It's been a little over two months since the release of First Contact Story Pack for Stellaris, a story pack that was considered as rather lacking in terms of what it added to the game. Not even a month after this release, Paradox had already announced Galactic Paragons, a richer and considerably more extensive expansion for the game, which aspires to, among other things, radically enrich the gameplay mechanics regarding galactic Leaders.
The radical change in the way Leaders operate after the Expansion is installed can be compared in terms of gameplay impact to the original addition of Traditions back in 2017. Leaders cease to be just a named portrait with fixed stats, gaining XP and the occasional new trait through random encounters. Now at each level up we can choose which trait we want to acquire from a random list (either a new trait or level up an existing one to give greater bonuses), and the traits themselves have subcategories of "rarity" depending on how many bonuses they provide. Needless to say, hundreds of new traits have been introduced with the expansion to serve this mechanism.
An important and fundamental addition is the introduction of the Council, which, it is worth noting, is among the free additions of the accompanying 3.8.1 "Gemini" patch. We can place from 3 to 6 Leaders of our state in it (the 3 extra slots are unlocked as the game progresses), whose special Council traits confer powerful benefits to our entire empire. Along with this feature comes the introduction of unique Paragons, who have a small percentage chance of appearing and offering their services to our state (think of it almost like the Great People appearance in Civilization VI) bringing even more powerful bonuses. Most of these unique Leaders also have their own personal storyline, which is sometimes accompanied by special events.
For the purposes of this review I played an empire with the new Empire Origin, called "Under One Rule." In this context, a great leader has united the peoples of our planetary capital and is now leading them towards their grand astral destiny. There are several special events associated with this Origin, which mainly concern the style of governance we want to implement - authoritarian or democratic. By OBVIOUSLY following the first path, I was led during my playthrough to the grand conclusion of my leader's story, where I more or less had the option to place the revered statesman on a... Warhammer-like Golden Throne apparatus in order to continue ruling as an immortal, eternal emperor!
In addition to the Council mentioned above, the free update introduces a host of new features, such as further modifications to the automatic exploration of science vessels, the ability to further customize the appearance of our leader during Empire Creation (very important), many changes to the Ground Combat and Planetary Bombardment gameplay, and two Cooperative Multiplayer modes, Co-op PvE and PvP. For a detailed presentation of the new features, I refer you to the patch notes of the expansion and the accompanying free update.
If the lukewarm release of the recent Story Pack brought on a slight sense of disappointment, Galactic Paragons was for me an injection of excitement for Stellaris. Any notable flaws, such as the expected technical hurdles (which have been practically eliminated with patches in the time since the initial release), or the rather unjustifiably punitive and restrictive Leader Cap (we can have 8 to 10 Leaders in play at any given time, with harsh penalties applied if we exceed this limit), were not able to prevent me from fully enjoying the expansion from start to finish in the 30+ hours I've put into it so far. The new Leaders framework and the optimizations it introduces were exactly what was needed to give old and new players an incentive to explore more aspects of Stellaris, with the changes introduced by the expansion making me literally feel like I was playing a completely new game for the first time.