Back in 2017 the 2-man start up studio Runner Duck surprised and delighted the indie world with their detailed, cute, yet challenging strategy game Bomber Crew. Built to provide a very different type of experience to others in the genre, it was heavy on time and resource management with an X-COM style character persistence. Space Crew is the follow up, and using the strategy focused WWII adventures success as a basis, the team have taken clear inspiration from Star Trek and decided that if gamers liked directing the minutiae of a flying fortress, they would probably love taking command of a starship. They aren’t wrong. Is this a re-skinned version of the previous title, or a full new game in its own right? It’s time to boldly go and find out… and with the promise to not use too many sci-fi TV show clichés.
Things aren’t going well for Earth. The human race has found out that they’re not alone in the universe, and that the race of Phasmids is intent on wiping them from existence for unspecified reasons. The United Defence Force has pulled together a ragtag bunch of wannabe heroes from what’s left of mankind’s best and given them a ship that’s pretty much an engine wrapped in insulating foam and tin foil to head out into the unknown. Their mission? Whatever the UDF says it is, which is guaranteed to involve being shot at, boarded and potentially lost to the void if they don’t watch their footing. Survive and the rewards are great, and the upgrades greater. Fail and it’s a long time to spend floating in an escape pod towards the Sun. Welcome to Space Crew recruits.
Getting started really does feel like you’re being thrown in at the deep end during desperate times. You’re controlling a team of six who man the ship, each with specialisations like Captain, Comms Officer and Engineer, but they all have a lot to learn. Co-ordinating them by jumping from one to another to another and giving commands is the core gameplay loop – they are flying the vessel, you’re there to guide their actions. Only the Captain can launch, only the Engineer can set the power levels, only the Security Officer can enable cloaking, and so on. They’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to make everything work, though at least they’re all able to man the guns. With four hardpoints around the ship these are where a lot of the action takes place, and in just about every scenario there’s going to be a steady stream of fire heading to the enemy… and coming back from them.
Whilst each member of the Space Crew has a function, they’re not completely restricted to that role, and things like repairs and fighting off Phasmid invaders can be done by anyone. Typically though you’ll need the pilot to stay put if you want to keep the ship moving. In combat it’s crucial to avoid enemy fire, or at least stop it from depleting the shields and getting to the hull, and this will need juggling alongside monitoring and commanding the others. Spotting targets is manual and missing those means no retaliatory fire; not noticing the shield generator has taken a beating will mean no defence; and if the engines are blown out they’ll need someone to don a suit and head outside. If the challenge is particularly great there’s always the option to abort or use the escape pods (when they’re installed) because salvaging something is better than starting from scratch.
Successful missions bring cash and research rewards as well as levelling up the abilities of the astronauts, which is very useful because a more experienced crew brings extra abilities like focused fire, fighter support, improved evasive flying and a whole host of others. Equally, the ship can be upgraded with better armaments, stronger shields and more effective power units so eventually it feels like being properly prepared for battle rather than just winging it. The risk is higher though. With improvements all round the missions get harder and taking on something you’re not prepared for can result in the loss of a single crewmate, several crewmates, or everything including the ship. Prudence is part of the tactical decision toolkit and when there’s a decent number of victories under the belt it’s easy to get cocky… and end up having to retrain and repurchase it all from scratch.
Compounding the attachment to the digital characters is the ability to rename each one, customise their looks and give the Space Crew some character. Invest the time in replicating your friends/family/pets/the Codec Moments team and there’s another layer added to the game, one that’s purely in your head. You don’t actually want them to die. Most missions involve using hyperspace to close the distance to the target, deal with a Phasmid encounter, warp to the next point, fight, and on it goes. There are usually a couple of route options – Safest or Fastest. One will be more stops with more battles, but lower intensity; the other will be much quicker yet involve an almighty scrap. As experience was gained I found myself being more cautious to preserve the team and hold onto the cruiser I was now commanding. Playing it safe came as much from wanting to complete the level as it did from wanting to keep everyone alive. It’s a strange feeling to describe, but definitely not as odd as the pang of regret felt when an astronaut dies in the line of duty because you didn’t act with haste.
Graphically it’s a blend of pixel art and 3D models with a bit of top down perspective thrown in, and it works well regardless of whether you’re zoomed into the bridge or pulled out to admire the star systems as you get pummelled. The cartoonish exterior hides the difficulty and you’ll really need to be on it to be successful. The team of six isn’t really enough to work a ship that could do with ten – there’s always at least one compromise to make. When secondary training options open up and characters get the ability to cover another role it makes things a bit more flexible, but it didn’t stop me from wishing for an extra person when it started getting really hairy. It does make getting home safely a thrill, especially if the scorched and battered vessel limps into the station hanger with half the systems failing, yet a full complement onboard. You’ve survived to hear their chirping digitised voices another day.
Space Crew is a fantastic strategy game that’s absolutely nailed the setting, the balance, the love of the influences, the humour, and (as much as it can be hard) the difficulty. With a reasonable amount of overall scenario variance, especially when you leave the Solar System, it stays interesting and compelling despite being the same setup in combat between each jump point being repeated. The motivation is the team themselves and continually developing them alongside the ship, and getting them home safely becomes the priority above scanning some debris or rescuing a scientist. There are a few niggles like the targeting locks leaving too high a margin for error, and continual boarding parties in some missions, but that’s just part and parcel of the chances taken each time you launch. The only way to keep them all alive is to not leave the hanger, but that won’t do the human race any good, will it?