Monday, 24 September 2012
The little game that could
I guess it's ostensibly a shooter, but it doesn't really feel like one. You play a space ship and you fly around shooting things and rescuing hostages, but the really important central idea is that you can teleport. There are two different types of teleport, short form and long form. Short form is for zipping around the screen - jumping out of trouble (or into it), leaping over obstacles or reaching far away rescue pods. Long form works slightly differently: here you drop a marker that you can then teleport back to at any time. This is used when the path splits and you need to hop back so you can take both branches, or when you need to shoot a switch that opened a barrier further back in the level. It's all introduced slowly and naturally throughout the early levels, and the level design throughout the game's 50 levels is exemplary. Everything is designed perfectly to make use of your crafts unique abilities. You also have a couple more of those abilities - an infinite supply of speed boost for zipping through the levels (and some of the levels are timed, so you'll need that extra speed), and an infinite supply of bombs. The bombs are another neat feature; you have lasers, but they only fire forward, whereas your bombs can fire along any of the four compass points. So you'll often have to fling bombs down thin side passages, or bunny-hop over a switch then flick a bomb behind you to hit it and open up the electric barrier just in front of you. And the levels combine all of these things to perfection. The pace is wonderfully varied - some levels will be panicky, hair-raising races with the boost button held down all the way, others are slower-paced explorations with multiple long-form teleport marks dropped behind you so you can jump back and forth around the level visiting all of the branches to rescue all of the survivors. It's great.
There are also secret capsules you can find that open up bonuses - challenge levels or even mini-games like Space Invaders and Thrust that you can play. There's also a nice system to unlocking the normal levels. When you finish each level you get a certain number of XP for the time you finished it in, the amount of survivors you rescued and the amount of points you earned (from shooting bad guys and picking up pods). Each of the normal levels requires a certain amount of XP before you can open it. At the beginning of the game you don't really notice this at all, as pretty much as long as you complete the previous level then you'll always have enough XP to open the next level, but as you near the end of the game you start to notice that you no longer have enough XP to open the next level so you have to go back and replay the previous levels to earn a few more precious XP. Normally I'd absolutely hate something like that, but it's done really well here. For one thing, the levels are short and fun, so they don't outstay their welcome, but the best bit is that you don't have to do all of those things - survivors, points and time - in one go. You can do one run at super speed, just getting the minimum amount of survivors and rushing to the end, another to explore and pick up all of the survivors, and a final run to shoot everything and gain the maximum amount of points. And you don't need to get a perfect score on every level to open up all of the levels, so you can pick and choose which bits you want to do. If you like the speed runs then you can focus on those and just pick up a few extra points here and there from getting more survivors; if you want to spend time exploring and getting maximum points then you can do that and ignore the speed runs. It's a really nice system and works exactly how you'd want it to - lesson to designers, if you want to make a player go back and replay your game, then think about it from their point of view and make it fun for them.
So yeah, this is the smallest, shortest, and cheapest game I've written about so far and I've written loads about it. Why? Because it was great fun. The whole thing perfectly captured that elusive 'feel' that makes a great game great. It was focused on its idea and didn't spread itself too thinly or jam too much in. It even has a well-written back story that you learn more of as you play through it. All in all, a lovely little 10 out of 10 gem, and one I'd highly recommend.