Boldly going forward (because we can’t find reverse)
The year is 2159, and humanity’s very existence is threatened by an overwhelmingly powerful alien race called the Phasmids. To prevent total annihilation of our kind, a small but mighty team of intrepid spacefarers must complete dangerous yet necessary missions to assist those in need, fight off enemies, and above all, stay alive among the stars. Armed with only the bare minimum required to keep the crew alive, they go — over and over again — into the cold and desolate vastness of space, our species’ greatest hope with them.
Sounds epic, right? That’s Space Crew, the newest game from developer Runner Duck and publisher Curve Digital. Available on Steam, PS4, XBox One, and Switch for an introductory price of $15.99 (typically $19.99), this survival rogue-like has players travelling to far-flung places across the solar system in the blink of an eye, danger lurking at every turn. And while it sounds fun in premise, in practice, it’s kind of a bumpy ride.
The concept behind Space Crew is familiar, but the mechanics are pretty interesting. Instead of a macro-management style of ships in fleets like many space games, Space Crew entails a lot of micro-management on an individual level. Each crew consists of six members, such as a captain, a communications specialist, an engineer, and gunners, who will need to operate more than six stations on the ship. As the crew traverses the galaxy, any number of things can happen to the ship, including sudden fires, reactor meltdowns, oxygen tank failures, and even phasmids boarding to take out crew members. Space Crew asks players to juggle many different crises at once with not enough resources, so it’s up to you to meticulously manage each and every movement your crewmates make — humanity depends on their success.
Unfortunately, micro-managing your crew is a delicate, time-sensitive matter (what with the Phasmids boarding your ship while your reactor is melting down and all), and the Switch controls combined with varying levels of joycon drift make this a torturous experience. To sum up quickly, this would be better enjoyed with a mouse and keyboard. The control scheme had me constantly messing up that it’s any wonder I got as far as I did. I would consistently end up choosing the wrong crew member to perform a task or end up not choosing a task at all as I angrily watched my crewmates get butchered by aliens.
Speaking of aliens — the enemies, like many of the missions, felt incredibly repetitive. It was a kind of stop-and-go situation where I would be zooming off from one corner of the solar system to the next with small layovers in between that served no real purpose other than to subject me to alien encounters with little variety. For example, one mission required me to go from Earth all the way to the Kuiper Belt and back, but had me make several stops along the way to fight off enemy ships (who were all the same). Sure, I gained experience from the battles, but it became an annoying onslaught if I’m being honest. After my first five battles I had already defeated 78 enemies, which, for supposedly low-risk starter tasks, seemed excessive.
Battles in Space Crew are simultaneously interesting and highly redundant at the same time. Using ZL to lock in on enemy targets, the gunners will start shooting at alien ships automatically, so I’m not really sure if I need to keep my camera on enemy ships or place my focus elsewhere, such as putting out fires or fixing oxygen tanks. Shooting is automatic, so instead of constantly pulling or holding the trigger, you just keep the enemy ships in view while bullets fly. Sometimes this works beautifully; other times, the enemy ships will literally be right in front of you and your gunners — for reasons unknown — miss. I couldn’t figure out the sweet spot either, so combat felt like a passive slog instead of a riveting experience.
Despite all the hangups, Space Crew has a few moments where it shines. I thought the backdrop of our solar system instead of a galaxy far, far away was fantastic, as it’s oddly underused in space games. It’s also worth mentioning that said backdrop is gorgeous; I was repeatedly taken aback by the celestial bodies and their use of color and scale, their beauty completely captivating me. Additionally, the level of customization really is quite fun; from upgrading various aspects of your ship like guns and looks to kitting out your crew in uniforms and gear, Space Crew does provide players with a sense of authority over their ragtag team of heroic humans. Space Crew also feels very lively — peering into the Athena Base near Earth gives players a peek into life among the stars, and the writing and design overall gives off a friendly, almost childlike vibe. Not that this game is designed for children, though; no, this game is designed for pain.
As this title is meant to build upon what made its predecessor, Bomber Crew, great, it’s worth mentioning that Space Crew took much from the previous game (in fact, at first glance it even looks like a reskin), but there’s a lot of balancing and strategy missing. Instead of a more tactical approach to battles, Space Crew’s missions feel grindy and even boring. Gameplay is more about processes than action — move your camera to acquire target, wait up to a minute before your ship reaches the target, get attacked, move camera to focus on ships while your gunners miss a lot, press far too many buttons to fix your shields, press button to charge your engine, then press button to launch through terminal. Lather, rinse, repeat. I could only handle the monotony for so long before I had to disband this crew for good. Sorry, humanity.
When a game executes its mission properly and is bug-free, it feels bad to give it a low score — had I played this game on PC, I’m positive I wouldn’t have half the gripes I laid out in this review. And while I’m usually full of praise when it comes to games that bring a fresh set of mechanics to an often tired genre, there’s a caveat — the game still has to be fun. I’m sure Space Crew will be enjoyable for plenty of people out there, but I spent too much of my time either frustrated with complicated controls or bored by monotonous missions. Space Crew works, but not on the Switch. If you’re still interested in saving humanity from the Phasmids, give it a go on your PC instead.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PS4, XBox One, PC, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Curve Digital; Developer: Runner Duck; Players: 1; Released: October 15, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Space Crew provided by the publisher.