The mining station buzzes with activity; drifting in orbit around an unnamed gas giant, it’s home to a small colony of civilian ships and floating supply caches, flitting in and out of the station like worker bees. Heavily armed freighters, remnants of the traitor’s fleet, circle in defensive formation. Soldiers, civilians, infrastructure: they’re all targets to me as soon as I drop out of warp. I hit the boost jets, trails of fire tumbling behind me and shaking my cockpit, and I open fire.
In the heyday of PC gaming in the 1990s, nothing embodied the ecosystem quite like space flight simulations: Complex, technical combat that brought Red Baron-esque virtuosity into the starry abyss. Wing Commander; Star Wars: TIE Fighter; Shockwave Assault. But while the heyday of the space flight sim is over, House of the Dying Sun hasn’t forgotten. Just released out of Steam Early Access on PC, House of the Dying Sun distills space dogfighting to its essence: slick, simple, and cruel.
You don’t play a hero in House of the Dying Sun; you play an avenger. A fighter pilot loyal to a dead emperor, you prowl space looking for revenge. The game is a set of missions, quick guerrilla operations on the outskirts of an intergalactic civilization. Jump in, lay waste to your foes, and jump out before reinforcements arrive. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave and bloodthirsty, you stay and eliminate the reinforcements, too. Battles are atmospheric and fast, penumbras of stardust and debris that you maneuver through at a blistering pace. Compared to the space sims of old, it’s dreadfully simple, using one set of inputs to move your ship and another to change your orientation, like a first-person shooter, with various inputs for boosting, braking, and drifting—a maneuver that allows you to fly in one direction while shooting in another. But it’s a simplicity that feels more like elegance when a fight goes the way you want it to; when you go full bore against an incoming fighter, missing a collision by inches, and then accelerate into a drift to pepper a stationary capital ship with fire while you pass over the length of its hull.
House of the Dying Sun, created by an ex-Bungie developer under the name Marauder Interactive, successfully captures the mood and spectacle of those old games, infusing every moment of play with overwhelming enemy forces and the white-knuckle terror of spinning, circling dogfights drowned in the red light of a nearby star. It keeps everything else to a minimum, with little in the way of story and almost no interface between you and the action. I would grit my teeth as enemy blasters rocked my hull, and grin like a predator when my crosshairs indicated I had an enemy fighter in my sights. House of the Dying Sun remembers the feedback loops of risk and destruction that made those old games vital, and it layers on just enough tactical complexity to sell it. You can jump out of the fray into a tactical, top-down view of the battlefield at any time, delivering orders to your fleet, even taking direct control of another starfighter if you so choose.
If the game has any serious shortcomings, they’re a matter of self-preservation: House of the Dying Sun is punishingly difficult. It traffics in immediacy, but the cost of immediacy is a lack of preparation, one that I felt very quickly upon digging in. The missions—of which there are about fourteen or so, meant to be replayed on higher difficulties for better rewards—get tough quickly, even on the easiest setting. The game expects you to accrue early rewards to build up your arsenal before taking on later missions, but even those early rewards can be hard to get, leading to vicious circle of retrying missions five, 10, 15 times to get a type of weapon you dearly need to plow forward.
If you can bear the frustration of that early grind, there’s a reward waiting for you. The thrill of pushing your thrusters to full burn, looping around the asteroids near Karahdor Outpost, the Prince Ol in your sights, his fighter dancing in evasion. Vulcan cannons blazing. The stars watching, an entire universe built for for one exhilarating fight after another.