Star Shoal: Black Label is a very recent rerelease of 2015’s Star Shoal: Episode Infinity. Full disclosure, I was literally completing a review of the original release when I privately shared it with the author, EBD, before official site publishing. In the midst of my experiences, EBD saw fit to complete some long standing issues with the original release version. While quite interesting and fun (as you will read here) there were some unresolved problems in the former version that have finally been addressed with this Black Label version. Issues such as a final boss that failed to trigger properly, the well known broken minigame at the beginning of the level that put the game into a visual debug mode, and other minor things have been fixed! What follows now is my original review with some sections excised in lieu of the new Black Label version.
As our mother game begins to show her age, the community has endeavored to find ways to enrich the Unreal experience. EBD has, for his part, devised a set of custom code packages of notable merit that have added a lot of potential to what a community singleplayer game could be. Though, these additions have perhaps been sadly underused in the near ten years they have circled our little neighborhood. I do not know if it is the close association to 227 dependability (though many of his assets are simply useful utilities), the apparent lack of COOP support inherent in their components, or the oddball title these packages have been given (Firetrucks and Trashbag).
However, we do have a few good examples floating around that serve as effective showcases on what EBD’s stuff can do. Most recently I reviewed The Chronicles of Weedrow 2, which as it stands is perhaps the best example of just what Firetrucks is capable of when placed in the creative hands of collaboration. Here, we will be speaking about EBD’s own standalone map release entitled Star Shoal: Episode Infinity. Developed and tested on 227i, this single level provides a quirky and unique experience that, at least for me, proves without a shadow of a doubt that Firetrucks is very compatible with standard Unreal combat mechanics.
The player begins near their workstation onboard a small starship. Other crew members are taking a siesta in a galley across the hall, leaving the player several minutes alone to explore the vessel and…do stuff. First impressions will sure to be unique for everyone. For me, having been orientated with Firetruck’s systems already playing Weedrow 2, I spent most of my early minutes trying to engage with the many interactive points littered around the starting rooms and glean the included humor with the many readable spots. Something to be said about Firetrucks is that, in practice, so far as I have seen it used in singleplayer levels it has been done in tandem with more lighthearted, comical adventures. Star Shoal is par for this course, and to be certain there are many clever bits that occur in happenstance if you go out of your way to look for them. An early computer screen prompt, for instance, allows the player to adjust their difficulty setting (a series of four action figures set up on a countertop will appear as per these settings, the first evidence of a level with ingrained filters for each level of challenge). There will be scattered about notes, album cases, personal effects, and even a cookable meal. For a single level, little stops like these are the meat of what makes Firetrucks exciting and playing Unreal this way allows for a lot of depth. Be advised, you have not fully appreciated this one unless you have given it multiple playthroughs, as each difficulty setting offers a radically different experience.
After a brief Introduction, an unexpected occurrence forces the player to flee the ship via teleporter. They materialize inside an old structure of typical Na Pali origin, occupied by Krall and other Unreal nasties. Similar to how Weedrow 2 was managed, the player will select through a minimalist HUD display when they aren’t speaking to NPCs via a chat window system. Unlike Weedrow 2, which maintained this general approach to problem solving using found items and dialogue in a spooky haunted house scenario, it does not take long before Star Shoal presents the player with some weapons and a secondary HUD component for health, armor, and ammo.
What transpires can be finished relatively quickly depending on the player’s penchant for combat. As mentioned, the difficulty selection alters the way the battles will feel and what enemies will show up. For instance, Easy is a relatively breezy experience while Unreal daunts the player with staggeringly outnumbered odds. Even your weapons will change. Some difficulties will not bother giving you a Dispersion Pistol, while others will have you living by every clip. Other defenses can be supplied by collecting gold and making purchases of armor, guns, and ammunition from dubious Krall merchants (making Star Shoal a rare Unreal SP level that actually employs a currency system).
If this all sounds rather fancy, it is. Though, the experience is ultimately short lived. You will likely wrap it all up just when things start to get going, which is probably the point. This is EBD’s way of saying, “Hey…use my stuff!” Replayability, however, is high. I ended up going through four times myself before I felt confident enough to write my review, satisfied that I experienced the whole thing. Star Shoal has all the hallmarks of a good water cooler discussion, the kind of level where people will compare notes on message boards after. “Did you find the steak? If you cook it on the stove you can carry it with you as a portable healing item, which is a godsend on Hard.” “Make sure you buy the armor from the Krall salesman with the boom box!” “Anybody find the key for the big keyhole??”
The level design is straightforward. Every room or corridor has something to do, even if it is just interacting with something, looking for a secret, or finding an item. I would not say that the design quality is simple, though after the initial glance I do not think players will say this either. EBD balances this uncomplicated look with curious not-by-the-rulebook thinking. As mentioned, reliance on 227 for the heavy lifting is evident with practical mesh use, including eye catching novelties such as a pit of treasure, shafts of melting candlewax, and funny statues. There’s even some cool tricks at work to mimic things like a rope tether. EBD is also smart enough to know how to tease the player with secrets. Several instances are noteworthy for making the player ponder. This one will compel the completionists out there to seek out everything there is to find. For my part, I was sent mad looking for keys to two locked gates that were clearly a rouse to prevent me from straying…but they made me think that they were a rouse within a rouse. To complicate matters, difficulty filters even change the appearance of some secrets that might be found off the beaten path…making some players think a certain room is pointless while others might locate a much needed provision. This is how you keep people interested without trying to overdose them on spectacle. Take notes.
In terms of enemies, something worth mentioning is that Star Shoal joins a list of 227 specific levels that make generous use of the AlternatePawns package made by Z-Enzyme (alias of Qtit). This pack is known for including improved Unreal enemy models with new animations, such as Armored Krall and specialized Titans. Depending on your difficulty you might see a healthy dabbling of some of these assets, including a rather intense Titan battle on the hardest difficulty.
Star Shoal also makes substantial use of sound. Juggling as much as it does is evident in the music. There are multiple tracks, including a signature casual song for the ship itself. Players that have already gone through the two Weedrow adventures will also recognize the easy study of player/NPC made sound effects to storyboard conversations and how cues are used in reactionary fashion to player actions. I do not know if it is simply what adheres to Firetruck’s general use or if it is the author’s personal touch, but it always seems to give the game style an RPG flavor.
Before the release of Black Label, this was the part of the review where I spared a couple of short paragraphs to note the various instances of known bugs and other issues. I am happy to report that Black Label has addressed the major problems that might have marred an otherwise fun little adventure (but not ruined, since the original release was still very playable).
The minigame at the beginning now works, presenting the player with an early game conundrum in the very first room that can be bypassed completely or attempted seconds after the level starts. Eager as I was upon my first attempt at Black Label to actually see this finished minigame, I ended up running the hidden timer on the spacecraft trying to solve it. After subsequent attempts my knack for it improved as I learned the solution. I expect dutiful players might make it a personal challenge to complete all the vessel’s little mini-quests before the alarms start blazing.
There is also a great deal of care put into the many messages that appear in Star Shoal in this version, where previously it was common to spot some spelling/grammar issues. In such a wordy level as this I commend EBD for taking the time to comb through these messages. Expect a lot of secondary lore to be writ upon plaques in the Nali ruin section. While the best stuff comes from the on screen dialogue and screen prompts, I appreciate the time and effort put into fleshing out the background world.
As for remaining bugs; I myself ran a pretty smooth series of replays of Black Label upon testing for this review, but with the large complication of events and new adjustments there have been some reports of some minor stuff still hidden within the map boundaries. I will omit mention of any specifics here since EBD might still prepare some hotfixes for these by the time this review is readable.
A unique level from EBD that proves that Firetrucks and Unreal can truly work together. I am happy to report that the Black Label experience deals with many of the prior glitches, making the experience a largely positive one. What Star Shoal does right is promise something different, and if it doesn’t sell you on Firetrucks…well then you are hopeless!
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.6
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.6
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).6
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.8
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.9
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.8
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.8
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.10
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.8
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.8