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Earthless preview - a mass of systems combine for a compelling sci-fi card game

 Players looking at a spaceship
Players looking at a spaceship

It’s hard to define exactly what type of game Earthless is. It’s a deck builder like Slay the Spire, but also a turn-based strategy like XCOM and a relationship manager that has you spending your time unpicking disputes between the crew on a spaceship careening through uncharted space. It’s FTL but extra, a captain fantasy for those in need of overstimulation and a dose of 70s-style hard-sci-fi.

All of this is meshed together into a roguelike paste, and it’s one of the most exciting things I saw at Gamescom 2023. Developed by Blackbird Interactive, Earthless will see players building a deck of cards to use in attack and defense against space-faring threats while moving around a grid of tesselated squares. While Slay the Spire is an easier touchstone, the game actually is more of a mix of Fights in Tight Spaces and FTL, especially when you factor in the Choose Your Own Adventure-style prompts that will pop up as you bounce from node to node in the galaxy.

Earthless will need to show how well it can hold its shape when players are prodding and poking at the meat that makes up the game

The premise and setting ring familiar to begin with: things have gone wrong on earth, and if humanity is to survive, they’ll need to seek their fortune amongst the stars. A series of spaceships have fired themselves out into the galaxy like a dandelion’s seeds in the wind, with each of your runs seeing you at the helm of one of these ships as you seek survival on your travels through the cosmos. Each ship offers a new chance to build a deck of attacks and movements that could help this craft be the particular seed that lets mankind grow again, and each vessel is also crewed with its own unique mix of bridge officers.

Much like ancestral stab-’em-up Rogue Legacy, these runs won’t be lost like tears in the rain either. While I wasn’t able to see it during my hands-on, the plan is that each of these runs will be tracked, and you can revisit them to trace the path you’ve taken thus far.

Time will tell

sci-fi card deck
sci-fi card deck

There are several different ships that play to different deck archetypes, but on my run, I was set up on one that offered up several long-range missiles in the starting deck. This was perfect for plinking at far-off targets, and I added more long-range missiles to this as I started to unlock rewards, including a card that let me add some shield while dealing damage at the same time.

The captain's fantasy is complete. It presents a cold, unfeeling vision of the universe that would work nicely alongside 70s classics like Dark Star and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You can see this in the ships, but also in the ghostly maps you navigate on or the game’s cover art.

Sci-fi table top card grid
Sci-fi table top card grid

This fantasy is second to the tactical layer of the game, but it has to be - a deckbuilder will live or die based on how compelling its systems are to explore, so Earthless will need to show how well it can hold its shape when players are prodding and poking at the meat that makes up the game. Right now, the game lacks gravity: there’s a lack of sizzle to every missile hit and impact, and last-minute escapes aren’t sold well enough to feel rewarding. But, there’s tactical brilliance here amongst the placeholder art, and when it comes down to it, this is what’s most important.

Frankly, how good a game like Earthless is will depend on the finished game and the complexity available for the different builds. If the synergy is satisfying, Earthless will be exceptional. The building blocks are here, but it’s too soon to see if Blackbird Interactive is able to pull it off. Looking at the wild success of Hardspace Shipbreaker - my personal favorite game of 2022 - I’m inclined to put my faith into Blackbird and allow myself the faintest amount of excitement for Earthless’ 2024 release on Steam’s Early Access.

Looking for similar melon-scratchers to get your teeth into? Check out our guide the best PC strategy games you can play right now.