The life of a smuggler is a tough one in SmuggleCraft

Fell off a cliff and died in an explosion. Caught by the cops and executed for crimes I didn’t commit. Eaten by wildlife after surviving a crash. Struck with amnesia, living a peaceful life as a baker. These are a few of the ways my career as a smuggler came to an end in SmuggleCraft.

From developer Happy Badger Studio, SmuggleCraft is a roguelite racing game. The set-up goes that you’re a smuggler who’s just rolled into town in need of a new hovercraft. A rather unscrupulous fellow offers one to you, with the catch that you’ll need to pay it off over time. Thus you spend each day taking on odd jobs to make money to pay off and occasionally upgrade your new ride. These jobs range from simple, legal work like towing people’s broken down vehicles back to them, to questionably legal matters like helping the local rebels by transporting information or helping their operatives get to safety, and illegal jobs such as delivering weapons or driving assassin’s to their target.

My difficulties came primarily from my choice of jobs. Rather than take on whatever gave the highest payout, I’d always help whoever was most in need. Whether that was to deliver food to labor camps whose rations were running low, assisting the rebels in gathering intel or preparing for missions, or just generally trying to make life more comfortable for the less fortunate, even though the rewards were often minuscule, it at least felt good. Doubly so when the only other options were often bringing a new hovercraft to some drunkard who bought it, transporting someone to force an ex-lover to return to their former partner, or stop a slave from escaping their owner. I may be a criminal, but I have principles, damn it!

Anyway. The problems I faced came from not being able to meet my daily payments on my ship nor to upgrade it to keep up with the increasing difficulty curve. As a roguelite, the idea is to keep playing and make progress until you’re in a good enough spot to reach the end. To that end, any new ship components you create remain unlocked in every subsequent playthrough. On one hand, that meant I was able to speed through early game missions with ease. On the other, it meant that I started getting harder jobs from the start.

The difficulty, far as I can tell, relates to the complexity of the track. The harder the mission, the more likely it is for the track to contain obstacles or send you down narrow paths. It was usually the latter that got me. Making tight turns without any sort of railing often meant I was guaranteed to fall to my doom. I haven’t gotten the hang of drifting in SmuggleCraft yet, mainly due to how it can trigger a speed boost if used correctly, which I always activate when I don’t need it. It’s difficult to learn how to use because most of the tracks don’t require you to pull off any fancy driving. The craft turns fast enough that I rarely feel the need to drift.

For as much as the game pushes a sense of urgency behind each mission, driving through the colorful, lo-fi landscapes between cities is quite calming. Speeding around the rocky lands between each settlement feels more like a pleasant drive through the countryside more than evading the law by taking untrodden paths. In the mornings and sunset especially, the way the sun bathes the area in its soft glow can be downright breathtaking. It didn’t take long for me to see most, if not all, of the roads you travel, but they never stop being a delight to see. Particularly since you’re often bound to see them at different times of day, which keeps them feeling fresh regardless of how many times you’ve driven along that road before.

So far, I haven’t managed to last more than a couple in-game days. The increasing prevalence of “death trap” level missions, the hardest available, has made it difficult to survive for long given my inability to pull off successful drifts. Still, my ship’s getting better and I’m slowly getting the hang of those tight turns. In time maybe I’ll make it to the end, see of those story threads payoff in a satisfying way.

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