Is The Last Starship hard because it’s a complex early access sim, or because I’m bad?

A starship in The Last Starship making a FTL jump, the screen going all blue and purple

Introversion Software are, we can infer, at home in simulation games by now, what with their most famous game Prison Architect having a bajillion DLCs that, at this point, can add zombies, rehabilitation, or the jungle to your prison. Their new one is called The Last Starship, a layered spaceship simulator that’s less friendly than their prison. I am not sure if it’s because the early access is still largely without any tutorial markers, or because I am very bad at the game.

As article titles go, I’ve burdened myself with a real “lol-jesters will piss themselves in the Twitter replies without reading the article” masterpiece, here, but it’s true! I like sim games, but as I have spoken about before, once their learning curve hits a certain gradient it may as well be a brick wall. In the Last Starship’s case, I’m not sure there even is a learning curve, or a wall. It’s more like a three story house I have to put together myself, and I can see all the tools are there, but I could do with a few more “this end away from body” indicators to stop me nailgunning myself in the gut.

On paper, and sort of in practice, I like it. It’s 2D, and has a low fi feel, with detail in the default top down view but overlays for different things being pixely, or a bit wireframe. You can opt to build your own ship, or select from some presets varying in size and, therefore, difficulty. Everything on your ship needs power, hooked up to a reactor that becomes the beating heart, and is itself fed by a fuel pump. Pipes and wires form the veins underneath the surface, connecting your engines, FTL drive, thrusters, and any anything else you might need – including, crucially, air vents that pump oxygen into each room, making the spaceship habitable for your little crew. All these must be fed with fuel cannisters, oxygen, FTL batteries for jumps. Your little crew needs rations, too. You can buy everything from systems with ports in them, but they are costly.

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That’s The Last Starship, basically: building a bigger, better ship that’s more self-sufficient but costs more and more to maintain. (There’s also a gradually expanding black hole-ish anomaly swallowing everything up, but I was too focused on figuring out how to move and install things to pay much attention to it.) I don’t believe this game is a story generator in the sense that all the crew have simulated personalities and needs; rather, the ship itself is the living thing. It is the story that you build and take with you and care for like a ficus plant, or a collicky baby. Often you will be orbiting a planet, and can zoom out to see how tiny your ship is next to it.

This is a PR screen of an FTL jump. The title there indicates a) a story and b) Trek references

As a new-minted space pioneer I chose the basic preset, a small science vessel to pootle about in and learn the ropes. I swiftly completed what, so far, has been the only tutorialising in the game, which was a couple of outlines to show where to put the reactor and fuel pump, and orders to build engines and test them out. After that I found myself alone, paging through different screens and trying to find any rope in the first place. Doing an FTL jump, which is the coolest looking thing in the game, is a four step process that took me far too long to figure out, and it’s one of the first things you have to do.

There’s a feed of new missions you can take on – which differ depending on the sector you’re in, and are most plentiful if you’re by a colony – the easiest of which are deliveries. A shuttle attaches automatically and dumps the cargo on board – at which point you have to search the menu for the way you apply different designations to areas of your deck, so your crew knows where to put goods delivered. I tried rescuing some civillians who were on a ship that was about to explode, a mission which required me to buy a thruster to maneuver my ship better. I can see the ghost of some breadcrumbs here, leading you towards ship improvements.

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Overconfident from successfully delivering something, I arrived with a clear four minutes before the engine went sky high, but spent it trying to figure out how to dock with the damaged ship. An indicator told me the angle and distance from the docking bay (I think??) but it was upside down on the screen because of the orientation of the ships, and I panicked when I change the camera. But it didn’t matter because the damaged ship exploded. The log was left on my mission feed reading ‘0 seconds until engine explodes’, a record of my incompetence and shame. Imagine being one of the people on that ship, thinking you’re about to be rescued, and then watching the clock tick down as the prick tries to do a three point turn.

My pitiful ship in The Last Starship, having failed to dock with a now-exploded ship and save the civilians
Sorry lads, I only got my license last week

I don’t think The Last Starship is bad, but I do want to restart it almost constantly, with every instance that I manage to scrabble up a new crumb, a new mote of understanding on how to, eg turn the fucking ship. I only just noticed my ship has a ladder, which implies a second floor. How do I see it? I don’t know. I’m not sure if I can draw walls, but at this stage I don’t even want to, because more rooms would require more air vents. My crew have all left their spacesuits where they took them off. Maybe I can designate an area for them to be stored?

I do not know. And the thing is, I don’t feel a drive to find out. I feel tired. Every time I fuck something up in The Last Starship, and am called upon to pick myself up and try again, I just think “why?”. Currently the time it takes to learn things is not worth the increase in knowledge you get from it, because you have to learn even the tiniest things. It would be easier to die screaming, alone, oxygen-starved in space, and , famously, it wouldn’t even disturb anyone.

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I know that this is entirely not the point of the game, and that, in the Dwarf Fortress tradition, one should embrace failure. Some people reading this will probably have reacted like a cartoon wolf seeing a hot lady, tongues lolling, pupils heart-shaped. Part of my anhedonia in this regard is self-manufactured, but I’m not a lab rat player who needs a pellet every time I press a button, either. But The Last Starship obviously has a lot of buttons to press, and it would be nice to know where some of them are, and what their intended use is, even if it isn’t pellet delivery. And, indeed, it looks like at some point The Last Starship will have missions – even a story!

Right now you can have lots of other stuff, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me how they work, I’d have to draw up my will on a napkin. You can have a fleet of ships. You can process resources yourself instead of buying them. And there’s combat. But all that’s way out over my skis.