First Impressions: Exploring the Depths of Affordable Space Adventures

A unique challenge

After a first year of struggling momentum, the Wii U eShop library has steadily developed and now has a solid line-up of high-quality games. Some are multiplatform titles, a common reality in this era of game engines such as Unity being widely adopted, and there's also a small batch of experiences unique to the system. A particularly interesting example of exclusive software is Spin The Bottle: Bumpie's Party, a mini-game collection focused around the GamePad that was developed by KnapNok Games; in some senses it's rather experimental, and puts both the latest controller and Wii Remotes to work in promoting a collaborative party experience.

If that's an intriguing, somewhat quirky experience, similar adjectives can be used to describe Knytt Underground by Nicklas Nygren — better known as Nifflas — which is also available on the Wii U eShop. While not a game to cause any head-scratching with its controls, it's an experience driven by the creativity behind the world that you explore, itself almost intimidating in size and full of challenging rooms to tackle. With a curious cast, some potent messaging and a refusal to cater to or accommodate players not geared up for a challenging adventure, it still stands out as an intriguing platforming adventure on the store.

Naturally, when two such studios combine, you have the potential to bring together the respective skill-sets of both — that's a topic we discussed in our recent interview with Nifflas. Somewhat encouragingly, our initial time with that collaboration, Affordable Space Adventures, suggests a strong marriage of the studios' respective styles; the world creation of Nifflas is joined by an interface and game design approach that seems well suited to the talents of KnapNok Games.

On the surface this is a flying exploration adventure, as you guide a diminutive ship through varied environments populated by dangerous creatures and mechanisms designed to block your way. What's immediately obvious is that a relatively simple concept is immediately given its defining qualities by the Wii U and, specifically, the GamePad. You're not simply flying a ship and activating a limited number tools with a button press, you're truly piloting it. The viewpoint may be a flat 2D perspective, but actual manoeuvring and control is as if in first person, courtesy of the GamePad's touch screen.

At all times the controller's screen shows multiple tools, ranging from engines — both electric and petrol powered — to landing gears and a setting to control mass, essentially your ship's reaction to gravity. That's just the beginning, and later levels throw up various extra tools utilised through the touch screen interface — some items are on-off, others have multiple stages and settings to consider. The right analogue stick, meanwhile, can be used for controlling the hugely important flashlight, or for the equally vital task of scanning enemies.

Those system aspects were our responsibility, as we used the GamePad in a game of co-op with Nifflas; in single player you'll also fly the ship with the left stick. On this occasion the developer — and our guide in this case — was simply flying the ship with a sideways Wii Remote, potentially the easiest role, as we served as an engineer / technician that dealt with the ship's controls. With three players another will take over the flashlight, an important role for survival.

Our first feeling in early efforts was to be slightly overwhelmed, though it should be noted that we requested to see levels that would show off the various mechanics — it's inevitable that starting on level one will be a gentler, more accommodating experience. The interface made sense, though there were a few icons and menu taps that caused an occasional trip-up; we were told that the development team is still optimising and tweaking the layout. It sure felt like a control panel for a spaceship, however, which is not something that can be said every day, as we even had to keep an eye on temperature levels to avoid overload — there's a lot to consider.

This approach does bring inherent challenges. If you want thrusters you don't just tap a button, but you adjust a scaled setting on the GamePad screen. What you quickly learn is that your job is to not only use the right tools, but also pull off the correct execution. Some enemies are sensitive to sound, for example, so in order to sneak by you must kill the engine and reduce your mass to drift upwards, perhaps gently rocking the GamePad to shift the ship's angle if it becomes wedged on a wall; alternatively you may need to quickly build momentum and then kill the engine in order to silently drift by. There are environmental puzzles that require you to select the right landing gear — there are multiple options — and clamp down, before using your more powerful petrol engine to push a mechanism around; of course, the engine may overheat, so you need to manage that as well. It's clear the challenges will be varied, as we also saw enemies that react to light and creeping vines that prefer the dark.

There's plenty of creativity in this level design, and the challenge for experienced players — those that take on GamePad duties — is to learn the interface and become proficient in using the many capabilities of the ship efficiently. In single player this is likely to be a challenging process to test the mind as well as gaming ability, while in co-op the load is spread, though without constant communication the endeavour is doomed to failure. It seems like a sure-fire way to make the title feel distinctive when played alone or with others.

Though the developers are looking at introducing an 'easy' option, it should be noted that this appears to be suited best for attentive, patient gamers. The complexity of controls mean that you can't simply blast through levels, and it should also be emphasized that there's limited sign-posting or explanation, at least that we could see. You may be able to scan enemies, for example, but all that shows is its range of sight; it's down to you to figure out the means of getting past, and making a mental note for future encounters with that creature. Generous checkpointing seems to encourage a degree of trial and error, though naturally our playing partner knew exactly what to do in each case.

In that sense our play session was perfect for seeing puzzle-solving mechanics in action and learning the game's logic, but we expect that playing without the developer's assistance will be a more gradual, painstaking process. That's a strength in the sense that it'll be a thoroughly involving, engaging experience, but should also serve as a reality check for gamers in the kind of game on offer. Pick-up-and-play this isn't, unless you're on a Wii Remote with an experienced campaigner on the GamePad.

Yet, in our view, that's absolutely fine. The vast majority of games on the market are, comparatively, simple experiences in which an awful lot is automatically done for the player. Any experience actually challenging you to control the nuts and bolts of a spaceship is sure to be tougher to master, and there's scope for that trial-and-error aspect to truly make the player work and, ultimately, value the achievement of clearing an area. This also feels like that rarest beast — a game designed exclusively to explore and emphasize the strengths of the Wii U. The first-person control panel on the GamePad — to look at it from that perspective — allied with the 2D view on the screen doesn't feel like a disconnect, but a new way to approach the puzzle exploration genre. There's no other system on which to play this title so intuitively.

Affordable Space Adventures does have challenges ahead as it works towards a release — targeting later this year. Finding the balance of trial-and-error and clear, fair visual cues and lessons to educate the player is one area, to ensure that knowledge feels like an asset as the title progresses. The second major challenge is accessibility, so that however the game is played those that experience it don't feel overwhelmed by the interface and demands of the ship's mechanics.

At this time, however, we're optimistic that these concerns will be addressed. At the very least this is shaping up to be one of the most interesting experiences on the way to Wii U, a title that can truly show what the system's dual screen setup and local multiplayer options can achieve.

Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3 and the post-E3 event in London:

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