Back in 2012, FTL: Faster Than Light revolutionised the strategy roguelike genre. The game’s masterful combination of ship combat, planet exploration, crew management, and constant risk of death was a hit among gamers, with over 1.6 million copies sold on Steam alone. In the following years, other games have taken a crack at the formula, but none have quite got it right, with titles such as Renowned Explorers nailing the exploration but missing satisfying combat, and Convoy creating a vibrant world, but containing too much randomly-generated cruelty for its own good. Shortest Trip to Earth is perhaps the most ambitious take on the concept yet, layering copious amounts of resource management atop the interstellar exploration. In Early Access for a little under a year, Interactive Fate’s maiden voyage is a little clumsy to navigate, but rich with tough strategy and masterful storytelling.
Shortest Trip to Earth begins with the player’s ship stranded in a distant galaxy. A malfunctioning warp drive has flung the vessel far into unknown territory, with the crew’s only option for survival to freeze themselves and chart a course for the nearest star. Upon awakening, they find themselves luckily within 10 sectors of Earth, close to home but full of dangerous warzones, uncharted anomalies, and unpredictable nebulas in between. With barely any fuel or food left, the crew have no choice but to explore each sector along the way, risking the cosmic dangers.
Running the ship is a complicated task, with many variables to consider. Collecting fuel is of the utmost importance, as it is needed to cruise around solar systems and warp jump from star to star, but along the way the crew will also gather organics for food, metals for ship repairs, synthetics for crafting, explosives for weapons, and exotic materials for trading with other life forms. Each resource has multiple uses, but selling them is also the main method of gaining currency, creating a delicate balance between having enough supplies on hand to survive and enough money to buy sorely needed upgrades.
Supplies are found primarily by exploring planets, each of which plays out like a little choose-your-own-adventure story. These little interludes are the highlight of the game, with clever writing and some beautifully illustrated space beasts. Some encounters are straight-forward, like assessing the risk of harvesting metals from a volatile asteroid field, whereas others are more complex, like choosing which faction of a planetary war to side with, or whether or not to steal fancy medical technology from a primitive society that do not quite understand what they have. The quality of the writing adds weight to the choices made. The crew may desperately need the organics that hunting a warp whale would provide, but the gorgeous art and description of the mysterious creature makes doing so difficult. The game does not judge the player for immoral choices, although the crew might grumble a bit. Making the selfless choice, however, does not go unrewarded, with the gift of a Fate Point. These points are spent at the start of a new run, allowing the player to begin with more resources, extra crew members, or a sturdier ship.
The design of each ship is modular, with weapons, shield generators, storage tanks, medical bays, and warp drives all placed within square sockets. Modules can be swapped out for new ones, which can be bought at shops or found when defeating an enemy. Different ships are unlocked as the player progresses through the sectors, each one having a focus on a different type of resource. The biomechanical ship is very efficient with ammunition, but needs a great deal of organics to operate. The enormous freighter starts with all the modules one could ever need, but only a handful of crew. The game offers a ship for every play style, and unlocking the new ones is a great motivator to keep going after a failed run.
As a roguelike , the player should expect to die a lot in Shortest Trip to Earth. The Fate Points help out, but the journey is lengthy and difficult every time, with Sector Three the latest starting point one can choose. Being able to select the later sectors once they were unlocked, even if only on the easier mode, would have been appreciated, as Sector Three’s metal collecting quest gets repetitive after a while. Each sector is roughly an hour of gameplay, too, so an option to see the later sections of the game without dedicating hours of playtime to get there would be nice.
Combat in Shortest Trip to Earth is brutal, but infrequent. While one might think the lack of enemy encounters would make the game easier, it actually does the opposite, since the player gets little practice and cannot tell if their ship is prepared for the end of sector boss battle. A vast array of weapons are available, from artillery cannons and lasers to nuclear warheads and bizarre alien technology. Each are suited better to different tasks, such as piercing shields or setting fires. The layouts of the enemy ships vary a lot, but most can be approached in the same manner: take down the enemy’s shields so their ship can be damaged and destroy their warp drive so they cannot escape. Unlike its FTL inspiration, where battles are almost always one-on-one, Shortest Trip to Earth will often have battles against two or three ships, which can quickly get chaotic. On the easier of the two modes, one can pause whenever they like, which helps with navigating the clumsy menus and parsing the enemy ship’s modules.
Adding to the difficulty of combat is the crew members, which are a pain to control. They can be assigned to different modules with a drop down menu, but they have no autonomy, happily typing away as a fire breaks out or intruders invade the ship. The game has no helpful unit-wrangling shortcuts, such as sending all injured units to the medbay, or switching between combat jobs and exploring ones. Each crew member can level up their abilities with different modules, but assigning the best person for each job is fiddly, with the easiest way to do so is to remove everyone from every job, and then reassign them all. This type of micromanaging is the worst, and misses part of what made FTL‘s combat so interesting. In that game, if the ship is invaded by the enemy the player has a couple different ways to approach the threat. They can go hand-to-hand, lure the enemy to fight in the medbay so the friendly units do not get injured, or try to trap the enemy unit in a room without oxygen. In Shortest Trip to Earth, all one can do is assign people to use their guns and hope for the best.
Shortest Trip to Earth adds complexity to the FTL formula with resource collection, but loses some finesse with a stiffer approach to combat. The user interface is clunky, but is more than made up for with beautiful art and appropriately strange and mysterious writing. Shortest Trip to Earth does not dethrone FTL as the king of space strategy roguelikes, but it is an enjoyable game in its own right, and the perfect option for those who have completed FTL and are craving more.
Reviewed on PC.