Blackbird Interactive's upcoming sci-fi deck building roguelike, Earthless, has an arresting premise: scout out a new home for humanity after the Pale Blue Dot is swallowed up by a prematurely-expanding Sol (that's how we've wound up -less an Earth). Before its world premier at the 2023 PC Gaming Show, I sat down with Earthless project director Hoi-Fung Ma to talk about its unique tactical combat, as well as how Blackbird plans to bring the starship captain fantasy to life.
"Predominantly, it's very much a David and Goliath thing where we want to give players that feeling of 'Oh, I gotta find a way through this by taking minimal damage and fulfilling the objective,'" Ma told me. This is not a game where you command an armada, flotilla, or even a paltry task force of spaceships out in the inky black—you're outnumbered and outgunned in Earthless, "a single ship against the many," as Ma puts it.
He shouted out Fire Emblem, Slay the Spire, and foundational modern roguelike FTL as major inspirations, and though the team initially considered putting multiple units at players' disposal, they found that it distracted from the deck building. Ma also outlined his own thoughts on the potential tactical richness inherent to controlling a single unit in a strategy game: "I'm a dungeon master and I play Call of Cthulhu mostly, and there was something more intimate about having just one unit to control and all your options are for that one unit."
Players will be tasked with captaining their ship to different nodes on a galaxy map in search of humanity's new home, with each one representing a potential combat encounter or narrative episode with difficult choices that could alienate your crew. Your enemies in Earthless are largely alien forces—Ma didn't want to spoil too much of the lore at this stage, but he characterized them as a sort of "biomechanical immune system" for the galaxy, one that's reacting not with malice, but grim necessity against the human race's recent exodus.
Earthless will have turn-based combat on a grid in a similar fashion to Fire Emblem or Into the Breach, but all of your combat actions outside movement will be governed by a deck of cards you build over a run like in Slay the Spire, with both movement and actions constrained by a shared pool of energy points.
Your deckbuilding options are shaped by what faction you choose at the beginning of a run, with Ma characterizing the first planned early access group as the sort of Mario or Terran "all-arounders" of the bunch: "They're the ones who can have the most versatile decks compared to future content that we're planning, which are much more specialized and tuned toward wacky thematic elements." Ma didn't get into specifics of what the team's considering for future factions, but did mention a science-focused group or a heavy industrialist faction as potential directions they could take.
All of those factions, though, are planned to have a variety of viable-to-overpowered decks they could build into, with Ma assuring me that Blackbird is not shying away from over-the-top, even game breaking card combos being at the player's disposal.
"We're not balancing it for PvP," Ma said. "A lot of people derive enjoyment from discovering the ways that they can break the game, if you will, and enjoy finding those combos that can go infinite and make you feel like you've beaten the designers in their own game. And that's a feeling we really want to capture."
Captain on deck
All of that sounded great to the "RPG stats and builds" liking part of my brain, but I was particularly enthused about what Ma had to say about Earthless' storytelling, which tickled my inner "Commander Shepard rallying the crew with an impassioned speech" enjoyer.
"That's a lesson that we've really taken to heart," Ma explained. "There's a huge audience for the card game genre, huge audience with the tactics genre, but I think there's a bigger audience for the captain fantasy."
At the beginning of each run, your crew will have randomized personality traits that will affect how they view your decisions at those "narrative episode" nodes on the galaxy map. "We wanted it to feel like Bones arguing with Spock," Ma put it succinctly. He described one such event where it's discovered that your engineering staff want medical leave to deal with radiation sickness from the ships engines. In addition to the morale/practical considerations in the choice itself, you might also have a pragmatist science officer who'd scoff at putting the needs of the few ahead of the many. Conversely, you might also have a bleeding heart comms officer who feels just the opposite.
The morale of your crew then directly affects your deck in combat encounters. Becoming best buds with that jerk science officer might win you a unique card, but your disgruntled, irradiated engineers may also seed your deck with duds that'll vie for space in your hand with more desirable ones on any given turn.
Phone a Friend
The one time Earthless won't just be you and your crew against the universe will be if you play it in two-player co-op. Ma stressed that this sort of campaign will be specifically balanced for the additional firepower, precluding drop-in, drop-out play.
Maps will be larger, with more room to maneuver, but they'll also have a greater chance of tricky difficulty modifiers. Ma expressed that the team didn't want to just up the health and number of foes to increase difficulty, and instead prefers constraints and curve balls that'll make players think on their feet. "This one has fog of war, or this one has exploding asteroids, or another might be close to the sun, so you'll take damage every turn," Ma told me of those difficulty modifiers. "In multiplayer, we can scale up the number of mutators within a level."
Ma also expressed pride in Earthless' emphasis on simultaneous turns with co-op players taking their actions at the exact same time instead of one after the other. Ma hopes that this will encourage players to make strategic combos and engage in pen-and-paper RPG-style "table talk" to take down the more substantial threats of a two-player campaign.
Either with a friend or solo, Earthless is sounding like the sort of hard sci-fi tactical battler I can really sink my teeth into. Earthless is currently set to launch in early access on Steam early next year.