Once upon a time, computer graphical limitations led us to imagine that asterisks were stars, and real galactic emperors might actually have to make decisions based on keyboard choices A through D. Playing Interstellar Trader 2 may make you feel as though you're playing one of these old text-based trading games. The problem is that Shrapnel Games' new space strategy game also has the functionality of an old text-based game. While there are graphics, they actually make the game seem less like a game and more like an exercise in clicking on things for no good reason. While the latter might be a rather cynical description for all computer games, Interstellar Trader 2 takes this idea to its logical endpoint where you're actively reminded that by playing it, you're accomplishing absolutely nothing whatsoever.
Although you're nominally an "interstellar trader," the planets you visit are neatly lined up in two rows on one screen that you can't view until you leave the planet you're on. To compensate for the lack of an accessible map view, the game simply makes the map irrelevant by making every planet essentially equidistant from every other one. Because fuel is never a concern, you don't have to worry about where you are, if you even unexpectedly happen to remember the name of the planet, which is just a random combination of vowels and consonants. The game never really creates the illusion that you're plying actual interstellar trade lanes. Instead, you get the very real feeling that you're clicking on a spreadsheet and that there isn't much of a "game" involved at all. It isn't supposed to be a serious trading simulation, and the game's many tongue-in-cheek touches (like the silly commodity names and random events like the galactic casino) keep the tone lighthearted. Unfortunately, there's nothing funny enough in Interstellar Trader 2 to distract you from the game's many fundamental shortcomings.
Good games make you try to figure out what course of action will lead to the best result. Interstellar Trader 2 makes you try to figure out which good result will be the product of the least clicking. Most of the game takes place in the city screen, which is a representation of all the different places on that planet you can visit, or to be more precise, a representation of all the boxes on your screen that you can click on. But some places can be clicked on only once per visit to that planet.
One of these places is the trade center, where you buy and sell the commodities that are at the heart of your chosen virtual profession of interstellar trader. Once you exit the trade center, even if you made no transactions while you were there, it becomes closed. There is something called the "galactic bank" where you can deposit your money prior to leaving a planet so that it cannot be stolen by space pirates. Unfortunately, you cannot make payments directly with money in the bank; you must first withdraw it from your account. You can see where this is going.
Every time you visit a planet, you end up first going to the bank and withdrawing all of your money. Then you go to the upgrade center, because that's the only place you can increase your cargo space, and it, like the trade center, closes after one visit, and you need to have the extra cargo space before you buy your goods or you'll have nowhere to put them. Then you go to the trade center, sell whatever goods you were carrying, buy more goods to fill up your hold, click on all the other boxes in the city screen (like the prime minister, who may randomly give you some benefit), fill up on passengers and gas, and then leave the system. Except your last visit needs to be to the bank, where you then redeposit all your money (except for one credit--the game won't let you have a balance of zero for some reason). If you forget this and get jumped by pirates (there are four pirate clans, which makes no difference at all, by the way), then that's tough luck for you. You should have been more strategic and clicked on "galactic bank" before you left. To minimize clicking, you may find yourself just jetting around with all your money in your pocket and taking the risk of having it stolen. In fact, clicking can drive strategy to such an extent that a viable option is to spend the first part of the game building a huge fleet so that you don't ever have to stop at the bank in the first place.
There are a lot of things you can choose to pay attention to, like the stock market, but this just adds more unnecessary clicking. Because of the aforementioned lack of distance between planets, all you really need to do is find a planet where there is a shortage of goods and a planet where there is a surplus of goods. Then you just buy at the latter and sell at the former. In a good strategy game, you would have to balance this one-way traffic against the possibility of two-way buying and selling on planets with less one-sided economies. No such tension exists here. In fact, the one-way method cuts down on clicking since you're not buying at the place where you're selling (which would just mean more clicks, anyway). Once the economy shifts, you simply find a new set of planets, so there's not much strategy there.
Interstellar Trader 2 does a lot of strange things. For example, you can sometimes lose money due to random events or spend money that you don't "have" in the sense that your cash is all in the galactic bank. (The game will allow you to fill up on fuel for your ship even if all your money is stashed away, although it will not let you do the same with buying other things.) In these cases, instead of deducting the money from your bank account, the game automatically takes out a loan for you, which you then have to go and pay off if you don't want to pay the interest. You carry out this transaction by, you guessed it, more pointless clicking.
Even if there were serious strategic choices to be made, the game preemptively makes them irrelevant by failing to include a time limit. Because the victory conditions simply consist of amassing cash, and even with bad luck you'll make money most turns, eventually everybody wins. While this is great for kids and nonviolent workshops about the power of non-competitive kindness, it doesn't really work as a strategy game. It does, however, achieve the essential modern game goal of being open-ended.
The game's ephemeral nature is perhaps best encapsulated in--of all things--the save system. There is no way to save the game while playing. If you save, the game automatically quits. There is only room for one saved game, which is erased every time you load it, so if for some reason you just voluntarily quit the game without saving, your game is gone forever. This also applies to involuntarily quitting the game without saving, such as when the game or your system crashes. In fact, we were never actually able to complete a game with the 5 million- or 10 million-credit victory condition, because the game always crashed first. On the other hand, it's possible that the crashes are actually purposely built in as the time limit.
While playing the game, you can sort of make out the rationale for some of the design decisions. The different pirate clans, for example, are supposed to steal different things from you: Some will take inventory, some will take money, and some will just fight you to damage your ships. Since there is no way a pirate should ever take money from you unless you failed to make the difficult strategic decision to click on "galactic bank" before you left the planet, those pirates are out of luck. When you encounter the pirates who steal your inventory, you may imagine that you're supposed to make a decision as to whether or not you should defend yourself based on how valuable your inventory is, but since the cost of defending yourself (via various stratagems such as using extra weapons or using the "suicide volley," which there is almost never a reason not to use) is so low, there isn't much of a choice to make here, either.
One of the game's major failings is that it doesn't develop any atmosphere. You can choose the type of ship you start with at the beginning of the game, but you never see a graphic depiction of it again, and the weapons you equip it with or upgrades you make to it are just text, so that even though after a hundred or so turns you might have a substantially more powerful and capable ship, there isn't much of a payoff. Furthermore, this lack of payoff extends to the game mechanics, because while you can choose to start as a trader or a passenger carrier or even a pirate, the game fails to present opportunities unique to each of these play styles. Carrying passengers is much less profitable than carrying cargo, so you'll eventually find yourself upgrading your luxury liner's cargo hold and hauling fruit. Playing as a pirate is simply bizarre, since while you can theoretically make money by defeating pirates who attack you, you can never initiate combat yourself and are thus reduced to role-playing some sort of passive-aggressive pirate who refuses to attack anyone unless he is directly attacked first. The game also fails to handle the mid- and endgames well because it doesn't scale well to the amounts of money available later on in games with high-credit victory conditions. There often aren't enough passengers and cargo to fill up heavily upgraded ships later in the game, and share limits prevent you from investing much of your money in the stock market. Thus, you'll often find yourself sitting on millions of credits making a few percentage points of interest in your savings account. It's the community bank vision of intergalactic commerce.
Interstellar Trader isn't really even suitable as a quick-break game for taking breaks from whatever you're supposed to be doing, because unlike the best of such games, there's really no challenge to overcome that would make you feel that false sense of accomplishment that temporarily replaces the real sense of accomplishment you'd experience if you just stopped procrastinating and got back to work. All you do is slowly amass more and more money by performing rote operations (like the forced order of galactic bank, trade center, and then eventually galactic bank) and watching your cash slowly accrue until you hit whatever amount you set as your victory condition at the start of the game. It's unclear why you would play this game, unless you absolutely hate losing at any game and love to procrastinate. For $20, those might be the only two reasons to buy it.