The Captain Is Dead is one of those games that made me openly declare, “Man, I hate this game.” Not because it’s poorly designed – although it’s got some flaws – but because it seems to be a game that actively wants you to hate it due to its soul-crushing difficulty. Its main goal is to stress you out by putting you in the nearly impossible scenario of trying to survive an alien attack in a spaceship that’s mere minutes away from being destroyed. And it’s just as stressful as it sounds, but not quite as fun as you might hope.
Based on a board game with the same name, The Captain Is Dead is a turn-based strategy game that has you take control of a Star Trek-inspired spacecraft that’s suffered heavy damage and the loss of its commander. You control four crew members that each have certain abilities that make them essential for surviving this disaster. The Admiral can retrieve a battle plan – which is essentially like a bonus action – from anywhere on the ship, the Soldier can take out all enemies in a room, and so on. Forming the right crew with crewmates who synergize well with each other is an integral part of the game.
In order to miraculously escape, you need to fix the busted jump core which will allow the ship to warp out of the battle. Unfortunately, since you’re constantly being hit by enemy fire, various parts of your ship will get knocked out and require repairs. The entire game is a balancing act where you need to prioritize which sections are most important to fix while also focusing on the jump core. If your shields run out or too many alien soldiers board the ship, then it’s game over.
Each crew member has a set amount of actions they can perform during their turns. They can repair or operate a part of the ship, retrieve a skill or tool, trade with other shipmates, or teleport to another area. Some actions require certain kinds of skills to perform. And when I say skills, I basically mean cards, since this sticks to its board game roots. For example, repairing the teleporter will cost you two engineering skills and an action. Or to use the torpedos, you’ll need a tactical skill, a command skill, and two actions.
The entire game is designed to beat you down until you feel like the whole situation is utterly hopeless. Every turn a new alert pops up that causes mayhem on the ship. The onboard computer that generates new skills might get destroyed. A space anomaly may appear that causes everyone to become too afraid to use any of the ship’s equipment. The bad news just keeps piling on and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed after a while.
The gameplay works pretty well. There’s a handy list of the various compartments of the ship that tells you what’s need of repairs as well as how badly damaged your shields are. Just click on where you want to go and you teleport there (as long as the teleporter is working.) My major complaint is that success seems to be based less on your strategy and more on how lucky you are.
I became incredibly frustrated with this game because victory is dependent upon finding the right skills. It costs five engineering skills and two turns to repair the jump core, which on normal difficulty starts at 50% of its power. That means you need about 25 of those skill cards without factoring in battle plans, character abilities, and other bonuses. However, if all the computer spits out are tactical or science skills, then it quickly becomes more and more likely that you’ve lost this game. That likelihood increases even more if an anomaly messes with the crew, the teleporter breaks down, or someone gets injured.
What makes things worse is that sometimes the game will screw you over right away. I loaded up a game once that had my teleporter disabled, two of my crewmates injured, multiple aliens on board, and the computers offline. That meant if I even had a chance of repairing the jump core just one time, I would have had to kill the aliens so both of my injured crewmates could leave their respective areas and limp to the medical bay. Then I’d have to fix the computer to get more skills and the teleporter so everyone could move freely again. But that would take about four turns to complete which would then lead to four additional problems occurring while I was just trying to start this run. I get that this is a game that’s built to shatter your hopes and dreams with its difficulty, but after a while, it didn’t feel fun anymore. I was just exhausted.
The art style for The Captain Is Dead isn’t something I enjoyed looking at. It’s a very basic graphical style with ugly colors and blocky character models. I do like the character designs as they’re fun takes on Star Trek archetypes – one of the crewmates is a red shirt who is replaced immediately after someone dies – but everything looks pointy and polygonal. If the look that the developers were going for was to resemble an old PC game from the early 90s, then they hit the mark. Otherwise, it’s kind of a visual mess.
The voice acting gets pretty repetitive as each crewmate has a limited number of lines to spout during certain situations. The sole exception would be The Stanley Parable’s Kevan Brighting as the game’s omnipotent Q-esque space god who leads you through the tutorial and gifts you with the power to undo any action you want to take back (something I used quite often.) The game’s sense of humor is solid, but you can only hear a line so many times before you get sick of it.
I really think there’s gold to be mined from the premise of The Captain Is Dead, but the execution left me feeling dejected. I would get excruciatingly close to beating the game only for something to ruin the entire run with no hope of recovery. It didn’t feel like a challenge, it felt unfair as it would be impossible to get the skills I needed. This game might be better enjoyed with other players as it does have multiplayer. Perhaps the sting of failure would be lessened if it was shared with friends. That could also be a bad idea as I could see quite a few arguments starting up and fingers being pointed once the ship inevitably explodes.
As it stands right now, The Captain Is Dead is an interesting take on the strategy genre, but I feel like it boldly goes too far in being a frustrating, teeth-grinding, mind-numbing exercise in futility.
A PC copy of The Captain Is Dead was provided to TheGamer for this review. The Captain Is Dead is available on PC.
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Jamie Latour is a writer and actor based out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. From his hyperactive childhood to his….Well, still hyperactive adulthood, he’s been writing and performing in some capacity for practically his entire life. His love for video games goes all the way back to the age of 4, playing Mega Man 3 for the first time on his NES. He’s an avid gamer and can be found nowadays either messing around in Red Dead 2, or being cheap as can be as Reaper in Overwatch. He’s still starting out when it comes to making online content, but aside from his writing he can found on his Twitch page under the handle SpontaneousJames. You can also find him on social media as @SpontaneousJam on Twitter (because Spontaneous James was too long apparently).
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