Shortest Trip to Earth is a brutal spacefaring roguelike, whose challenge occasionally undermines the depth and quality of the overall experience.
Space is sometimes a fun place to be in video games. Whether it's the deep lore and sci-fi cultures of Mass Effect or the colorful cast of Nintendo's Star Fox, even within dangerous circumstances there's a semblance of a bright future with pockets of safety. This is not the case in Shortest Trip to Earth, which makes traversing the void of space into an extremely taxing experience.
Shortest Trip to Earth is a roguelike from developer Interactive Fate. Lost in space, the player is tasked with moving from sector to sector trying to find a way home. However, some of those trademarks of the subgenre make this a difficult task, with resource management and permadeath likely to end many a run of Shortest Trip to Earth in ruin.
There are some obvious similarities to be found with FTL: Faster Than Light. The sci-fi roguelike became a darling of the indie scene upon its release in 2012, with developer Subset going on to gain acclaim with follow-up Into the Breach last year. Shortest Trip to Earth looks very similar to FTL at a glance, but this new title has a scope that's a little bigger.
This extra range comes in a couple of ways. First, players will be struck by the way that travel is dealt with in Shortest Trip to Earth. Whereas FTL simply had the player hopping between fixed points, and sometimes partaking in fierce rounds of combat, Shortest Trip to Earth gives players a little bit of control within individual sectors, flying around within the vicinity of individual stars, finding resources and contacting the inhabitants of this unforgiving galaxy.
There's also the matter of the size of the vessels involved. FTL kept things small and relatively simplistic, with compact ships with smaller crews running them. In Shortest Trip to Earth, things are a little bigger, and with that comes the added challenge of maintaining a spaceship that is more complex to run.
An additional level of responsibility doesn't end there. Players are given an awful lot of control over their vessel, handling the minutiae of tasking crew members with combat and repairs through to inventory management. Resources are a priority here, as successful runs rely on scouring star systems for fuel and materials for repairs and weaponry. Exotic materials to share with alien species will also go a long way, so it's always worth considering taking time to look around - should players have the fuel to do so.
These different elements lead to the player in a balancing act of handling the overall management of the spaceship with the big picture tactics of where to go next. The blend of the micro and macro level of tactical play is an intoxicating one, but doing so successfully is easier said than done. That's because Shortest Trip to Earth is a pretty brutal game from a difficulty perspective.
This leads to an interesting quandary that players will have to think on. Is it better to be more subtle and forgo combat, gathering resources via other means? Or is it better to gamble on success in battle against unknown foes in order to earn more scrap and lead to extra adventures along the way?
All the best roguelikes play with this risk and reward strategy. After all, in games where permanent death is a serious factor there has to be that element of high stakes, and putting this choice in the player's hands always leads to more engaging play. Shortest Trip to Earth is no different, but here the gamble could feel a little unfair at times.
Playing it entirely safe is rarely the best option in games of this ilk, but given the time spent on an individual run that could be lost in an instant, some Shortest Trip to Earth players may wonder whether those risks are worth taking. This might be a shame, though, as it could lead players to miss out on some of the game's very interesting narrative elements here, such as its various factions to engage with. Because these are generally found through the player's own choices of where to go and what choices to make, those who keep their head down and stick to Shortest Trip to Earth purely from a mechanical perspective will miss out on a lot.
Some of this is definitely down to the difficulty of the game. Peers like Nowhere Prophet manage to balance the required difficulty of permanent death with giving players enough time and space to explore the game's world. Although Shortest Trip to Earth isn't as unique in tone as Nowhere Prophet, there's still a lot of work that's been put into its story that is worth discovering.
Shortest Trip to Earth is still a very fun roguelike, and those who are familiar with the subgenre will be very keen to jump right in. Newcomers might be better served going for a slightly easier game at first, but veterans of the likes of FTL will likely enjoy what Shortest Trip to Earth has to offer. Just be prepared for plenty of starting from scratch.
Shortest Trip to Earth releases August 15, 2019 for PC. Screen Rant received a PC download code for the purposes of this review.