DLC Review: Stellaris – Leviathans

By Sam Quirke, 2 months ago
I love sci-fi novels. One of my favourite aspects of the genre is the idea of fragile civilizations expanding out into a cold universe, waging wars on a scale that individuals can barely comprehend. I also love the stories that bring in the terrors of the truly unknown — not just aliens with superior firepower, but strange dormant machines or trans-dimensional horrors. When I first began my journey with Stellaris: Console Edition I was overwhelmed by the cold reality of its galactic chessboard, a screen filled with numbers and figures and myriad demands for my attention. But beneath that harsh exterior is a powerful demonstration of emergent video game storytelling that is so very well suited to the sci-fi genre, and the game's Leviathan DLC pack explores those depths further — right into the galaxy's darkest places.

Stellaris – LeviathansStellaris – Leviathans

If the base game of Stellaris tells the classic yarn of titanic empires clashing on a galactic scale, Leviathans introduces an equally common sci-fi staple: a story of hubris as overconfident, short-lived superpowers stumble across ancient creatures or objects of power. Like all rounds of Stellaris, your starting position is fairly random. I was unlucky enough to start within spitting distance of two of the DLC's newly added threats. One was the Enigmatic Machine, a seemingly abandoned station still powering up and obliterating any fleet that isn't pretty much at an end-game power level. Just a couple of star systems over spawns the Dimensional Horror, a blend of Cthulhu and Xenomorph that finds itself trapped between two realities and is hell bent on making someone pay for it. As a relative amateur in grand strategy games, these two impossible neighbours initially left me frustrated, but soon I let the emerging story take over. The proximity of these apocalyptic forces completely changed the course of my tiny empire's expansion plans, not dissimilarly to the Expanse novels of James S.A. Corey. I needed to field a strong military, but using one to attack any AI-controlled empires around the galaxy would leave me horribly exposed to these unkillable threats.

As if a black hole wasn't scary enough.As if a black hole wasn't scary enough.

At the same time, I found myself unwilling to be too submissive to the other civilisations. After all, the two neighbouring Armageddon scenarios sitting in my back yard were in some ways free defensive tools. Any civilisation that decides it doesn't like my spacefaring ambition will have to run a gauntlet to get to me, and get shredded by an unfeeling, uncomprehending power. But by that same token, I have to be extra meticulous about every ship placement, every new outpost built. I have to check the routes of every ship that crosses from one end of my empire to the other, tweaking its route so it doesn't blunder into the worst kinds of trouble. These are profound realisations — where my lofty philosophical ambitions would want to better understand my species' place in the universe alongside these unknowable behemoths, the cowardly barbarian in me simply sees a big guy to hide behind.

The tactic works until hubris, the empire builder's greatest enemy, takes a hold of the reins. My empire grows powerful, but has to circle around these two anomalous star systems right on the doorstep of the imperial centre. I feel myself grow frustrated at their existence, blocking access to systems with perfectly good habitable planets. I reach out to Leviathans' other major addition, the Enclaves. These independent states come in Merchant, Artist or Curator flavours, and they give a welcome shortcut to engaging in larger fights. The merchants can trade Energy Credits for Minerals and vice versa, crucial when looking to rapidly expand or build a large destructive fleet. The Artist Enclave is perhaps the most useless, offering patronage opportunities which affect Happiness and Unity — two resources that it seems pretty simple to maintain without commissioning art. The Curator Enclaves prove the most interesting, assessing any Leviathans I have come across, giving some back story and a relatively honest assessment of my forces' chances against them. Curators can also send you a Scientist for a sizeable sum, who instantly improve my research progress.

If you're looking for trouble – or a specific trophy – Curators can send you straight to a Leviathan.If you're looking for trouble – or a specific trophy – Curators can send you straight to a Leviathan.

After centuries of building I amass all of my forces and take on the Enigmatic Machine, and it turns out to be an odd but rewarding fight, partly a test of pure power and partly a deadly choose-your-own-adventure puzzle that might reset the entire encounter. In comparison the Dimensional Horror is just a brute, submitting only to the overwhelming size of my suicidal fleet. Bruised but unbroken, I finally seal these two anomalies in the centre of my empire. I think of the victory rippling throughout the galaxy, giving my rivals pause.

Of course, that's exactly when my rivals strike. While my forces are all lumped together in one spot, damaged from their epic and mostly unnecessary battling, a dormant Fallen Empire on my doorstep awakens and immediately declares my civilisation to be a nuisance that must be swept away. While my attention has been diverted inwards, the other plucky Empires of the galaxy have joined hands in a profitable Federation which, thanks to my years of ignorance, now wants no part in the war I am absolutely not prepared for. I realise too late that I have become Ozymandias, ignorantly expecting the galaxy to be awed by my great works when in reality, time and ignorance have reduced those feats to nothing. The star systems I fought for over centuries are easily swallowed by my betters in a matter of minutes. My empire lies in ruins, limping sullenly into the benevolent Federation that will assuredly consume the rest of the galaxy and ultimately win the game. The Leviathans of Stellaris have destroyed me even while I destroyed them, and it's in these perfect moments that Stellaris' beautiful, branching narratives perform at their best.

I look forward to battling other Leviathans, such as the Spectral Wraith buffed by matching star colours.I look forward to battling other Leviathans, such as the Spectral Wraith buffed by matching star colours.

Trophies wise, the DLC is almost as tough as the base game — but not quite. As with the rest of the larger list there's an unfortunate reliance on events that randomly may or may not happen in the next round — or the requirements will be too far out of the empire's reach to intervene with. Having said that, chasing down these monstrous horrors is pretty fun, and die-hard Stellaris enthusiasts will enjoy the chase as they head towards completing the list.

Summary

Leviathans doesn't add a huge amount on paper — the stories woven from its contents are just text prompts on a communication screen, or stats modifiers on a conflict summary. But for those who understand that a grand strategy game is about the stories we tell ourselves along the way, this DLC pack adds an essential and humbling weight to an already heavy imagining of a galaxy at war. If you're dipping to Stellaris for the first time, Leviathans is a great pack to add if you want a full experience. If you are already a fan, Leviathans is damned near essential.
4 / 5
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 15 hours battling dimensional beings and his own pride, eventually earning three of the DLC's seven trophies. A PS4 digital code for the game and DLC was provided for the review.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been gaming long enough to know the pain of a failed DOS install on the fifth floppy disc. When not hopelessly lost in the latest open-world epic, Sam is busy devouring books of all genres or trading Pokémon with his wife.