Review: Endless Space 2: Penumbra

By Alexander Williams 05 Feb 2019 0

Review: Endless Space 2: Penumbra

Released 24 Feb 2019

Developer: AMPLITUDE Studios
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Available from:
Steam

Endless Space 2: Penumbra is the latest expansion/DLC for what is on balance a decent space-4X strategy game. In it, Amplitude has brought a new exotic faction and an entirely new mechanic available for all the species (though the newcomers, the Umbral Choir are inherently better at it). Hacking is the name of the game for the UC but if you think of it as a new layer of espionage mechanics, you won’t be far wrong.

Amplitude has been aggressive about engaging with the community and promoting Penumbra. Starting in March 2018, they began soliciting votes through their community-facing site Games2Gether to guide the design of the new faction, starting with the basic type of species, through their origin, onto the physical appearance of what became the Umbral Choir, all the way up until December of last year when the players voted on what they felt the name of the faction leaders should be. It’s a unique and unusual approach to game design that seems to be paying off well. They’ve also been solid about providing video support with internally generated tutorials and other promotional materials for the new releases.

What does Penumbra bring to the table? Let’s start with the brand-new mechanic.

ES 2 Penumbra 1

Hacking

When you think about space 4X games, you probably don’t think about hacking at a grand, stellar scale. That’s exactly what we have introduced here, with the central idea being the player can use the trade map interface to give instructions to systems they own to hack other systems along the jump network in order to plant backdoors (which allow you to start a new hack from that location), plant sleeper agents, force the ground offenders to choose poor tactics, and other system specific activities. As you research the technology, you develop the ability to place attack and defense software in various systems to aid or diminish your and others’ hacking attempts.

If you’re thinking “wow, this sounds like a relatively thin veneer over the top of what is essentially a node-based espionage system,” you’re right. In fact, scrub 'hacking' off and pencil in 'spying,' remove the references to software and replace them with various espionage operations, and you’d have essentially the same thing with just a few words changed.

Does that make this a bad system? Absolutely not. ES2 needed an espionage system and this one is just fine, if a little quirky. Sprinkling of cyberpunk over the top is really unnecessary but doesn’t get in the way of understanding what’s going on – much. As you expand your research along the various circles, you can unlock new attack and defense programs which can change a number of your capabilities as well as increasing your “bandwidth,” the resource which limits how much hacking you can do and how many programs you can have in place at the same time. Not surprisingly, there’s already been some deep diving on strategy for Hacking and the UC on Reddit.

ES 2 Penumbra 2

Umbral Choir

The Umbral Choir are a diffuse, quasi-material, barely coherent hivemind from an orthogonal space far from the rest of the galaxy. Having heard a great cry of suffering and misery (the last emotional resonance of the fall and death of the Endless), they/it began the long journey to help and comfort the source of such agony. When they arrived… Well, I’ll let you discover the narrative.

Mechanically, the UC have an inherent higher capacity for hacking. They start with a bonus to speed and a slight bonus to bandwidth, which means that they can start hacking neighboring systems right away. They’ll need to, because the UC cannot colonize planets as other species do. Instead, they create Sanctuaries, a sort of hyper-dimensional extension of their home world. These Sanctuaries aren’t directly detectable by other races and in fact can share planets with colonies, which allows the UC to create Sleepers directly on those planets without having to hack them. Once Sleepers are in place, you can use hacking to abduct them and return them to your home world as Umbral Shadows, pops which make double the production at the cost of almost double the food.

Further, the home world is invisible, unless someone tracks a hacking attempt back to it. As the UC, you will constantly be hacking planets in order to establish Sanctuaries (which themselves can originate hacking attempts) and placing backdoors on the colonies of other races, which don’t give away the location of the home world if they get traced back by someone getting hacked. Oh yes, and all their ships start with cloaking technology which makes them invisible as well until/unless someone researches detector technology equal to or higher than that of the UC. (Cloaking technology is available to everyone, but only the Choir starts with it.)

Did I mention their scout ships are faster than any others in the game? Because they are.

ES 2 Penumbra 3

On top of all that, you can spawn new ships upon construction from the home world at any Sanctuary. If you’ve managed to put a couple of Sleepers on an enemy home world and then use that to establish a Sanctuary right there, you can construct an invasion fleet directly under their nose before un-cloaking, dropping your invaders, and then rapturing (that’s the term) all of the Sleepers on the planet.

So they’re fast, invisible, excellent at scouting, but cannot establish colonies in the traditional sense, capable of moving fleets pretty much wherever they want, and fond of rapturing their enemies. What are they bad at?

It is almost impossible to generate manpower with them. As such, your invasion force tends to be a one-shot deal since it’s almost impossible to rebuild your manpower to create more invasion forces on short or even medium notice. While they spread quickly, they’re not very good at military intervention. Their weapons and shield technologies tend to lag a bit. It’s relatively easy to start sweeping your planets for Sleepers once you realize that you’re being invaded, though it can have some serious negative Approval consequences.

At this point, I expect a couple of rounds of re-balancing before things really feel tight. Despite their ability to scout and spread very quickly, hacking is a relatively slow process, especially if you are proceeding cautiously.

Gameplay tends to be extremely focused on trying to put Sanctuaries on planets you expect your opponent to put colonies on in order to make it reasonable to place Sleepers in their path in order to upgrade your population into Umbral Shadows. The UC makes an excellent ally in multiplayer games, piggybacking on the colonies of their allies in order to rapidly create Sleepers and thus Umbral Shadows while providing quick reinforcements and ready reconnaissance.

ES 2 Penumbra 4

Tips & Tricks

As the Umbral Choir

  • When you set a system as the migration target from your home world, any ships you create appear at your target. This can be deep inside enemy territory or on the other side of unconnected space.
  • Put Sanctuaries in the path of your enemies. You can turn your pops there into Sleepers trivially.
  • Sleepers take a portion of the enemy’s resources as long as they’re in place. Use them wisely to draw off supplies in secret, before they think to start looking for Sleepers.
  • Be extremely careful of over-extension. Over-colonization penalties need to be monitored closely by watching the Approval on your home world. Upgrade your home world with Approval-generating buildings and be sure to increase its level with rare resources.
    • If you find yourself over-extended early on:
      • Remember you can de-colonize Sanctuaries you’ve not put pops in without a real cost. Useful for spreading the net then collapsing it on the enemy’s line of expansion.
      • Approval-increasing Hero skills help out immensely.
    • If you’re over-extended later on:
      • Start collapsing and de-colonizing unfilled Sanctuaries from near your home world outwards. It’ll be easy to re-hack them with better bonuses once things are settled.
  • You can move your home world to any hacked special stellar object with a beacon; doing so can be extremely useful if you pop in near/behind the enemy back-line and start hacking from up close and personal without being found. Each gives you their bonus as long as they have a beacon but consume geometrically more bandwidth to maintain.
  • Pay attention to bandwidth and hacking speed bonii from Heroes. They give a serious edge as they level up.
  • If your opponent is the Choir, shift into researching defensive programs and bandwidth and place some at the outer borders of your space to act as tripwires. Even if they don’t stop an attack, it gives you a direction to start counter-hacking in.
  • Their ships can slip right on by your fleets unless you buy uncloaking tech. Invest there or keep fleets close to colonies just in case they decide to drop on you.
  • Sleepers give knowledge of system defenses and orbital fleets, so if you want to keep them secret, hacking defenses and checking for Sleepers regularly is a must.
  • The Choir is almost always going to be hideously short of manpower. If they’ve dropped hard on one of your planets, they likely won’t have the manpower to do it again soon. Reinforcing your own ground forces will make it go much worse for them.

Opposing the Choir

  • If your opponent is the Choir, shift into researching defensive programs and bandwidth and place some at the outer borders of your space to act as tripwires. Even if they don’t stop an attack, it gives you a direction to start counter-hacking in.
  • Their ships can slip right on by your fleets unless you buy uncloaking tech. Invest there or keep fleets close to colonies just in case they decide to drop on you.
  • Sleepers give knowledge of system defenses and orbital fleets, so if you want to keep them secret, hacking defenses and checking for Sleepers regularly is a must.
  • The Choir is almost always going to be hideously short of manpower. If they’ve dropped hard on one of your planets, they likely won’t have the manpower to do it again soon. Reinforcing your own ground forces will make it go much worse for them.

ES 2 Penumbra 5

Verdict

The Penumbra expansion for Endless Space 2 is a bit of a mixed bag. The hacking mechanic represents a needed espionage system but the implementation is a little bit on the clunky side and getting a true handle on all of the factors that go into driving it is nontrivial. The Umbral Choir is a fascinating subversion of the traditional 4X faction, truly playing as if it only had one foot in the same universe as everyone else.

On the other hand, the gameplay is poorly documented in the game itself and the tutorial doesn’t really provide enough guidance for quite a number of new players who aren’t really prepared for systems this different from what has gone before. That there appears to be a number of bugs still lurking around complicates matters further.

From my perspective, the mix is terribly compelling. Gameplay which is almost entirely about indirect engagement is pretty intense. While some of the issues are frustrating, the overall result is very much enjoyable. I can certainly understand why some would find the new designs difficult to grapple with and want to wait for a couple of patches to come out before settling down and really getting stuck in.

Review: Endless Space 2: Penumbra

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