by Joel France
previewed on PC
AN EXPLOSIVE ADVENTURE
Fission Superstar X has a decidedly quirky premise. You’re a clone, created by insane genius Dr. Leopold of Planet X, tasked with chaperoning budding superstar Celine Fission on a whistle-stop stadium tour through the solar system. One tiny wrinkle is that Celine happens to be a nuclear warhead capable of destroying an entire planet, and so most of the system’s residents are out trying to stop you. As you pilot your way through asteroid fields, ion storms, and space cows, you’ll be fending off other ships that wish to bring your journey to an premature end. The writing is striving for wacky humour, and though it can be a little hit or miss, the overall light-hearted tone is refreshing and helps to differentiate Fission Superstar X from other, more self-serious titles.
ONE MORE TIME (WE'RE GONNA DETONATE)
Billed as a rogue-lite, Fission Superstar X harnesses the randomisation and permadeath tropes common to the genre. The loss of your ship signals the end of that attempt, though luckily there’s a seemingly endless supply of clones back on Planet X who are willing to give Celine’s mission the old college try.
You begin by launching from the Doctor's base — Celine sits proud at the head of your ship, complete with a scrawled-on smiley face. You fly into space and are immediately set upon by forewarned enemy ships (Leopold insists on hijacking TV sets system-wide and broadcasting your approach). After each stretch of combat, you’re given the chance to choose your next path — weighing up the options which allow you to improve your setup, whether that’s visiting a weapon seller, or ducking into a bar to hire mercenaries in a manner reminiscent of the Mos Eisley cantina (many of whom are tongue-in-cheek nods to sci-fi classics).
Gameplay is a constant back and forth between these open-ended choices and the linear combat stretches. The combat portion can be helped or hindered by your environment - navigating through a convoy of freighter ships will reduce your ability to outmanoeuvre an opponent, while flying past a massive carrier will see you bombarded by health-restoring drones. As you progress through the game you’ll also be chased by space police and local gangs. This requires you to balance your ideal path against the need to keep moving forward, since some of the better upgrades and resources might take you closer to the pursuing threat.
After beating the boss protecting each planet, you’re treated to a shot of Celine in her preferred habitat: on stage under floodlights performing to the bemused locals. You are then given a choice: continue on to the next planet in the system, or allow Celine to give her final, explosive performance. Electing to detonate your performer causes the run to end, and your first time blowing up a planet will unlock a new ship with different strengths (the one unlocked from Pluto, for example, is a more nimble vessel, but suffers from a lack of adequate armor).
Fission Superstar X works best when you’re forced to choose between multiple strategies, fine-tuning your ship and your crew to maximise your chances of staying alive. There are many layers of gameplay, all of which attempt to feed into this decision-making core. How many crew members can you afford? Do you risk going to an area crawling with police in order to upgrade your ship? What weapon should you buy at the shop, and who do you give it to?
The four turrets on the ship are manned by the four types of crew you can hire along the way, and each has a special skill you can use at the end of each zone. The engineers and medics heal your ship and crew respectively after a tough stretch of combat, with the scientists giving your crew members extra armour to help the resist the next battering. The pilot’s skill is an interesting one — using it improves the skills of all your crew, meaning if you’re confident, you can forego a small recovery during early stages to ensure you’re able to effectively bring your ship back from the brink when it counts.
FEAST OR FAMINE
The vast amount of variability can be a balancing issue when it comes to rogue-lite design, with layers of randomisation causing a snowballing effect that needs to be accounted for. When you need to spend all your money to heal after a tough section, you’re left unable to upgrade and therefore permanently behind the curve. This can seem a little unfair when you’re not given the opportunity to upgrade fast enough to outpace the threats you’re facing. Current weapon choice is a little limited, but developers Turbo Pelvis 3000 have plans to include a larger range, ranging from rifles to nuclear mortars (assuming Celine won’t get jealous).
It takes a little while to click, but Fission Superstar X brings plenty of variety to the table, with a great deal of strategies to choose from. However, in its current state the balance seems to heavily favour certain approaches, and so you are at the mercy of the randomisation presenting the stronger strategies to you. With a bit more focus on the viability of the various options, the decisions could become much more interesting.