If you've been looking to scratch an itch that started with the release of FTL: Faster Than Light back in 2012 then you'll likely have dipped a toe into a few pretenders in the meantime. While many have aped Subset's formula with top-down ship-to-ship combat and galactic exploration, nothing has bettered the perfectly-formed roguelike space crawler. With Shortest Trip to Earth, however, we've got a game that can genuinely claim to have the potential to not only elaborate on the foundations laid down by FTL, but which might actually have the chops to better it.
It's not there yet, but after spending a few hours with the recently released Early Access build of the game we have to say that we're very intrigued, even if we're not entirely convinced by the way that it has been balanced at launch. Cutting a long story short: this is a deep and engaging sci-fi adventure, but it's also a tough cookie to crack.
Much of the complexity found in Shortest Trip to Earth stems from the many layers of systems that are working together. There's an almost dizzying amount of fine detail to get your head around at first, with a number of resources to take into consideration, complicated ships with variously-skilled crewmembers to oversee, and an expansive play space to explore in each sector. It's big and bold and a bit unbalanced, but yet we still had loads of fun.
STtE starts you off a long way from home, tasked with returning after a faulty warp drive drops you off in the middle of nowhere. The journey home involves making your way through 10 uncharted sectors, and overcoming the challenges that you find in each one in order to reach a warp gate that in turn sends you to the next. Rinse and repeat.
Sectors are filled with systems linked together by pre-defined routes, but here we're not just jumping in and out of each one, and every time you get to a new area you need to explore the various locations orbiting the local star. Gas giants offer a chance to refuel, asteroids present the opportunity to mine some helpful resources, and planets can yield up story-driven scenarios that you can interact with in a fairly superficial way. That said, while none of these activities are particularly involving on their own, they do come with potentially far-reaching consequences, and one wrong decision can end up proving disastrous in the long run.
The top-down view of FTL is present once again, but this is just one of several different screens you need to interact with and there's much more going on. Even if you just boil it down to resource management and crew direction, there are significantly more systems at play here than there are in the game that inspired it. You'll be sending your little minions around the ship, manning gun turrets and workstations, and all the while trying to keep on top of any situation that should arise. You have several crewmembers to organise, each with skills that need to be utilised carefully, but they perform best with constant supervision. Most of the time you're just gathering basic resources, but occasionally another ship will turn up and it's then that you need to be really switched on.
Bribery is often the easiest way of getting out of a violent encounter, but you can only pay your way out of trouble so many times before the old coffers run dry and you're forced into combat. It's here that STtE differs most from FTL because while (especially early on) Subset's game can be a walk in the park, the ship-to-ship combat in Interactive Fate's take on the genre feels much more like a slogging match. We found even the earliest exchanges of fire to be costly in terms of our momentum, and regularly limped out combat encounters in a state that was hard to recover from. There were times that we didn't even survive our opening battles.
Luckily, once you've made it to the second sector (there are five available of the ten that will feature in the game when it's complete) you can use that as your starting point next time. It's hard to imagine building up the strength needed to push through all of the sectors in one sitting, but at least you can bank your progress when you hit the milestone of unlocking the next area. That makes the whole thing more manageable, and that stumble over the proverbial finishing line in each sector gives you a clear goal to work towards with every pass.
One area where Shortest Trip to Earth seems to excel is in the variety it offers, and there a bunch of options available to would-be ship captains. Before your journey starts in earnest you can choose a number of additions for your ship, augmenting your crew with bots, secondary systems and general improvements, as well as grabbing additional resources to help you in a pinch. There are multiple ships to choose from, and each one has specific items, further differentiating each run. The crews have short bios that offer up an interesting perspective on them, and you can even have a pet onboard. If you take the time to get to know your characters, it certainly aids with the role-playing element and helps bring out the flavour.
Having recently sat down once again with FTL we were reminded just how good the writing in that game is. There's a similar level of ambition going on here, but STtE isn't quite there yet and there's still some polish that needs to be applied to the choose your own adventure half of the equation. There does, however, seem to be a lot of variety for players to discover in terms of the in-game events, and if Interactive Fate can tidy up the narrative aspect just a touch before the game is considered complete, it'll have a detailed and engaging adventure on its hands.
Sci-fi fans have plenty to look forward to when it comes to Shortest Trip to Earth, but there's still much to be done if it's going to deliver on its undoubted promise. What's already in place is a sprawling, intriguing, slightly messy space adventure, but more needs adding and what's there needs extra polish. In terms of getting the feedback required to take the next step, Early Access feels like exactly the right place for it, and the volume of content that's already there means that early adopters will have plenty to engage with while Interactive Fate tightens up the gameplay and smoothes out the rough edges.
And so, despite a couple of minor niggles, we came away very pleased with the direction the game is heading in. Even after all these years we still dip into FTL from time to time, and so we're definitely among those who have been waiting for a game to come along and do that thing but bigger and better, and with Shortest Trip to Earth we're inclined to think that we've found it. We certainly look forward to finding out for sure in the months ahead.