The Wii U GamePad is finally put to good use, in an innovative new indie game that’s also one of the best co-op games of the year.
The Wii U now has an impressive library of exclusives, but what it doesn’t have in abundance are games that prove why the GamePad was such a necessary part of the set-up. Off-TV mode is great, but when the Wii U was first announced the implication was that it would allow for brand new types of gameplay that would be impossible on any other system. But beyond a few early titles that hasn’t really happened… until now.
It’s a brave developer that makes a Wii U-only game, especially without Nintendo acting as publisher, but for whatever reason Nordic developers KnapNok Games and Nifflas’ Games have embraced the format with a game that genuinely would be impossible on another format, at least when playing alone. Although that’s not the ideal way, as Affordable Space Adventures is at its best when piloting with friends.
If you’re to believe the intro, which is designed to look like a cheap holiday ad from a disreputable travel agent, Affordable Space Adventures is all about giving you the loan of your own pint-sized spaceship and allowing you to explore the untamed wilderness of a newly discovered planet. The ad makes it all sound like a paradise off Earth, but the actual game starts with the landscape around you in flames – after what seems to be the crash landing of your mothership.
One detail the ad neglects to mention is the derelict alien spaceship, which means that not only are you stranded on an alien planet in a half broken spacecraft but there are weird robotic monsters wandering around that will shoot you the second they realise you’re there. The goal of the game is simply to escape the planet, by avoiding the aliens and navigating the maze-like levels you find yourself in.
Since there’s no combat Affordable Space Adventures initially gives the impression of being all about exploration, but it’s actually arranged in a strictly linear progression. Instead it’s a kind of physics-based puzzler with a dash of ’80s classics Gravitar and Thrust, as you struggle to manoeuvre your clumsy little spaceship against the pull of gravity.
The more traditional puzzles usually involve activating buttons or pushing around heavy crates, and are only moderately entertaining. The more unique element though is avoiding the aliens, which will instantly attack if you come to close. Or at least they will if their sensors detect you. The GamePad, via a ‘heads down display’, is used to show all your various systems, but the most important information is how much sound, heat, and electricity you’re generating.
Different aliens react to different amounts of each and you have to manage the ship’s system to make sure you can sneak past, by turning down the amount of thrust you use, for example, or switching between diesel and electric engines. Ancillary systems like your scanner (which projects either a torch beam or a device for revealing the vision cone for aliens) often need to be turned off as well, which essentially results in you making the experience more difficult rather than the game.
It’s a neat idea and really does come into its own when played with two other people. The idea is that one pilots the ship, one operates the scanner, and the other acts as the engineer and handles the GamePad. The pilot is the plumb job but arguing over who gets to fly the ship is almost as much fun as complaining that the other two people are terrible at their jobs.
Unfortunately though the novelty only goes so far and the situations eventually begin to get repetitive, with the increasingly specific demands put on your spaceship’s systems proving ever more frustrating. There is a feeling that the game never quite makes enough of its premise, and yet in terms of atmosphere and immersion this is still a hugely engrossing experience.
The graphics are good, if permanently gloomy and hindered by long loading pauses, but the real atmosphere builders are the excellent sound design and the use of the GamePad. Even though the game’s only in 2D, the Star Trek style display panel creates a very physical attachment to the game world that is almost unique. It could be replicated with a tablet if you’re playing with others using joypads, but as a single-player game Affordable Space Adventures could only work on the Wii U.
That’s not a recommendation in itself, but gimmick or not the game as a whole is elevated by its unusual controls and presentation. And you can’t help wishing more Wii U games would be as imaginative when it comes to the GamePad.
Affordable Space Adventures
In Short: One of the best uses of the Wii U GamePad so far and one of the most atmospheric games of the year, even if it does run out of new tricks before the end.
Pros: The premise is great and the link between you, the controller, and the on-screen action is cleverly unique. Great presentation and fun co-op options.
Cons: Puzzles and alien encounters eventually become repetitive. Long load times between levels. Surprisingly expensive, given the title.
Formats: Wii U
Publisher: KnapNok Games
Developer: KnapNok Games and Nifflas’ Games
Release Date: 9th April 2015
Age Rating: 7