Posted on 04 Nov 2020 by Jay Shaw

Drone Swarm

The Defence

Developer: stillalive studios
Publisher: astragon Entertainment
Genre: Strategy
Platform: PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 20 Oct 2020

The Prosecution

CPU: Intel Core i3 2120 @3.3 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 460
AMD Radeon HD 5970
DirectX: 11
Controller: None
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
CPU: Intel Core i5 3570K @3.4 GHz
AMD Ryzen 7 1800X
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 660
AMD Radeon RX 560 @3.6 GHz
DirectX: 11
Controller: None
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Drone Swarm is an RTS game from stillalive studios that puts you in command of a futuristic psionic space ship and its swarm of thirty-two thousand drones in a hostile galaxy where you can’t help but trespass, antagonize, and battle vicious alien races who couldn’t care less about making friends. Having met the crew of the psychic space testicle, we can’t blame them. We can tell you if the game is any good though, so keep reading.

The Trial

The large swarm of drones is both Drone Swarm‘s main conceit and the resource you’ll have to manage in a battle. Commands are issued via a simple click and drag interface that draws lines on the map. Attacking drones will follow these lines to smash into enemy ships and defending drones will set up walls to block incoming fire. As you use these commands your drones will be damaged and destroyed, limiting further actions as each line drawn requires a certain amount of drones to execute the command.

In long engagements it can be beneficial to take some hits to preserve your attacking capability but your capital ship is quite fragile and can’t take much of a beating so you can’t go entirely on the offensive. However, many engagements are made significantly easier by watching for enemies warping in and having a line of drones on the way to deal damage as soon as they appear. Scribbling over a stationary enemy can also produce excellent damage output but most enemies will move so isn’t always a viable tactic.

As you explore the galaxy new abilities are unlocked that let you use the drones in new ways. One of the earliest and most useful is the cannonball ability which requires you to hold on a single spot while drones gather up, at this point you can choose a direction and release to launch a mass of drones to slam into anything in their path. The cannonball will disrupt enemy attacks and throw smaller units off course, making it a valuable tool when you have the breathing room and time to deploy it. As you progress upgrades open up more tactical options such as an arc shot that deals large damage in an expanding wave, and defensive walls that can slow or stop enemy ships.

The swarm itself can look pretty impressive.

The capital ship also gains upgrades as you go, early in the campaign a large gun is added that can either be a psychic beam that bounces between targets or a railgun that deals more damage. These weapons fire automatically but aren’t particularly useful as there’s no way to prioritise targets so you can’t integrate them into your tactics with any reliability. The ability to choose what these guns target would bump the playability up a notch even if the choice was as simple as prioritising high or low health enemies. One of the more helpful capital ship upgrades allows it to repair a quantity of drones as it takes damage which can sometimes be enough to pull you through a tough fight.

Speaking of playability – you have no control over the capital ship itself, it just sits in the centre of the battle like a lemon while the drones do all the work. It’s a cool concept but when enemies can effortlessly circle around your ship and you have no direct control it feels less like you’re an awesome commander and more like your crew are morons who can’t operate the guns and helm at the same time. The capital ship also dies incredibly quickly against certain types of attacks, large enemy beam weapons can eat through half your health in seconds and often can’t be blocked by defensive walls but you also can’t be worrying about those when half a dozen tiny ships are shooting missiles up your exhaust pipe, but you can’t deal with those because of the big laser ships and soon you’re screaming into a pillow while failing what should be a simple early game mission over and over because you can’t figure out how to juggle two opposing objectives because there isn’t enough time to learn or the tools to set up any semblance of proper defensive tactics.

As mentioned previously, most commands are given by drawing a line with your mouse and for the most part this works perfectly fine but drone pathfinding isn’t great and they’ll do incredibly dumb things like fly into damaging or disabling nebula, or right into impassable enemy shields. Combat can quickly devolve into frustration as multiple attack waves intended to circle around behind an enemy instead stray too close to its shields and get dissipated before they can have an effect. Frustration comes early and fast, ruining what could have been a very fun experience if the difficulty was toned back a little.

You'll quickly learn to hate anything that can circle you.

Alas, there are no difficulty options. What you see is what you get and if you can’t keep up it’s your loss. There’s basically no punishment for losing other than having to watch your ship explode and re-load the level but once that frustration has set in it’s there to stay and each fresh loss adds another layer to the annoyance. You never feel like you were outsmarted by a superior foe or executed a faulty strategy you can learn from. You always feel like you got screwed, like you went down too fast to learn anything, like you were hopelessly outgunned by just a couple of ships.

Some of this could be mitigated by providing more options to the player. Setting up attack paths that repeat for example would allow you to circle drones through a stationary target or set up a recurring attack on enemies circling you ship so you could forget about them for five seconds and focus on another threat. As it is, drones forget commands over time and will return to the pool of idle units so you can’t even throw up a defensive wall and forget about it because you’ll come back a few moments later to find it gone and some little ship eating through your health pool unopposed. Half of these issues could be solved by cooperative play or sharing the drone swarm between the player an an AI you can give basic commands to such as “defend” or “attack my target.”

The story doesn’t do anything to salvage the experience either: The intro movie sets us up with a pair of brothers surviving on Earth after a mysterious sphere appeared and an alien attack ravaged the planet. Suddenly your brother psychically (and subconsciously!) uploads his soul into one of the drones and now humanity has a psionically controlled swarm of alien doombots at their command. Are psionics and souls established as fact before you’re presented with any of this? Nope. I literally snorted orange juice out of my nose laughing at the soul transferring twist when it happened.

Look, writing is hard, and we don’t know the circumstances behind the narrative. Maybe some important stuff got cut and that made things seem worse than the writer intended but that doesn’t change the fact that the end product is very, very stupid. The voice actors often sound like they were recording without a director and do try their best but at least once every cutscene there’s a line that doesn’t quite land – not helped by the often perfunctory dialogue – and sabotages what could have been a dramatic escape from a dying earth in search of a new home.

All negativity aside, the amount of drones on screen is very impressive. There are literally tens of thousands of them flitting about constantly, circling and swarming with murmurations (the ripples you see in flocks of birds) flowing through the group in an impressively natural way. There’s no doubt in my mind that stillalive studio have something potentially special in this tech and it’d be a shame for it to be lost just because the game it debuted in wasn’t the best.

The Verdict

Drone Swarm feels like herding cats. It’s a very cool concept that if executed properly could have been a novelty in the RTS genre and perhaps could have spawned a whole new subgenre of its own. However the execution is fumbled by overly simple controls that would feel far more at home on a touch screen device. Similarly, the difficulty curve feels like it can only be expressed by the curvature of spacetime around a supermassive black hole if it was currently plummeting off a cliff onto jagged rocks in a sea of acid. Drone Swarm is best charitably described as an interesting tech demo that presents an interesting concept which could be expanded into a good game in a sequel but right now it just isn’t very enjoyable.

Case Review

  • +The Swarm: 32,000 drones swimming around your screen is very impressive.

  • Story: It’s both spread thinly and too boilerplate to care about.

  • Commanding: Controls feel like they’d be better suited to a touch screen and are too basic to allow deep and varied tactics.

  • Pathfinding: I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve died because my drones did something dumb on their way to the start of a command.

  • Tech Demo: The whole thing kind of feels like it’s trying to sell the best feature (the swarm) and everything else is kinda barebones tacked on to make it just enough of a game to be sold.

  • Difficulty: The challenge ramps up far too fast for a modestly skilled RTS player to keep up with. There’s no way I could ever finish this game.

3 Score: 3/5
I sincerely hope this isn't the death of this style of RTS, there's potential here but Drone Swarm doesn't draw it out.


  • Sound: Volume sliders for master, music, sound effects, UI, and voice.
  • Video: Resolution selection, windowed and fullscreen selection, visual quality presets.
  • Language: Voice language and subtitles toggle.
  • Controls: Fully rebindable keyboard and mouse buttons.

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