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Shortest Trip to Earth

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Developer: Interactive Fate
Release Date: Aug. 15, 2019

About Jared Hall

Jared started playing computer games in the '80s on a Commodore 64, moving over to PC gaming in the era of Wolf3D and Doom. Favorites include Dark Souls, Mass Effect and Civilization.


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PC Review - 'Shortest Trip to Earth'

by Jared Hall on Jan. 16, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Shortest Trip to Earth is a roguelike spaceship simulator featuring exploration, ship management, game-influencing decision-making and real-time tactical battles.

After almost a year in Early Access, Shortest Trip to Earth, developed by Interactive Fate and published by Iceberg Interactive, was finally released in August 2019. The core of the game is iterative of a 2012 hit, FTL, in that it's a self-described roguelike in space. This spaceship variation of the roguelike is fairly new and unexplored, leaving the developers lots of room to experiment with mechanics, features, and game flow.

The essence of the game is being a starship captain. The player is literally captaining the ship and crew remotely from the comfort of their computer chair, sharing in all of the crew's successes but fortunately not sharing in their many, many, tragic endings. This includes managing destinations, resources, ship upgrades, and even down to the level of crew assignments. Really, you're less of a captain and more of a manager.

Each game begins with selecting a ship and starting sector, both of which continue to unlock with your in-game accomplishments. As this is a fairly difficult roguelike, you will probably restart many times. The game begins by politely informing you of how difficult it is, how much you will die, and that final success is not guaranteed with all ships (read: the starting ship is terrible). Ships vary in starting modules, number and types of module slots, overall hit points, and starting crew, to name a few. Once your ship and starting sector are selected, you get to allocate your fate points.

Fate points are given to you based on how successful your previous attempt was and which zone you begin in; later zones give you more fate. I initially thought they would accumulate consistently, giving you a steady progression as you repeated attempts, but alas, one remarkably unlucky run after which I began with a paltry three points (down from 60ish) showed me that fate's favor is fleeting, even in point form. If you hope for a Rogue Legacy-type mechanic that sees you getting progressively stronger as you accumulate fate points, you will be disappointed.

There is some permanent progression in the form of perks and the previously mentioned ship unlocks, which seem to grow more powerful with each successive unlock. The perks that you unlock by performing various achievements are what you spend your fate points on. In one sense, perk unlocks are permanent progression, but they require that you have sufficient fate to activate them for the next run, and as I've said, fate is a fickle mistress. Overall, you're just as likely to end up feeling like you've regressed rather than progressed. I'll leave it to the reader's personal preference to determine if that's satisfactory.

Fate perks are similar to the differences between starting ships. Examples include additional crew, extra resources, fancy modules, or some static perks, like evasion or extra hit points. This can be frustrating, as they don't tell you by this point which modules are on the ship you're using. If this is a ship you are unfamiliar with, you're stuck with making uninformed choices, such as being able to choose a medical bay without knowing if your ship already has one. I didn't unlock nearly all the perks, but it appeared there were over 100.

Choosing 10, 20, or 30 perks from such a long list was really overwhelming, more so when you aren't given the proper information to formulate a coherent decision. Overchoice is a well-documented psychological phenomenon in which a person experiences increased choice satisfaction as options initially expand, but this effect quickly reaches a peak. After the peak, adding more choices leads people to feel more pressure, confusion, and often decreased satisfaction with choices. There are simply too many ways to choose wrong. I feel that some structure (perk tree, for example) could've improved this process; choosing options from a long list is rarely ideal gameplay.

Once your initial setup is decided, you get to do your initial setup. Did I mention that Shortest Trip to Earth is management heavy? Now you look at your ship and try to identify all the modules on it. There's no clear indication of what is what, and two different power reactors can look completely different from one another. FTL had clear symbols denoting which room had which systems, a mechanic sadly not implemented here. Once you have a handle on your ship, you assign the crew jobs. The developers were kind enough to allow you to save two preset configurations for crew and power assignments. The most obvious choices are the combat and non-combat configurations.

This is another somewhat overwhelming task. I hadn't reached the largest ships yet but was already managing up to 20 crew members, and looking through all of their stats meant going through a pretty monster spreadsheet. Each crewman has biology, bridge, combat, firefighting, food consumption, gunnery, movement speed, repairs, science, sensors, shields, and warp drives. Trying to determine an ideal configuration for both travel and combat is like sudoku. This is a long start-up process, which might be fine for games with a longer expected playtime, but you could go out and die in the first 20 minutes, requiring you to set up everything all over again. Dying exacerbates this micromanagement, and every time you get additional crew (or a crew member dies) or certain modules require assignments, you'll re-do the crew assignments.

It's not all bad. The developers have added a ton of stuff from FTL. There's a plethora of resources to manage, which are all consumed in different ways. Food is consumed as you travel around the star map. Each crew member consumes a certain amount of food per distance traveled, depending on their race (some of those guys can really eat!). You can prevent them from eating by placing them in cryo-sleep for your non-combat configuration, assuming you have one of the many varieties of cryo-sleep pods. You could also have garden modules to grow food, science bays to do research and make money, various types of resource converters to combine items to create explosives, and sensors to increase your sight range.

This leads me to one of the major additions between this and FTL: the solar system view. In FTL, when you jumped to a new system, an event happened, or didn't, and that was it; you'd jump to the next system. In Shortest Trip to Earth, each system you jump to is a solar system that you can fly around (and waste fuel) in. A solar system could contain anomalies, hostiles, planets, space stations, traders, or all of the above. Sight range (from sensors) comes into play in detecting anomalies and identifying planets and ships. Anomalies are often invisible until they come into your sight radius; planets and stations show up but are lacking details. The solar system can also contain asteroid fields that you can fly through at the risk of colliding with one or more asteroids. Various types of weaponry can protect you from asteroids, saving you the extra fuel cost of being safe and flying around them.

I thought the addition of the solar system view was interesting but visually unappealing. It has none of the character and charm of the ship view. Planets are black circles, and your ship is a green triangle, so it's almost like an old DOS game. I'm also not sure it adds any meaningful changes from the player's perspective. There are some minor decisions regarding fuel consumption, so do I avoid asteroids? Do I explore for anomalies? I think there was some potential with this screen that never materialized.

Most of the exploration is handled by pop-ups and dialogue trees, much like FTL. Based on the text, you need to gauge risk and decide to explore or leave. Occasionally, environmental concerns come into play, so you can exploit a planet while respecting ecosystems or simply leave a wasteland behind you. These all play like a slot machine; you're rarely given meaningful information to make a choice, so you mostly have to hope that you get lucky. 

As you explore, you will land yourself in hot water and need to fight some bad guys. Combat brings you back to the ship view, while you and your opponent(s) trade blows. Occasionally, components are damaged and need repair, or parts of the ship catch on fire, both of which require the crew to respond and prevent the situation from spiraling out of control, so some on-the-fly reassignments are often required during combat. When you aim your weapons, the game displays an area indicating the potential variance in your aim. This seemed to be a cool decision, but the variance is so big that it usually covers the entire enemy ship, so you can't aim at particular components without increasing the chance of a total miss. To aim at a gun on the port edge of the enemy ship meant a huge chunk of your potential hit area was in open space.

To help you succeed in combat, there are a number of options for crafting and improving the module slots on your ship. Slots can be upgraded to contain a wider variety of modules (or more guns), and DIY modules can be crafted on the fly. At any given time in the ship view, the UI will politely inform you that 46 items are available to craft, and they all cost a tidy sum of resources.

Shortest Trip to Earth features some nice electronic music, and while I wished the in-combat music was less ambient and of a higher tempo, it was enjoyable. The sound leaves something to be desired. Most of the laser guns and projectiles barely make any sound at all, so everything is subdued and sounds far away. No booming cannons and ZZRRAKKKing laser beams here.

All in all, I think that Shortest Trip to Earth has a niche appeal. It's extremely detailed and management-heavy, so if that sounds good, you may enjoy it. There are tons of modules to experiment with, a variety of resources to trade and manage, so many crew members with different skills, and what seems to be a longer campaign than FTL featured. They have certainly added a lot of stuff to the basic format, but it feels rather unpolished. Too much of what was added feels like busy work instead of interesting decisions, or it creates so many choices that the game can slow to a crawl as you sort through the options. The game begs for better ways to manage the management and display options to the player. There are also a few bugs that don't break the game but are inconvenient; they're mostly pathing related and slow the pace even further. Unless you've already played FTL to smithereens and are craving something else, I would recommend FTL instead.

Score: 6.9/10

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