Alright, this is going to be a relatively brief article that doesn’t go into too much detail, as the game in question, Uncaged Studios’ The Sentient, is very early in its early access career. But I wanted to write this preliminary review because I have been rather impressed by what I’ve seen so far. If I could sum it up in one sentence, I would say that The Sentient has accomplished more of the things promised by the developers of Pixel Piracy before entering early access than Pixel Piracy has managed to accomplish in the year since its full release.
As you can tell if you’ve read that earlier article linked above, I am no fan of Pixel Piracy; so why even bother with the comparison? Well, as much as I think Pixel Piracy is a clunky, buggy, superficial, bad-UI-ridden mess of a game, its premise is very strong: you take the exploration and RTS gameplay of FTL, and you add in deeper crew management and ship customization features. And this is exactly what The Sentient does, putting the player in control of a fleet of human scouting parties as they search the galaxy for the means to research, expand, and survive.
The first thing I noticed upon booting up The Sentient for the first time is that, despite its early access trappings, the game already has a considerable amount of excellent art assets. All of the ship components, elements, aliens, and characters are made of intricate pixel art with a very classic feel to it (think 90’s RTS, RPG, and sim games). Between such a wealth of great pixel art and the opening story’s impressionistic art panels, the visual style of this game is in very solid shape.
The premise of The Sentient recalls a particularly famous FTL fan theory, which posited that the player is actually in the role of the ship’s AI. This was meant to account for FTL players’ direct control of the ship systems and the apparent obedience of all echelons of the crew to their direct commands (despite there being no real captain avatar present). Well, the established story of The Sentient is quite literally about the player being a benevolent artificial intelligence (hence the game’s title).
The gameplay of The Sentient is primarily focused on crew management and exploration, where the former concerns the needs and responsibilities of the various individuals on the ship and the latter concerns node-based transit between events and among different star systems. The primary task, at least initially, is to make bolder and bolder runs into the unknown in search of research data that can be used to improve your skills, weapons, ships, abilities, communications, and more. The crewmembers, in addition to their traits, advantages, disadvantages, scheduling, and needs, also level up through labor and open up options for building relevant skills.
There are plenty of minor aspects of The Sentient needing improvements, but which my investigation (into Uncaged Studios’ community interactions and extant updates) leads me to believe will be fine-tuned or expanded by the developer at some point in the future, such as difficulty progression balance, crew and object status deterioration rates, combat system tutorializing, customization options, and plenty of other stuff. But the biggest areas of the game that I would want to see improved during its early access period are crew behavior and management; combat system clarity; and event content variety. In a brilliant move on the part of the devs, you can check out this Trello page which they set up to track update progress, community desires, and future plans.
I think I would be understating my case if I did not pass along what occurred to me while playing: this game has such massive potential that, if it capitalizes on that potential down the line, it could serve as a worthy spiritual successor to FTL. Even in its present state, it is comparable to a preliminary version of other purported FTL-likes such as Convoy and the better aspects of Pixel Piracy.
In a way, it’s unfair of me to rely so heavily on comparison to other space-based or RTS indie games, because The Sentient carves out its own definite identity with its excellent slow-moving instrumental score, its thematic stress on pacifism and survival, and its particular art style. It’s not quite yet in a fit state for a whole-hearted recommendation, but if the game as I’ve described it above sounds promising to you, then The Sentient is definitely a title to put on your wishlist, follow, or (if it’s your style to do so) support Uncaged Studios with an early access purchase.