Reviewed for the Xbox One.
A million years ago (okay, eight years ago), FTL hit the indie gaming scene, making quite a cosmic splash. The gameplay of holding a bucket of bolts together and assigning crew to specific stations while racing across the galaxy hit home with fans. Fans of just about every space thing ever, in fact. And the rest was history. Space Crew, the new game from Runner Duck Games, has a lot of wonderful things in common with FTL. Plus a few new tricks. But also, a couple of frustrating hiccups that might cause some players to jump head first into Jefferies tube.
Stardust in their eyes.
Visually, Space Crew is scrumptious, cozy, and legally distinct enough from Star Trek to avoid litigation. The whole enterprise could be warmly described as Chibi Trek. Characters have expressive eyes, big heads, and tiny bodies. And the adorable pixel art uniforms and accessories are icing on the cake. Naturally, these characters are ready-made for Funko Pops should anyone come asking.
Aesthetic customization options abound Space Crew. Uniform options, spaceship colors, decals, paint jobs, faces, eyes, hairstyles, and smiles. There’s an intention here to make your space crew… yours.
Practical upgrades are rendered on your characters, and in your ship, too – a nice touch for sure. As you invest in your ship and crew, their appearance reflects your progress and success. My current crew features O2 masks for low-oxygen breathing. There’s also boots and gloves to combat radiation and weapon damage, and frankly the whole gang looks freakin’ adorable.
Open The Shuttle Bay Doors, Hal
Wait, what’s a cute game like Space Crew doing dealing with things like low oxygen and radiation sickness? Turns out it’s whatever the opposite of a paper tiger is. Space Crew is a tough-as-nails, pants-on-fire, ship-on-fire combat simulator. It will surely delight and frustrate a heck of a lot of players.
It goes like this: Your ship has six crew members each assigned a given task. The engineer manipulates energy distribution to critical systems. Security chief can open airlocks and provide shield boosts in-a-pinch. Weapons folks fire the guns. Communications operators scan things and call for reinforcements. The Captain – make sure to name after your domestic partner for bonus points – handles navigation, tactics, and evasive maneuvers with ease.
…Much like your domestic partner.
Thus, the challenge is in managing this crew during combat. You have two empty turrets, shields, power, and core-reactor integrity to worry about, all-the-while being pelted with fire from the game’s alien menace. Your shields will go down, your shit will catch on fire. You will need to consider blowing your engineer out the cargo hold to stop a critical melt-down.
If your favorite bits of Star Trek are battles, or your favorite Space thing is Firefly, you’ll feel at home with Space Crew. Systems blow apart, everything goes wrong, and you’re suddenly running your communications officer over to grab a phaser. Why? Because everyone else is too damn busy keeping the ship online to actually fight the boarding aliens.
It is riveting, very hard and thankfully the unique control scheme on the Xbox is up to the task. Space Crew is in real-time after all, and while you have the option to slow things down for a limited time, the reality is you’ll be directing your crew to handle any number of crises at a given moment. And once you get a hold of the unique control scheme, after about three missions, you’ll never feel like the game confuses you scheme wise.
In Space, No One can Hear You Rage Quit
This game will eat your lunch and spit it back in your stupid cosmic face. But I don’t want you to think its because the game is sloppy in the interface department. It’s not, it’s just mean. I’ve lost three ships, save-scummed by force-quitting quite a bit, and I haven’t even unlocked the ability to research new materials and items yet.
As I eluded to in my Ride 4 review, perhaps the hiccup is in progression. A typical mission involves completing hyper-jumps to new locations and fighting all the enemies there. Sprinkle-in completing an objective or two before returning home to fight additional enemies. Often you’ll be pushed past your comfort zone before you arrive at your destination, only to know you’re doomed on the return trip due to dead crew members, busted systems, or underwhelming firepower. Then you explode and need to replay old missions just to get back to where you started.
On the subject of that firepower, the economy of the game also feels a bit… funky. In particular you can’t keep purchased upgrades, meaning if you switch to a different weapon and don’t like it, you need to re-buy the old weapon back. This is a problem as depending on your funds, you may now be forced to take on a mission or two with a weapon that does not “cut the combat cheese.” Essentially, you find yourself in undue peril for the simple crime or wanting to try something new.
Final (Frontier) Thoughts
There’s something to be said about mimicking the aesthetic of Star Trek and not really getting it. There is zero diplomacy in Space Crew. Every mission features multiple battles against the bad guys. And while fun, the ability to talk one’s way out of a situation could have gone a long way in making the white-knuckle battle experiences feel a little more special.
But that’s the game I want, not the game I got. The game I got is pretty fun, although it is flawed for sure. Spending hours customizing your crew only to have them die a mission later for reasons unknown is quite the “kick in the Uranus.”
Then again, it’s only 20 dollars and likely the closest most console players are going to get to FTL, seemingly for a long time. And for less than the price of a trip to the movies (remember those?), the moment-to-moment excitement of it all is well worth the asking price, space warts and all.