’ll target enemies and attempt to turn them into exploded debris before they can do the same to you. Finishing off hostile encounters in each sector gives you resources, experience points, and the possibility of components that offer unique upgrades to your ship.
The component upgrades present a core roguelike point of this adventure. You’ll always have access to the three main weapons mentioned above, but the components might turn your laser into a freeze ray that slows hostile movement as you have the beam concentrated on them or give your ballistics more range. You might also collect a component with a chance of repairing your ship’s hull when you enter a new sector or one that spawns drones that will distract enemy weapons from your ship. There are numerous components to discover and they have the potential to turn your ship into a bristling and formidable spacecraft. You could also accidentally discover negative components that can hamper your ship’s capabilities and can only be removed by a special vendor you find on the path.
Each time you go out, you’ll have a choice of paths through a branching map of the galaxy. One stop in the galaxy might have pirate raiders attacking you. Another might present you with an enormous behemoth of a space creature which could be hostile or helpful. I had one encounter with a creature that granted me a space dragon egg that acted as a component, providing me with my own baby space dragon that would fight alongside me. Another encounter put me before a grumpy behemoth as I invaded its space alongside some raiders. The raiders and I went on to fight each other while the creature kept trying to kill us all with beams of light fired from its mouth. You never know what you’ll get. Other encounters include traders that will let you buy resources and components, as well as rogue AI stations that could also help or hinder you.
The only thing that is for certain is that at the end of each galaxy map is a boss battle with a highly formidable foe which could be a ship, a creature, or some strange combination of both. These battles are tough and demand that you put all of your capabilities to work sensibly. Lasers melt shields and have long range, ballistics hammer physical hulls at short range, and missiles will devastate both, but are extremely limited. Meanwhile, you often have to move your ship through the galactic arena, dodging weaponry and ramming attacks from hostiles.
If your ship gets destroyed, you start over and lose the components and resources you collected, outside of your experience. Experience acts as a permanent resource that allows you to upgrade your starting capabilities and become more formidable for the next run, including boosting your missile count, increasing your ship shields, or even discovering new ships to use. Every failure brings you expanded chances to succeed in the next run.
The controls feel sensible and fun. I enjoyed maneuvering my ship around the space from my third-person perch, countering enemy attacks and destroying hostiles on my way to the next sector. I also enjoyed just looking around said arenas and seeing how the Fast Travel team has adapted the vast depths of Stellaris into this game. Planets, stars, asteroid fields, active and derelict space stations, and more are scattered through the game and it’s kind of breathtaking just to take it all in between battles.
If at first you don’t succeed, fly, fly again
Ghost Signal: A Stellaris Game is far different from what I expected out of Fast Travel Games, but in a good way. Sure, I would delight at commanding a civilization’s growth through an unforgiving and/or diplomatic 4X galaxy, but where Cities VR felt like it played safe and gave Cities fans what they wanted, Ghost Signal tries something altogether new with the IP. Moreover, it comes out feeling fun and exciting and gives us a very unique look at the Stellaris universe as a whole. If this is just an aside from the depth the 4X version of Stellaris offers, it’s shaping up to be a very good one and I can’t wait to see more when it comes out.
These impressions are based off of an early Quest 2 version of the game. Ghost Signal: A Stellaris Game launches exclusively on Meta Quest 2 on March 23, 2023.