A custom spaceship from Destination Ares with six compartments, engines and other systems, and crew.

Watching My Frail Human Crew Expire in ‘Destination Ares’

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A custom spaceship from Destination Ares with six compartments, engines and other systems, and crew.
One of my custom-designed ships in ‘Destination Ares.’ It’s doomed.

Destination Ares passed across my Twitter feed this weekend and it’s the kind of game I think many of our geek readers will love.

In it, you play the role of a ship’s artificial intelligence, working behind the scenes to keep the crew alive as they make their way to a new life on Ares. And when I say: “behind the scenes,” I mean in the way HAL 9000 works behind the scenes. The crew rely on you to ensure the oxygen is pumping, the engines are running, and that you’ve chosen to power the kitchen.

However, the relationship is symbiotic. You may be able to control power to systems, but when things break, and they do that a lot, you’ll be reliant on the crew to fix the ship’s systems. As a flawlessly intelligent entity, you can gently guide them through repairs via alerts, or scare the jibbers out of them with blaring alarms, but in the end the crew will take care of work when and if they’re able to do so. Meaning: if you left the kitchen off for too long to conserve power just before that solar flare overloaded all the systems simultaneously, you may find that the crew is too hungry to do much but pass out on the floor.

Humans Are Weak

If any of that sounded ominous, it should. I have a few hours of gametime in at this point, and my pitiful meatbag crew have succumbed to their weaknesses every mission. Death by airlock failure. Death by starvation. Death by suffocation because someone forgot to turn the air scrubbers back on. OK, maybe that last one’s on me, but this crew is a demanding lot.

A zoomed in crew member in Destination Ares, showing his name is Mal Deckard, he's a scientist, he is stressed, and he needs sleep.
Mr. Deckard is merely stressed and tired, but crew members can be injured, hungry, and even psychotic.

I feel like I improve a little with every attempt. Part of that is simply learning the ebb and flow of ship life, and how the systems work. I am able to plan a little further in advance for when the crew needs to eat, how much oxygen I should leave in reserve, and which systems truly need priority repairs. There’s also a Minesweeper-inspired minigame that you need to play occasionally when faced with random events that I’m getting better at, which improves the outcomes. That means I’m more likely to jettison dangerous chemicals instead of crew members, an improvement I can safely say that we’re all excited about.

Min-Max Your Robotic Heart Out

Another reason I’m traveling further before becoming a sentient coffin is that Destination Ares has a legacy component where you earn “Advancement Points” which you can use to unlock new crew traits, ship’s systems, and other perks to improve your chances at survival. While you can unlock entirely new pre-built ships, I’ve had the most fun by constructing my own. After seeing how easily the starter ship runs out of power, I was excited to add solar panels and sails to my next design. Sure, it turned out they were maintenance nightmares, working my crew to exhaustion, but we did coast a good amount of the distance to Ares while everyone took a nap.

By which I mean they passed out and lay on the floor until the ship ran out of power, all systems malfunctioned, and everyone died.

Building a ship requires a precise balance of mass, systems, and storage.

Byte-Sized Chunks of Gaming

There’s a lot going on in an attempt to reach Ares, but your actual time at the PC doesn’t take too long. You can sit down and play a rewarding session in half an hour or so, depending on how liberally you use the pause button. I should probably use it more often. At least, the crew keeps saying I don’t seem to catch all of the risks in time, but then again I don’t know if I can trust their opinion. They are chronically undernourished, after all.

That gaming session can get pretty intense. I like the graphics—the screen-door effect of an older resolution monitor gives me the feeling of the AI peering through low-quality sensors to scan the ship. Cynics might ask if it was just a way of keeping down the art budget. Personally, I think it works very well at conveying a mood and fits the game perfectly.

A random event in 'Destination Ares'. This particular event has a crew member sending prank messages, and the ship being inundated with angry responses.
Events can lead to the challenge minigame, indicated by the difficulties in square brackets. Alternatively, you can choose an path leading to a random outcome.

Speaking of mood, Destination Ares‘ audio is absolutely incredible. The soundtrack hits you with both a sense of grandeur and tension. I’m still not certain if it adapts to what’s going on in the ship, but it seems to really ramp up its sense of distress when my crew are collapsing under their human frailty. In moments of quiet, you can hear the oxygen scrubber kick in, and it practically brings a sense of relief along with it. And when the communications go out, the muffled noises you hear sound to me like distant vibrations rattling through the hull.

Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

I may never make it to Ares. As the designer, Pat Scott, notes in a post: “Most players will never see any ending other than tragic defeat,” and I’m fine with that. This is a game that’s meant to be hard, to give you the opportunity to observe humans at their worst and their best, and to empathize with them or learn from them. It’s a game that has obviously been loved by its creator.

I’m not telling you Destination Ares is perfect. For example, the various traits and difficulties are conveyed in the game’s text using [square brackets], and while I’m getting used to it, they do feel a bit like you’re peeking under the hood rather than having the information embedded as part of the game. The interface to control equipment is also a bit clunky, involving either memorizing hotkeys or a right-click-to-lock-on and then click-a-button affair. And the challenge minigame, while sufficiently engaging, doesn’t really gel with the rest of the story and mechanics.

A shot of most of the game screen in 'Destination Ares' showing part of the ship, resource levels, and a crew member talking to the ship.
Crew members will sometimes talk to you as they go about the business of survival.

Those are minor issues and I’m only bringing them up so I don’t come across as too fanboy-ish. Destination Ares is a unique take on spaceship survival, filled with snap decisions, choices you’ll agonize over, and frail crew members you’ll both love and despise for their human weaknesses. The ship-building component alone could easily consume days of your life as you attempt to craft the perfect vessel to survive the voyage.

You can pick it up on Steam or, if you’re inclined to help grow a competitive marketplace, on itch.io. Either way, the price is $19.99, though discounted 10% for launch.

Let me know in the comments if you get your crew to Ares!

If these meatbags hadn’t been so reliant on oxygen, we could have made it to Ares.
Though perhaps I shouldn’t have named my AI “Deathbringer.”

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