This is the thirtieth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
A quick and light single player Action RTS.
For those unfamiliar, RTS stands for real-time strategy, a genre whose most famous game is likely Starcraft. Players in these games direct different units to fight or build or harvest resources on the map, all in real time rather than turn-based fashion. I don’t have much experience playing RTS games as I found them intimidating when I was younger, so “quick and light” sounds perfect!
In From Orbit, players must guide their spaceship out of a dangerous sector of space by reaching the wormhole. This means stopping at an array of dangerous planets along the way, each with its own procedurally generated map, to collect the resources needed for the journey. The ship’s robotic crew will brave the surface of these planets, exploring and harvesting resources, all while protecting the ship itself from attacks by the local fauna. Players must make a call as to when to retreat with the resources gathered so far, and try their luck on the next, more dangerous, world.
The “action” part of From Orbit’s description is due to the fact that players have very few units to control. At the start, it’s just two, although that can increase to a maximum of four. Directing this small group can therefore feel more action-packed than strategic. To compensate for their small number, crewmembers can switch at will between four different “classes”: defenders are the only class that can fight back against hostile creatures, useful for protecting the ship or fending off beasts while exploring. Medics can heal other crew and themselves, and harvesters can harvest resources from deposits scattered across the map. Lastly, engineers can repair the ship and build turrets or auto-harvesters to assist in the expedition. Engineers are also critical for getting more crew, as only they can open up the escape pods found on some worlds, freeing the robots within. Helpfully, worlds with escape pods are labeled on the simple branching star system map, so they can be prioritized as players try to fill out their ranks.
The two resources to collect are the relatively common ore, and the rarer crystal. These are then spent on a suite of upgrades for the crew, ship, turrets and auto-harvesters. There are never enough resources for all the desired upgrades, so players will have to make tough decisions. Do you want more health for your crew, or for them to dish out more damage in defender mode? Or maybe it’s better to increase their medic heal rate, or harvesting speed? Or maybe upgrades to the ship itself are better, giving it more survivability against waves of enemies. Choose carefully, because new planets are much more dangerous than those that came before.
My first run ended quickly, as I learned the ropes. If the ship is destroyed, or all crew are killed, it’s game over, and players must restart in a new randomly generated star system. I learned quickly, however, and soon made it all the way to the final planet before the wormhole (I think players must land on six or seven planets in total, choosing among two or three each time). I’d realized an important truth about From Orbit: the most important resource isn’t ore or crystal, or even new crewmembers. It’s time. On each planet there are a few indestructible lairs that periodically spawn hostile creatures, indicated by a countdown timer at the top of the screen, and these creatures will make a beeline for the ship. There’s also a slowly filling progress bar indicating the overall threat level, which, when full, ticks the difficulty up a notch. Spend too long exploring, and be overrun.
Initially, I focused on upgrading the ship itself. By tripling the damage of its defensive laser and doubling its armor, the ship could hold off several waves of enemies on its own, freeing my crew to run around collecting all the resources. But the tougher creatures on later worlds could still take the ship out quickly, and I found myself retreating after only a short time. Then, on the last world, I had the unpleasant realization that the final challenge was of a different nature. I couldn’t just take off immediately and run to the wormhole, I had to deal with a certain threat first. Woefully underprepared, my crew and ship soon succumbed to the relentless wildlife. On the next run I spent more upgrade points on my crew, and started leaving some of them with the ship to defend, healing each other between waves. This worked better, but I found myself short on crystal and unable to make a few key upgrades before I faced that final planet again. On later planets I could weather enemy assaults for a while, but my foragers encountered too much resistance trying to reach the final ore and crystal deposits. Still, I thought I was going to make it, before being unpleasantly surprised once again when my seemingly imminent victory was revealed to be anything but.
I wasn’t particularly inclined to try again. There are other strategies I might have tried; I barely messed with turrets, for example. But it seemed like they would just waste precious time. Building turrets not only requires some of the same resources I’m hoarding for upgrades, but also consumes valuable time, time I could be spending grabbing resources and making a run for it. Upgrading those turrets takes even more resources. Similarly, I never knew whether building auto-harvesters was a good idea. Construction would again take precious time, and I assumed that enemies would quickly destroy the auto-harvesters anyway. But maybe they don’t? Maybe they only go after crew or turrets? In which case, dropping an auto-harvester at a particularly rich ore vein might be a great call, freeing up my crew to keep exploring rather than having to stop to harvest resources themselves.
I didn’t play enough to be sure, but I have a suspicion that surviving the final planet requires certain very specific upgrades, and if you don’t have them, you don’t stand a chance. From Orbit felt just a little too punishing for my tastes. Which is a shame, since there’s a lot to like about it. The presentation is great, with a clean, crisp and colorful art style. Crewmembers acknowledge commands with a pleasing robotic warble, and their footsteps make a satisfying crunch through sand or snow. Speaking of which, the three different planet types (desert, ice, and jungle) all look and sound the part, and each features its own menagerie of beasts to brave. Most creatures plod methodically towards their targets, giving players ample time to assess threats and issue commands. Occasionally my crew would get stuck on scenery, or shoot that scenery instead of their targets, but this was rare.
It’s possible I’m missing something that an RTS veteran would spot immediately. But I simply wasn’t excited to try more runs at From Orbit, knowing roughly how they would go already. There’s not enough variety to be surprising, and not enough leeway in my approach to make me feel I could try something different each time. The “push your luck” structure for each planet makes for a nice tension when exploring, but it also makes it easy to fall into a worse and worse position, where a lack of resources means being unable to get the upgrades needed to survive the tougher planets, which means retreating even earlier and with even fewer resources collected, and so on. In other words, players can easily reach the final planet by just taking off immediately on every preceding world, without collecting anything; From Orbit’s structure doesn’t provide the consistent ramping challenge that lets players learn what does and does not work that is found in games like FTL.
What does a “successful” planet exploration look like in From Orbit? By asking players to choose the optimal time to retreat, every foray feels like a success. I took off just before being overwhelmed! Perfect! Or was it? Should I have been able to last longer before being overwhelmed? How much of a planet’s resources do I need before taking off? Maybe my most successful run really wasn’t very successful at all. Maybe I should have been getting twice as many upgrades as I had.
But that’s just another way of saying that individual planet expeditions can be a lot of fun, even if they’re not going well. I enjoyed the early planets a lot, before I was forced to brave the angry hordes on later worlds. And From Orbit lives up to its description as a quick and light take on the RTS genre, so others with similar trepidations about trying these games might find it a welcoming place to begin. From Orbit’s design mean it is forced to have an awkward ending, because otherwise there’s no real need for any of the resource hunting. But just focus on gathering as much as you can from each planet and it’s pretty fun, if not that different on repeated plays.
If any of the above sounds interesting, definitely give From Orbit a look. It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and if you missed it in the bundle, it’s normally sold for a minimum price of $9.99 but is currently on sale for… (checks notes)… 100% off!? Yes, it’s free at the moment, unless you elect to send some spare cash in Tentacle Head Games’ direction. I probably should have mentioned above that there’s no in-game tutorial, so I highly recommend watching the short “How To Play” video before diving in. Maybe you’ll have better luck making it to that wormhole.
That’s 30 down, and 1711 to go!