Review: Crying Suns
The great pitfall in building something inspired by something else is that you miss key elements that made the first inspiring. It’s happened time and time again in the gaming world, from the deluge of messy DOOM clones in the 90s to the desperate modern attempts to ape the success of Dark Souls. Crying Suns, being so clearly inspired by FTL, does not fully escape this pitfall, unfortunately. But it does manage to save itself, to a degree, by offering something that FTL does not. I’d say that something is enough to recommend this sci-fi odyssey despite its flaws, but your mileage is definitely going to vary.
On a barren, distant world at the edge of the galaxy, you awaken from a stasis chamber. You are Ellys Idaho, the greatest admiral the Empire has ever known…or, more precisely, you are a clone of him. The hyper-advanced AI Kaliban explains that something has gone wrong in the Empire, which is that all the other OMNIs like Kaliban have shut down. Without their AI administrators, the entire Empire collapsed into chaos, leaving systems at the mercy of scavengers, madmen, and fanatics. You and your Imperial battleship are perhaps the only hope of combatting the chaos, by uncovering what caused the OMNIs to go offline, and perhaps restoring them and the Empire to a semblance of their former glory.
I’m sure you can tell by now that this game wasn’t just inspired by FTL, but also by literary works like Dune and Foundation. The store page admits as much, as if it needs to after naming the main character “Idaho”. Nevertheless, this is the hook that Crying Suns offers over the likes of FTL: a story-driven adventure. FTL’s plot is simply an excuse to hang the gameplay upon, but Crying Suns has a fully-developed world and lore that is spun out to the player over many journeys into its dark reaches. You’ll learn about the ruling houses of the Empire, what life was like under the OMNIs, how different groups reacted to the fall, and of course, the nature of the mystery itself. It’s a compelling hook, and one that kept me going after the gameplay started to wear on me.
So yeah, we should probably talk about that. In Crying Suns, you command an advanced battleship as it makes its way across a string of star systems in search of answers. The game is broken into six chapters, each played separately and with you starting from scratch with a fresh battleship and crew. Chapters contain three sectors, and those sectors are a (familiar to fans of FTL) network of star systems to navigate while sector security catches up with you. Inside star systems are signals to investigate, which could be space stations, enemy ships, planetary expeditions, or random events. At the end of each sector is a boss, and the big story boss waits for you at the very end of the chapter.
Exploration is all done via menus and dialogue choices, offering you different responses to the situations you find yourself in. It’s a copy of FTL’s event system right down to the light-blue text denoting special options afforded by your crew. Still, the events all being more story-oriented and fleshing out the world makes them engaging, even when you fall for trap answers. You’ll earn (or lose) fuel and scrap from these, the former used to move your battleship around the map and the latter used as currency or upgrade materials. You can also find officers, who offer unique bonuses to your ship systems and lead teams on planetary expeditions, commandos for said expeditions and other personnel-based choices, and squadrons, which are essential to the game’s combat.
Combat is where Crying Suns lost me. Battles are between your battleship and another, with a hex grid laid out between the two. You have squadrons to deploy and weapons to fire, though the majority of the work is going to be done by those squadrons. Drones, fighters, and frigates form a rock-paper-scissors balance, and after navigating them to your enemy’s battleship, you can plink away at it until their hull is stripped and they drift back into the void. Squadrons have their own life bars, and when they’re depleted, they permanently become “Patched”, meaning their max health is halved. This one mechanic, coupled with how impossible it is to withdraw ships or protect them from enemy weapons, turns what could be a strategic battle mode into a mindless frenzy of spamming ships. Once your squadron is blown up the first time, and it WILL get blown up, it simply won’t have the staying power to make tactical retreats or maneuvering feasible. Very quickly, you’ll find battles degenerating into rushes to throw ships at the wall until you out-damage your opponent.
It would be easier to stomach if combat were more of a side element in the game, but everything revolves around it. This has a knock-on effect of spoiling the upgrade system, for example, because among all of your options, the only one that’s really important is expanding your squadron bays so you can field more ships at once. Weapons also end up being a disappointment because precious few affect the enemy battleship directly, meaning you have no options for disrupting enemy weapons or deployments, and far too many weapons have pointless gimmicks instead of practical uses. The lack of strategy in the battles means the only meaningful choices are made outside battle, but with so many options left to random chance, you often feel like you’re just going along with wherever Crying Suns wants to take you.
This may seem damning, and if you’re a big fan of tactical battles, it will be. I’m still willing to give Crying Suns the benefit of the doubt for its story, though, because even on Normal it’s not a very challenging game to get through. I’m sure you can have a good time setting this one to Easy and soaking up all the story events and fantastic atmosphere from the game’s graphics and sound design. It’s just a shame that it’s not the total package the way something like, well, FTL is. If you can put up with some poorly-designed combat, there’s an interesting adventure here, but you definitely need to come for the story at the expense of other elements.