Affordable Space Adventures is one of relatively few Wii U eShop exclusives, and is unsurprisingly a particularly unique arrival on the store. A collaboration between KnapNok Games and Nifflas, it brings a fusion of the former's expertise in user interfaces and control mechanics, and the latter's surrealist visual and puzzle design. Right off the launch pad it sets itself apart from many other experiences, making it an intriguing adventure to embark upon.
The plot premise here is - like the collaboration itself - and interesting mix of humour, fear and mystery. The title represents the brand of a somewhat scruffy company that offers trips to a planet supposedly lush with exciting scenery and mystery; you're treated to instructional videos and manual pages that raise a smile. That humour is interlaced with the darker reality of your ship's situation, however, landing on the planet to discover multiple dangers and a low-fi ship that's barely functional and is only just capable of allowing you to progress.
A key strength of Affordable Space Adventures is in this storytelling, which itself is mostly limited to environmental signposting and ambiguous hints. Without spoiling too much, early on you see wreckage of other visiting vessels, and through the many levels you see notable changes in environment; some are natural while still alien, others suggest relatively primitive but sizeable human-style technology, and in other areas there are mysterious objects that defy explanation. This is typical of Nifflas, in particular, and the evolution of environments and the journey you undertake are full of surprises that certainly drew us into the world.
That tone is certainly important, yet moves beyond being a simplistic yet fascinating journey courtesy of the control mechanics in place. Playable in single player or for up to three co-operatively, you do not simply fly through levels solving remedial puzzles, but manage all key aspects of your ship. Utilising the GamePad - which is mandatory - the touch screen is host to all of your ship's system settings; these include choosing between a Fuel or Electric engine, managing thrust and a variety of other factors, right through to changing landing gears or opening and closing heat vents.
To begin with single player, in this scenario you control everything yourself - the left and right sticks handle flying and your flashlight / scanner, with shoulder buttons for scanning and firing flares, while landing gears can also be managed with face buttons. You also manage the range of systems on the touch screen, so progress is a matter of careful progression, assessing options and managing the many inputs once a plan is in place. On most occasions you scan an enemy and assess its weaknesses - a simple example is that it may be averse to noise, so you use the electric engine - before formulating a route past it. You don't attack enemies at any point as you have no weapons, so it's a case of surviving on your wits to get through while solving environmental and conventional puzzles.
The puzzle design across 38 levels is generally excellent, and in later stages in particular is clever and engaging. In some cases system management is simple but flight path is important, or puzzles are easy to execute but tough to figure out, while in other moments managing an engine and rapidly changing settings on the move is required. We've flung our ship - all power off - past menacing robots, or used the 'Sticky' landing grip to grab onto a bot and avoid deadly beams. as examples. There's a lot of clever design here.
Importantly, and this should help the majority of players see the surprising ending, you can switch difficulty level as often as you want, even on a level-by-level basis. Technical is the tougher challenge that's worthwhile for those up to the task, yet Tourist takes the edge off some puzzles; the latter isn't ridiculously easy, but is useful for stages where the head-scratching becomes frustration.
We've enjoyed single player a great with this title, but it's also pitched as a unique experience to play with others. Up to two others can join the GamePad player, with roles defined depending on the numbers taking part. The Astronaut managed the eyes-down user interface on the touch screen, the pilot flies the ship, and the Navigator works the flashlight and scanner / flares; with two players the second player takes on flight and scanner duties. It's a simple but brilliant division of duties, as the nature of assessing and co-ordinating to solve puzzles naturally gets all concerned talking, and in our case demonstrably helped with some of the trickier puzzles. While it seems simple, the level of craft and precision in the control setup is admirable.
Both approaches - single or co-op - deliver a memorable experience in Affordable Space Adventures; we enjoyed playing on our own with headphones and a quiet space to really soak in the atmospherics, but also had fun tackling tricky sections with friends. While the experience is different each way, however, the levels and puzzles remain the same; that's both a strength and a weakness, especially for those concerned about replayability.
There is some merit to revisiting levels on your own or in co-op depending on the approach first-time-around, but the issue of value should be addressed. Our run through of the campaign, about 95% of it on the Technical difficulty level and with a mix of single and multiplayer, lasted 5-6 hours. They were half a dozen high-quality, immersive and intriguing hours, yet for some there'll be a question over whether the premium price at launch - by eShop standards - justifies that. We'll say right from the off that we're supportive of any game maker that produces a quality product and seeks a fair price, and so the pricing here seems absolutely fair. There's not a significant amount of replayability beyond introducing it to more friends, though, so that will be a consideration for some.
Affordable Space Adventures is, though, one of the eShop's top-tier games, and deserves immense credit for its approach to utilising the Wii U hardware's unique capabilities. There's devotion and care from both development studios, too, with small touches evident throughout; attractive, stylised visuals and art design, a brilliantly moody and diverse soundtrack, and tightly honed controls. Only occasionally did we feel a self-contained puzzle didn't quite hit the heights, but in most cases we were thoroughly impressed.
Affordable Space Adventures is a unique game that can only conceivably work this well on the Wii U, though the 3DS could be a decent alternative in future. It not only utilises the GamePad, but makes it integral to the experience, while tackling it solo or with others is equally rewarding. There's evident devotion to small details and quality from the developers, and though it's over relatively soon we wouldn't have missed this adventure for the world. There's nothing else quite like this out there, and it's certainly a trip worth taking.