There is a tendency to want too much out of a game. In a game that tries to innovate, we may burden it with all of our expectations to the point that it becomes impossible to wrest it from its bullet-pointed features, to get a working machine out of so many parts. Since FTL made such a huge impact some years ago, there has been a fair share of real-time with pause spacefaring adventure games that seek to put their own stamp on the general idea of taking a resource-hungry ship from A to B while it slowly falls apart. Shortest Trip to Earth serves as a good example of what can enhance such a genre, as well as the pitfalls certain design emphases can have.
Shortest Trip to Earth begins with ship selection, broadening as you unlock new ships by reaching new star clusters. Each ship has slots for modules that you can customise, a randomised crew, and a variety of perks you can unlock or purchase using fate points, a currency gathered from achieving things in prior runs. Each ship has its own specialities, although some are better suited toward actually winning the game than others, abstracted by a survivability value. We tended to pick the high-survivability models because we wanted to see how far we'd get, but the variation comes down to ship economy: how good it is as shooting things, slots for new modules, the income it makes, how many hit points it has, and the array of starting resource unlocks it allows, and the pool of random crew.
Each crewmember has skill ranks in different ship operations, and while the game assures you that it has already positioned crew in sensible places it is much more effective to decide for yourself where they go at the start. There are two presets of crew stations you can toggle between, usually one for battle and one for peacetime operation, if you haven't forgotten to. Ranks increase by one in a skill of your choice every new star cluster, and if you lose a crewmember it might be good to redistribute crew to cover gaps. Most ship operations work even if abandoned as long as the bridge is still operational, though at reduced effectiveness. You can select crewmembers using different categories to send them to board enemy ships, or to repair a single component, but you'll often be wrestling with them to do sensible things: they will repair what they want, but this may not be the best thing given the circumstances, so you'll have to guide them. They may fight boarders but you'll have to tell them where it's sensible to stand, they won't fight a fire right in front of them, or repair the broken machinery they're waiting to use unless told. And during repairs they compete with each other for resources, the first module completed winning the race, with the others' repair time being wasted when resources run out.
Combat is exciting, if often risky and a heavy drain on resources. Each weapon has a percentage hit change based on a potential hit radius you apply to a target with a click. You can aim for the centre of an enemy craft and have a very good chance to hit, but you'll not likely hit a module you want to take out, while aiming for a specific module may increase the chance to miss entirely. Rather than abstracted subsystems, ALL systems are apparent, meaning you can pick apart energy reserves, disable weapons, focus on taking out shields, pick off crew, tax their ability to repair, knock out the bridge or their ability to warp away. And the enemy is capable of the same thing. A big factor in the fight is "nukes", generally missiles with a heavy payload that can knock out shields, blast big holes in the hull, or disable systems. Like most ship systems in the game, with the right resources you can DIY primitive missiles mid-combat and hurl them at the enemy, hoping their point defences don't pick them off.
Modules are slotted into fixed points on your ship, and range from stealth detection, radar, defensive cannons, gardens for food, cryosleep capsules that reduce crew consumption, science stations that produce information (in a nice touch, information is the currency of the game), engines, shields, a bridge, and cargo containers, among others. Different module slots allow for different types of gear, limiting your ability to overload on weapons, and weapons probably have the most variety of the systems, which different abilities, resource costs, blast radius profiles, and other stats that allow you to balance or specialise. You can construct low-grade DIY versions of just about any module you need if you have enough materials and can purchase modules from traders or loot them after combat, and break them down if you're running out of space.
While navigating from star to star, you will encounter salvage opportunities, planets with strange life forms, traders, and hostile ships. Some of the best encounters are the strange planets, which each have an interesting mood, bolstered by the sound design. You'll often have choices to make, and often this involves whether to exploit the resources you see or leave them alone for more science, or whether to risk salvage that may result in damage or injured crew (or worse), but they each have a bit of character to them that is quite welcome. A few star clusters have different goals, but mostly you're merely expected to reach an endpoint stargate that will allow transport to the next star cluster. It's up to you to get there, and you can avoid encounters using jump points or flying straight from star to star, or you can try to collect everything you can. There are plenty of merchant stations that allow you to buy upgrades, but the costs are often dear for anything worthwhile. Combat, as fun as it is, is often devastating, but it's not always easy to avoid, and whole runs can be ruined through a misclick or failing to notice yet another red-coded hostile fleet approaching. Should you make it to the stargate, more often than not there will be an unavoidable boss fight.
It is the boss fights that will determine whether or not you will want to keep playing this game. While an early stargate encounter allows you to bribe your way past, most of them are uncompromising, and you'll probably need to die a few times (i.e. start over) to learn an adequate trick to defeat a given boss's gimmick. Assuming your ship isn't already a wreck by the time you reach a boss, armed with the knowledge of what sorts of attacks you can expect, you may be able to eke out a victory, convert all the junk you collect, and hopefully not be too worse off for the next star cluster, but success will heavily benefit from certain types of builds. For all the flexibility of the module system, the vagaries of random resource costs, unlucky rolls, costly combat, and the hundreds of small choices you make, you may hit a brick wall by the time you reach a stargate.
You will be able to spend the points you earned in your prior run to help bolster your next, including getting permanent unlocks and nice upgrades, though whether or not you're gearing up for an eventual stargate encounter you may settle upon favourites and not deviate too much from them. After several runs it lends to a feeling of trudging inevitability, hoping that the RNG is in your favour, and making a game with a feeling of freedom feel strangely constricted, more a puzzle with a chance of rolling a slow economic failure than a clear variety of ways to beat it. The game allows you to start a few steps ahead in the progression from cluster to cluster, but not past a certain point. More progress in a run will only unlock ships, not allow you to skip themed clusters that might feel tedious after a while. There are achievements in the game that celebrate dying repeatedly, but when you're torn between having a bit of fun trying something new but then dying, and doing the same thing over again to finally get to the next cluster only to die there and having nothing new to unlock, it feels rather masochistic.
Shortest Trip to Earth has plenty of exciting design choices to help you kit out some interesting ships. The spaceborne encounters and planet scenarios not only have a lot of colour and a bit of mystery, but they make each run feel a bit more lively and add to the character of your ship. Despite how scenarios narrow your choices you can, if you don't mind being sub-optimal, tackle challenges in a variety of ways. It's just that the cold hand of the game's over-arching structure, combined with nursing the ship's crew and suffering resource shortfalls, will make a lot of those choices feel less like a sandbox and more an optimisation puzzle that, even knowing the tricks, you can still fail at due to chance. Whether you will want to fly this ship comes down to how often you will tolerate losses, how those losses occur, and whether the journey to each of those losses was fun enough to justify being slapped down again, and again, and again.
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