Star Wars: Tiny Death Star hands-on review: all personality, not much fun
Last week, Star Wars: Tiny Death Star was released on the top three mobile platforms, and since then I have been playing it constantly. This is not an exaggeration. Everywhere I went - shopping, drinks with friends, the bathroom, the gym, everywhere - I would be compelled to pull out my phone and make sure everything was running smoothly on my personal Death Star.
The basic premise of the game is exactly the same as its spiritual predecessor Tiny Tower. It is your job to essentially be the building manager of the Death Star (which means you are technically playing as Darth Vader). You must build new levels for various purposes. Residential levels attract new "bitizens" who are essentially your workforce, and then you put them to work in various businesses in certain sectors - food, service, retail, and recreation. Those levels in turn generate credits which are used to build more levels. There are also Imperial levels which are used to generate items needed to carry out plans for the Empire.
In my time with the game, I was constantly making sure that the stores and restaurants were stocked with goods, and the underground Imperial machinations were progressing as you might hope. Even during the course of writing this hands-on review of the game, I had to take a few breaks to pop open the game and see what was happening. And, I found myself spending real life cash money to get more stuff in the game. From all of this, you might think that I would have a lot of positive comments about Tiny Death Star; but, the trouble was that I eventually realized that I wasn't actually having any fun.
While the game is available on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows 8, for the purpose of this review I played Tiny Death Star on a Nexus 5 running stock Android 4.4 KitKat.
That's not to say that there is nothing to like about the game. It is positively brimming with personality and small touches. The 8-bit characters are well designed, and there are quite a lot of so-called "bitizens" to populate your ever-expanding Death Star. Early on in the game, you'll mostly be seeing fairly generic characters with a few crowd favorites thrown in, and more well-known characters added in over time. One of the first characters that will pop up is a generic Gungan (not specifically Jar Jar Binks), and you will see numerous Princess Leias coming into the Death Star. And, there seems to be no real rhyme or reason as to what levels the characters ask to go to.
Sometimes, when a character goes to a certain level, you will see a short cut-scene. The first of which involves the Gungan getting squashed by Jabba the Hut. Unfortunately, these cut-scenes are only activated on certain levels. So, if you don't have the right level, or the right character doesn't ask to go to that level, you may never see the cut-scene. For example, I have only seen 2 out of the 26 cut-scenes listed, despite having built about 10 levels that have cut-scenes available; and, this is over the course of 4 days of fairly constant playing. Similarly, the more famous characters are very slow to become unlocked, and this could contribute to the lack of cut-scenes because they may require more famous characters to activate.
The music is a nice 8-bit variant on the well-known Star Wars theme and Imperial March, but in all the time I played, I never heard anything other than those two songs. And, there would be long bouts of nothing except the hum of the elevator, and the droid sounds of items being made. Beyond all that there is a Twitter-like feed of status posts by the bitizens in your Death Star, but there is basically no reason to bother looking at that, and there is the actual "gameplay" if you want to call it that.
Look, right off the bat, you may love this game, but I did not. It felt like a never-ending grind with no real challenge, no objective, and no rewards. The entire "gameplay" mechanic is simply tapping your stores and restaurants, and making sure items are in stock. In-stock items generate credits, which are used to build more levels, where the process begins again. Really, that's it.
Don't get me wrong, it's an addictive system; but, addictive is not the same as fun. Addictive means you feel like an idiot for dropping a total of $10 on in-app purchases. Which is exactly what I did. The in-app purchases come in because the addition to the "gameplay" is "bux" which allow you to speed up processes in the game. So, you can spend 1 bux (apparently the singular and plural is the same) on instantly finishing item production, or item sales. You can also spend bux to upgrade supply amounts on levels, speed up construction of a level, unlock characters or unlock elevators.
And, that last one is the absolute worst of them all. There is literally no other way to unlock faster elevators than to spend bux. The elevator is the only mode of transport to get bitizens to each level; and, once your Death Star gets big, that elevator can be the most aggravating thing in the world because it makes everything feel so slow. Sure, you can save up all your bux and maybe just maybe have enough to get the first upgrade to the elevator which costs 25 bux. But, after that, you're into real money territory, because saving up 75 bux for the next upgrade would take a long long time.
The problem with Star Wars: Tiny Death Star isn't that it's a free-to-play game, because there have been plenty of examples of free-to-play done well, like Plants vs Zombies 2, Robot Unicorn Attack 2, Draw Something 2, or even Puzzle and Dragons. There have also been plenty of good games that offer management level gameplay in a fun way like Sim City or Football Manager. But, Tiny Death Star does neither well. Instead, Tiny Death Star is more on the level of a Star Wars-themed Farmville - there is no skill involved, it is just a grind.
And, that's the difference between a "game" and an "addictive experience". In a game, like PvZ 2, there is a requirement of skill. If you are better at choosing your plants, placement of plants, and efficiency of sun usage, you can progress through the game at a good clip and never really have to pay a dime. With Tiny Death Star the only real skill that will help you is patience. If you can be extremely patient and check in on the game every 5 minutes or so, you can probably make it through without spending any real money. But, you may not have any actual fun either, unless you really love the endless cycle of making donuts.
All that said and there's just one thing left for me to do with Star Wars: Tiny Death Star - uninstall it.