A thrilling reminder of the golden era of the space genre, House of The Dying Sun is sadly a little too slim to be a breakout hit.
Now don't get yourselves all worked up over this, I'm just using them as reference points rather than yardsticks of depth and quality, but when you first fire up House of the Dying Sun (and for quite a long while after you've closed it down), the two games you're likely to be reminded of are Homeworld and Freespace. That's not to suggest what we're dealing with here is the greatest space game since either and that you should should stop reading immediately and start playing instead, but if you did do something along those lines you wouldn't be wasting your time or your money. I'd appreciate it however it if you'd come back later, if only to nod through the rest of what I have to say. You'll do that won't you? Good.
Despite the fact that Dying Sun is first and foremost a space shooter - and a rather more arcade oriented one compared to the likes of Elite Dangerous - it's Homeworld's metronomic beat that ticks loudest through the game. The battle soundtrack is dominated by pounding taiko drums, behind which crackles radio chatter that is cleverly low enough in the mix to be just about made out while masking the fact that it's actually quite repetitive. Then there are the spartan spacey-hued backdrops, whose distant light was clearly cast back in 1998. Add a selection of boxy ships leaving tell-tale vapour trails in their wake and the obvious inspiration of Battlestar Galactica throughout and the game could almost pass for a Homeworld spin-off to stand proudly alongside Deserts of Kharak.
As for the Freespace parallels, they're less easy to spot once you've gotten past the blindingly obvious similarities in gameplay, because whilst you get to fly a space interceptor in what is essentially a linear campaign taking out fighters, blowing up cargo pods and bringing down capital ships, the vibe of the games are quite different. Where Freespace and its millennial contemporaries offered up righteous campaigns that easily took a good couple of days of relentless play, Dying Sun's cold-hearted acts of murder and sweeping vengeance can be gotten through in an afternoon, though it will take a good deal longer to master the four difficulty levels required to get a hold of the game's high-end ship upgrades.
Sadly there are no real surprises in any of the missions; no shifting objectives as new orders are relayed across a fluid battlefield. Instead you have much the same objective throughout; a series of traitorous targets to assassinate, all of which have to be eliminated before reinforcements arrive, or ideally very soon after. Once the main objective is down, it's time to get the hell out and do it all again in a different system and against a similar enemy. Or, if you feel like a challenge, stay and survive the withering assault from the enemy fleet.
There's no multiplayer in Dying Sun, but you're not alone for long. Soon after starting out you collect your first wingman, who you can give orders to, either via a radial menu ("Attack my target", Cover me", etc), or by pulling back into the game's tactical view, in which you start each mission and where the game most directly resembles Relic's classic space RTS series.
By the end of the game you will have amassed quite an impressive fleet of ships; a wing of Interceptors, Destroyers and a Frigate. Unfortunately controlling them fluidly and efficiently is one of two areas that Dying Sun lets itself down, for whilst there's a familiar Homeworld-inspired way of directing your ships through, above and below the battle, the snap-to unit selection system doesn't offer much ease of use. The camera cycles and swoops all-too easily and without waypoints to set or much finesse generally, if you want a fine degree of control over your vessels - such as to draw enemy ships out so you can hit them with a flanking manoeuvre - the best bet is a pause function that allows you to take your time. I gave up with it out of mild frustration after a few levels, falling back to the standard issue radial commands, which is a shame because the game rewards those that have a plan, and at higher difficulty levels you really need to be able to carry it out to complete the higher tier objectives.
Thankfully, where it matters, when in direct control of your ship, the controls reveal themselves to be supremely implemented and evolved. While there is some support for those with HOTAS controllers, the interface has been designed to primarily advantage gamepad owners and it works brilliantly. In fact, it's far better than any space combat game has ever done or has a right to, for in spite of the perceived limitations of a console pad for moving and fighting with six degrees of freedom, the controls allow for quite a fine degree of precision, allowing you to target distant vessels, skim the surface of asteroids and enjoy a streamlined reticule area that displays all essential information without ever getting in the way of the action. If Dying Sun were destined for PS4 it would be the next best thing to a Colony Wars reboot.
What I particularly like about Dying Sun is that it's no throwback that pines for the golden age of combat space sims. It's very much a modern indie game, inspired by classic space combat design, of course, but utterly lean and just a little bit mean. There's not an ounce of fat to be found anywhere, not in the storyline, not in the missions, not in the main combat controls nor in the beautifully-basic textures of the ships and asteroids.
It would just be so much better if there was a little more in the way of content to push Dying Sun towards the unconditional recommendation it otherwise so richly deserves - really just a few extra missions or more variety would have done the trick. £15 for an afternoon of frenetic space-based fun is decent enough value, especially if you have the kit to enjoy the game's celebrated VR mode, but while House of the Dying Sun does feature a dynamic challenge mode, for most people the experience will be over all too quickly. The good news is that Dying Sun 2, or whatever space-based treat Marauder Interactive eventually works on next, will be a game to get truly excited about. In the meantime, if anyone out there finds where the Freespace IP might have ended up, they now know who to entrust it to.