Runner Duck must be one of those Indie studios that delights in stressing out their player base. When they released Bomber Crew, the predecessor to Space Crew, they took their first steps to mastering the art of creating a game where you’re supposed to be in control but never quite are. Space Crew is no exception. Rubber Duck’s seemingly cutesy strategy game is a cleverly disguised lesson in the art of chaos (in the best possible manner).
After returning from one of my first missions, I actually felt quite accomplished. I had returned with the crew fully intact, and I had even dealt with that pesky fire that had broken out near my medical bay. We, the crew and I, surveyed a local asteroid field for alien activity (called “phasmids” here). We sought them out, destroyed them, and returned back to base to await our next orders. It took only two more missions before my state of blissful ignorance about the dangers of space was shattered. When I was attacked by a real threat, my entire crew was laid waste, and my ship’s reactor imploded in an intergalactic fireworks display.
Oddly enough, this is sort of what Space Crew does best. When I was completing my first few missions, I was rapidly growing bored. I thought I had figured the game out. For me, nothing can kill a potentially enjoyable game quite like an exceedingly easy difficulty curve. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for the crew of the inaptly named Asteroid Dodger, the game quickly got a lot harder. Among the random fires, rapidly deteriorating shields, and boarding enemy forces, the game seems to shine. The enjoyability is borne on the back of the chaos. I had no idea what I was doing, and I loved every second of it.
As you are being attacked by enemy forces, you have a myriad of choices to make. It becomes exceedingly difficult to make all the optimal moves. If you need to put a fire out, you may have to move one of your crew members from a vital position. By way of example, I deployed my engineer to fight back the alien crew that had breached the ship, and he was killed in action. This meant that I now had no crew to adequately repair my ship. If I had instead deployed my security officer or another crew member, my original ship may have survived the mission. In the heat of battle, these decisions are difficult to make. An underlying principle of Space Crew appears quite quickly: there is always a best candidate for each task and you have to choose accordingly. You also have to rapidly balance the internal and external problems assailing the ship. You may have to temporarily ignore a problem on board in order to tag the appropriate enemy ships.
After you complete a mission, you are rewarded both with credits and research points. Credits, unsurprisingly, are used to purchase upgrades. However, for most upgrades, you must acquire a certain amount of research points first to unlock the ability to purchase them. The equipment upgrades for the crew will primarily bolster the way they behave when confronted with threats onboard the ship, and the upgrades for the ship itself will bolster the way the ship maneuvers and deals with enemy threats. To this end, a surprising amount of customization arises out of these upgrades. You will again be confronted with choices. A defensive crew is not a fast crew. A ship that is only effective against shields will have problems dealing with unprotected enemies quickly. Apart from these upgrades, the ship is also massively customizable with aesthetic choices. You can pick the colour, the name of your ship, and decals to be applied to its hull.
While I quite enjoyed the ability to upgrade your ship, this is the aspect that primarily divides fans. The critics feel the game becomes a bit grindy. On this point, I have to agree. The reward amount from each mission is usually inadequate for a major upgrade, beyond perhaps the entry level upgrades. This equates to several hours spent in-game grinding for an upgrade on your ship or for your crew. When you account for the fact that your ship and crew can all be wiped out, the grinding begins to feel arduous. Granted, you never start from absolute zero again, but when you gain progress by grinding and that progress can be lost in a single encounter, it can be disheartening. Personally, the aspect of permadeath of your crew and spaceship is a positive to me as it ups the already high difficulty level, but the criticism is certainly valid.
It should almost go without saying, but monotony is not the death knell that some players believe it to be. For the right player, the grind and be rewarded aspect can be addicting. I can easily imagine players spending hours customizing their ships and crew to perfection. Space Crew is effective at exactly that aspect. You become attached to your ship and crew. You don’t want to see them destroyed. In order to truly enjoy Space Crew, you have to enjoy the challenge of getting your ship and crew through a very difficult game. If you’re looking for a relaxing time waster, this is not it. Space Crew is the type of game where you are rewarded for your investment. Put the time in, and you will become a better player. You will become more likely to make it through the game unscathed.
With that in mind, I would love to see Runner Duck keep up their end of the bargain. In order to maintain their loyal fanbase, they need to add content and add it quickly. The monotonous gameplay is enjoyable; the repetitive maps and missions are not. This isn’t to say the game is lacking depth. It’s not. But the type of player who will love this game, will pour hours and hours into it. Runner Duck needs to keep this type of player in mind. They will reach the point when most players will have grown bored and will want to push beyond it. There needs to be something there for them.
Let me take one step back. There is plenty of fun to be had for the casual gamer in Space Crew, but true enjoyment will come from fans of grinding and developing within the game. If you’re the type of person who loves to tinker and micromanage, pick the game up, you won’t be disappointed.