By Clash Bowley et al, Flying Mice, $7 PDF
Starcluster is a PDF download from Flying Mice LLC and available at rpgnow.com. It comes as 8 different files, each focusing on an aspect of the game. It's not made obvious which file to start with, though "playing the game" seemed like a good place to begin.
The layout is basic, some documents are single column, some double. The text feels dense, something not helped by the lack of space between paragraphs in some of the files. The layout across the PDFs is inconsistent too, which doesn't help the game feel unified. The organisation seems somewhat random in places as well, I couldn't work out why details on spaceport types were tagged onto the playing the game PDF. Illustrations are a scattered throughout and are serviceable, but not inspiring. The cover art is the best, and has a slightly abstracted feel.
There's a basic intro, but other than that Starcluster pretty much throws you in at the deep end with rules, so unless you've played an RPG before you will end up lost. Of course selling from RPGNow, there's little chance any purchaser will not have played before, but I wouldn't give this PDF to a new-to-gaming player, it makes a few too many assumptions for that. There's no real GM or player advice beyond how to build a character and the core mechanics.
Character creation is a random/careers hybrid, and based on a career path in a similar way to Traveller. You get to choose your schooling and career, and can enter any that you meet the requirements for. Every two years of charatcer life you can roll to see if you're character is promoted. Every 4 years, starting at age 34, there's a chance that your stats will start to drop due to ageing.
The basic rules are, fortunately, pretty simple. It's percentile skills with modifiers. Stats exist, and add to 5% to relevant skills for each point over 7 (and base stats start at between 2-12 randomly rolled). Not exactly revolutionary, but it works, I suppose. Combat is based on a minute long round divided up into 120 initiatives. Characters can act on their initiative roll, and if they are particularly badass get extra actions 10 initiatives later. Combat is notably more likely to end up with one side unconscious rather than dead, which may not appeal to everybody, but according to the book will help GMs who want to run "you get knocked out and captured" plots.
There are rules for space battles between starships too, these seem to turn most battles into slogging matches as each ship tries to disable its opponents shields first and then start knocking out essential systems. More Star Trek than Star Wars.
Starcluster likes its tables. There's a table of weapons, tables of skills, tables of professions, tables of equipment and weapons, tables of times it takes to get from A to B. You get the picture. If you don't like referencing tables in character creation and play, then Starcluster will not be for you.
Starcluster has a vague setting. It's space, there are some alien races (mostly based on humans seeded across the galaxy by mysterious aliens), there's a confederacy of species, and they trade. There's an interdicted world called Jalan where there have Psionics. It needs more of a setting I think, something to differentiate it from the other - similar - Sci-Fi RPGs. More precisely I came away unsure of what it was characters should be doing. In this regard Starcluster, like many Sci-Fi games, is a victim of the openness of the setting. You can do anything, so what do you do? There are a number of supplements available, so hopefully these solve this issue, but you may have to fork out more cash for them.
Overall: Starcluster is a blast from the past. It reminds me of the RPGs of yesteryear. Most specifically, Traveller. Things like random stat generation, chart heavy rules and tech levels that give it that feel. Really, it doesn't seem to do that much more than any other SF roleplaying game. It isn't bad at what it does, but its inconsistent layout and organisation don't help it. It really needs the touch of an editor who wasn't immersed in the products creation, and some more consistent design. So, promising, but I'd wait for a 2nd edition...
**Note:**A newer, single PDF version, with rules clarifications is now available.