There have been Star Trek video games for just about as long as there have been video games, but very few have managed to accurately capture the spirit of the franchise. Yes, Star Trek is a space adventure, but what separates it from, say Star Wars (which lends itself to video games perfectly), is that Star Trek is just as often about avoiding violence as it is about cool space battles or ray gun shootouts, and for whatever reason, Star Trek games have almost always been of the pew-pew-pew variety. Sometimes this results in some solid, well put together games—the slick first-person shooter Elite Force II and space combat series Starfleet Command come to mind—but more often they feel like a waste of a good license. The spirit of peaceful exploration, of compassionate problem solving that defines Star Trek is missing from nearly all video game adaptations.
Star Trek Timelines, the new free-to-play mobile game from Distruptor Beam, is an altogether different animal from the slew of action games that have come before. Timelines is a strategy role-playing game in which you collect characters from across the history of Star Trek, and then employ their skills to solve problems and tell short, simple stories. Some of these stories are best solved using diplomacy, some call for scientific ingenuity, and yes, some require force, but there’s a balance and variety that reflects the full spectrum of Star Trek stories better than any Trek game in over a decade.
The story of Timelines is fan service incarnate: thanks to a rift in space and time, every character from all five television series and the first ten feature films now coexist, and chaos ensues. Legends are reborn, old rivalries are reignited, and the balance of power is insanely out of whack. While the Federation (with the help of Q, voiced by John de Lancie) tries to get everyone back where and when they belong, one Starfleet captain (that’s you) assembles a crew of heroes and villains to try to keep the galaxy from tearing itself apart.
Timelines‘ gameplay feels like a mashup between a collectible card game, a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and your standard microeconomy-based mobile timekiller. You send members of your crew off on missions that are divided into branching story points, and then use your characters’ skills to advance the story. There are six basic character stats available, but instead of Strength, Charisma and so forth, they represent the main Starfleet disciplines: Command, Science, Engineering, Medicine, Diplomacy, and Security. There’s also a wide variety of character Traits (ex: Federation, Human, Jury Rigger, Duelist, Gambler) that can give you an edge in certain scenarios, and the game doesn’t always spell out what Traits will be helpful and which ones won’t. Completing a mission in Timelines requires that you think through your decision and try to play the episode out in your head.
That’s one of the key disappointments in Timelines, however—a lot of the story is happening in your own imagination and not on the screen. Like in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, you can choose to, for example, pilot a shuttle through an ion storm, or repair a power coupling, or challenge a Klingon warlord to a duel, and then your character stats (combined with a dice roll) determine whether or not you’re successful, but you’re not actually getting to fly the shuttle, or fix the power, or fight the Klingon. You get a few sentences describing the encounter, but the rest is in your head. Playing through a mission feels more like unlocking a brief synopsis of a Star Trek episode than it does actually watching one. The saving grace is that, for the first time since Star Trek: The Next Generation—A Final Unity in 1995, the stories being told legitimately do feel like Star Trek stories. If only the feel and concept of Timelines could have been applied to a fully fleshed-out RPG rather than just a mobile game.
The only real-time action in the game is the space combat, an element which is done better in countless other Star Trek titles. Beyond deciding which of your crew will be manning your battle stations, the player has practically no influence over the outcome of ship battles, and is basically consigned to watch (albeit well-rendered) vessels circle each other for thirty seconds or so.
Like many other Android or iOS games on the market, Timelines allows you to purchase card packs that include characters and items. There are two tiers of card packs—the kind that costs fake money that you earn in-game, and the kind that costs real money. You can conceivably play forever without spending money if you’re willing to dedicate hours grinding to level up relatively weak free characters, but Timelines makes buying in very affordable and very much worth your while. You can buy dilithium crystals (which you use to acquire premium characters and items) in bulk for $5-$100, OR you can purchase a subscription of sorts for $3.99, which allows you to claim 100 crystals (more than enough for one premium character) every day for a month. Log in every day, and you end up getting about $40 worth of crystals for a tenth of the price.
I’ve been playing Star Trek Timelines nonstop since its launch two weeks ago, and for all its shortcomings, I’m still enjoying myself. I’ll admit that the appeal of Timelines is somewhat narrow—anyone less than a die-hard fan is likely to find the story confusing and the rewards unexciting—but as a lifelong Trekkie who’s seen game after game promise a uniquely Star Trek experience, it’s damned refreshing to finally see someone deliver on it. At no point during Star Trek Timelines did I feel like I’d rather be playing Mass Effect or Star Wars Battlefront. At worst, it made me want to watch Star Trek, and if anything, I’d call that a compliment.
Star Trek Timelines is available for free for Android and iOS devices.