A Review of "Crying Suns"
Game: Crying Suns
Developer: Alt Shift
Publisher: Humble Games
Genre: Rogue-like tactics space strategy
Crying Suns must be the result of developer Alt Shift playing FTL: Faster Than Light and thinking “man, this game needs more story.”
Wearing its influences on its sleeve, Crying Suns is a tactics-based rogue-like space strategy. Much like its inspiration, your role is as captain of a space-faring ship and its crew chartering your way through a procedurally generated labyrinth of sectors until you reach an end boss. Each campaign "chapter" is made up of three sector maps and three bosses. Each sector contains a number of planets, with randomly selected missions and events spawning at each destination. Being a rogue-like, Crying Suns is run-based, meaning that once your ship is destroyed, you must start again from the beginning—with one slight twist. Upon beating a chapter's final boss, you don't have to repeat that chapter again in subsequent runs, and a new ship is unlocked to continue the game with. This grants the game a sense of progression even where being defeated forces you to repeat a run, as beating the third boss acts almost like a save point. Subsequent runs and chapters may feature some of the same events that you have encountered previously, allowing you to take a different approach or utilise new skill-specific crew officers this time. The game has five chapters in total of increasing difficulty, balanced by the (generally) better ships you unlock through each completed sector. Aside from ships, the only other persistent progression in Crying Suns is unlockable "DNA Officers", who respawn with you when you start a new run. These officers grant access to variable skills that can be used in planetary excursions or in the random events encountered in space.
Like FTL, these random events appear as text encounters. As captain, you make the decisions with either positive or negative outcomes. This usually takes the form of losing or gaining one of three resource types. Commandos are the resource used to fund the planetary excursions. Neo-N acts as the fuel to make each successive jump through the sector, and scrap is the basic money used for purchasing items and upgrades. Having specialist officers on your ship will also determine if you can take special “auto-win” routes through the random text encounters. Do you help that stranded ship of children? Do you try to trick the evil Church ship or go in guns blazing? Do you board the derelict research lab that may or may not have an alien abomination on it?
The actual combat gameplay is where Crying Suns differs completely from its inspirations. Instead of guiding little crewmembers from room to room, as in FTL, Crying Suns goes for a grid-based lite-tactics overlay. You deploy squadrons from your battleship against enemy squadrons and complement the battle with ship-mounted weapons. Squadrons come in four varieties—fighters are the standard fire power and effective against drones, drones are the quick-moving micro ships and are effective against frigates, and frigates are the large heavy-hitters and are strong against fighters. The fourth type is cruisers, which have no strengths or weaknesses but can only attack from range for big damage—in melee, they are next to useless. This paper/scissors/rock approach to combat keeps you thinking on your toes to outmanoeuvre the squadrons your opponent is deploying onto the grid.
Amongst these four squadron types are further varieties—higher level squadrons do more damage per second, but also come with special skills. For example, stealth fighters go invisible when not in combat, boomer drones explode on death, and nano squadrons cannot be attacked by units in adjacent grid hexes.
Even the best squadron complement can be bested if the ship-mounted weapons supporting them aren’t up to scratch. These weapons sit on your battleship and charge on a cooldown to provide a number of effects on the battlefield—ranging from sniper lasers that take out units, to freeze rays that hold units in place, and even to black hole generators that block off entire areas of the grid.
The ultimate goal of each combat encounter is to destroy the enemy battleship by doing damage to its three sections—hull, weapons, and squadrons. Damaging each section does heat damage that takes that area out for a given time, buying you valuable seconds where its weapons cooldowns or squadron deployment may be paused. Ultimately though, doing damage to the hull and blowing up the enemy ship is the main objective.
These encounters are a lot of fun, providing a more hands-on version of ship-to-ship battles than FTL’s squad management. In practical terms, they often amount to hunkering down your squadrons close to your battleship until the enemy squadrons are depleted, and then attacking their battleship in safety. It was disappointing that the enemy AI never used a similar approach and would always just send their squadrons in guns-blazing to the neatly set up traps I had concocted for them. This kind of symmetrical tactics combat should naturally lead to some ‘Mexican stand-offs’ that never happened in Crying Suns, and nothing about the battlefield incentivised me to draw my squadrons out into the centre of the grid area. This was especially true once I had a Cruiser Impaler that could assault the enemy hull from the safety of my own corner. Despite this shortcoming, the combat balances an excellent knife-edge—never so easy that it becomes rote, and never so difficult that it I can’t see where I went wrong.
Outside of combat, a secondary gameplay section sees you launch planetary land-missions. These involve spending your commando resource to explore planets and salvage loot from them. These sections are much less hands-on than space combat encounters, and the only interactivity you have is deciding when is the right time to pull your ‘away team’ off the planet; a decision based on how many units you’re willing to lose for the amount of loot and scrap you’re bringing in. Officer skills come into play here, as the more suited to a specific mission an officer is, the better the results—and generally speaking, the presence of a DNA Officer will vastly increase your chances of a positive outcome.
Ultimately, everything you're doing in Crying Suns is with the goal of improving your odds in the tactical battles and ground-based forays. Spend scrap to upgrade your ship with a variety of add-ons such as more weapon bays or additional slots for officers to support ship sections. Buy mounted weapons and new more-powerful squadrons. Increase your commando count and your team of officers to improve odds on planet away-missions. And don't forget fuel or you're stranded, and your run is over.
Crying Suns visual style blends simplicity with beauty—its combination of pixel-based character models and hand-drawn space vistas can at times be breathtakingly beautiful, and its world building is interesting enough that each of the numerous factions stands out, from its people to its ships. Its universe is as interesting to look at as it is to explore.
The final element that sets Crying Suns apart (especially from FTL) is its campaign story. The main story is a fantastically told space opera romp that blends sci-fi favourites, and developer Alt Shift proudly boasts its inspirations from Dune, to Foundation, to Battlestar Galactica. As the clone of dead war hero Admiral Ellys Idaho, your goal is to find out who disabled the OMNI robots (once deemed machine-gods) and doomed an entire galaxy to live in poverty, disease, and piracy. You are also unravelling some deeply personal issues about Idaho’s past that he begins to recall along the way. It's unusual to come to a rogue-like looking for story, but the lore cleverly explains many of the genres trappings such as endless respawns and revisiting areas, and it's well-written enough that I was willing to push through any difficulty barriers or repetitiveness to find out more.
Crying Suns does struggle with repetitiveness, especially if you find yourself committing to doing multiple runs on a chapter that is giving you particular trouble. With the text events being randomly selected, you can come upon the same encounters a number of times and ten hours in you’ll start skipping the text as you recognise events and just want to get to the resolution options. Likewise, animations can become overly familiar—you’ll have seen the sector transition a hundred times before you see the game’s credits. Whilst a shame, repetition is a shortfall of the genre and not something FTL avoided successfully either.
Despite this, Crying Suns has more than enough content for its asking price, and is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys the genre—be that rogue-like, tactics combat, or space opera sci-fi stories. If you enjoyed FTL, then you’ll get a kick out of seeing Alt Shift’s take on that formula. If you haven’t, FTL isn’t a mandatory play to enjoy Crying Suns—it does enough differently to stand on its own merits as a valid original experience in the rogue-like space.