Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Spaceman Review


Before I get started, a small caveat. With so many releases on XBLIG, I tend to review the ones that grab my attention as true attempts at full blown, attractive, polished games. Hence, many of the games I review are rated well because I tend to spot and then review the good games! To be honest, I have less interest in reviewing games that look poor before I even download them. For that, I usually need a steak dinner, some booze, and some painkillers on hand.

Anyhow, Spaceman caught my attention right away when I saw it available as a new release and then the developer was nice enough to send me a token. Sold. Word of advice though, change the box art to show the cool little spaceman 2D pixel dude in all of his glory - people like that sort of stuff.

Cute spaceman, check. Retro graphics, check. Tough puzzles, check. Spaceman is first and foremost a puzzle game, but in the body of a fun little platformer. Each board tasks the player with grabbing a key and getting to the exit - with the loose goal of rescuing some princess. The only gun you have shoots a purple blob that you can [only] use as a platform, and then you can plant bombs to destroy your blobs and some other blocks. Spikes, cannons, and your own bombs (if you get stuck one-square-adjacent to one) can kill you , but typically the main obstacle is just figuring out the board and the route to the exit.

Most players will quickly realize and potentially gripe that your spaceman cannot jump - which sort of takes away from the platformer feel. But if you hang in there, you'll see why that was a necessary omission as you build steps around the levels to reach higher ground. The first couple boards coax you into getting the hang of that mechanic, thankfully. Still though, traveling upward in cramped spaces can be scream-at-the-television frustrating sometimes - "jump you little shit, just jump!!" "Wait, come back, I didn't mean that, it's just been a long day..."

The boards are well designed in the sense that they offer interesting challenges and unique paths to the solution. The simple drum/bass beat music is nothing special, but feels appropriate and is non-invasive. And like most good puzzle games, there is a nice sense of satisfaction upon figuring out a particular puzzle or board. The simple build-a-platform, and bomb your way to the exit is concise and enjoyable.

I have one little gripe and one large. First the little one. There are some boards that can take too long. It's just one screen tall/wide, and you can feel trapped and/or as if you're progressing very slowly through the board. A careless death means starting over, and there were a couple boards that almost made me put the controller down (of course, gamers today are a bit spoiled in some respects). It would have been helpful to keep all levels open and direct enough to not have the possibility of getting stuck in cramped spaces for 20-30 minutes. Puzzle games tend to thrive on that feeling of "yes, I figured it out!" and if players feel stagnant, they tend to lose interest quickly because there is so little action (for me at least).

Second, I was peeved that I had no way of tracking my progress. By board 12 I had no idea if I was getting somewhere. There was no advancement of the plot, no new items, only a couple enemies/traps. How far along was I? Was there anything else to look forward to? Something simple like a list of boards (naming them can be fun too) that unlock as you progress would have been helpful, which would then allow the ability to replay the ones you've beaten would make tons of sense. As a wish list item, some of the monotony could have been broken up with chapter structure, some plot elements (even basic ones), or old skool Pac Man style cut scenes. The title screen has some spaceship graphics and animation, so I imagine that the developer could have added something to continue the first impression that there is a light, enjoyable rescue story at hand.

Bottom line, any platform/puzzler fans need to have a look at this one because it's got great bones, tough puzzles, and a fun/cute/retro presentation. At 240MP it feels correctly priced as a new release, but could possibly benefit from being an obvious impulse buy at 80MP down the road.

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