by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
ALL BY MYSELF
Lone astronauts are always in vogue. In fact, I'd say we've got a morbid fascination with people getting lost out in the vast reaches of space. Perhaps it's something to do with the sheer, indescribable emptiness; the nothingness on a scale which we literally cannot imagine. We're inherently sociable creatures, and being so completely alone is the backdrop for countless terrifying games, films, and books.
It's a little unusual, then, to find a game which tackles this set-up with carefree humour. Lost Orbit, by PixelNAUTS, takes what could have been pure horror and turns it into a whimsical, thrilling fair-ground ride. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but they can't hear you laughing, either.
The game has you playing as Harrison, a maintenance worker left stranded after his ship is destroyed in the middle of nowhere. The space engineer trope is getting pretty tired these days, but it works well to quickly sketch his character – a man of simple pleasures and small importance.
You're escorted along the way by an AI companion, who provides some wry narration. Surprisingly, Harrison and the AI do grow as characters through the game, with a neat, if uncomplicated, narrative unfolding. It's definitely worth paying attention to along the way.
In each level, you fly through space, trying not to flatten yourself against one of many asteroids, planets, and assorted chunks of space debris. Each level ranks you based on time taken, points collected (a faux-resource ingeniously named Obtainium), and deaths incurred. There are also online leaderboards for every level, which adds a fun sense of competition, although only the truly talented will ever crack the top ten.
As you progress through the forty levels, more variety is introduced, from the water-worlds, which force you to pause and aim your next movement, to the delightfully inexplicable boost-ramps. There's never too much new gameplay dumped on you at once, but things are combined in increasingly tricky ways. I found myself chuckling darkly at the sheer deviousness with which some of the later levels are designed. Make no mistake, this game wants to kill poor Harrison – it revels in it.
Lost Orbit is also a very fast game, and the hazards from all sides demand quick reactions. Like many modern indie titles, it's a game which wears its difficulty proudly on its sleeve – a game of quick restarts and copious checkpoints, much like Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV.
The really brilliantly evil thing is that the game doesn't force its difficulty on you. There's nothing stopping you from taking it slow and steady; no timer forcing you to rush forwards. But you end up doing it anyway. You choose to. Despite all the dangers, despite the frustration when you face-plant the same rogue asteroid for the fifth time, you still try to go as fast as you can just because it's so damn fun. Like finally perfecting Doing Things the Hard Way in VVVVVV, when you hit your stride, soaring through a level at breakneck speed, it's a moment of pure, flowing joy.
The biggest shame is that the game is pretty short. With only forty levels, each less than four minutes long on average, you can expect to complete the game within 3 hours or so, even with plenty of cries of frustration along the way. There's the obligatory time trial mode, but I expect to see more content than this for the price point for it to be truly competitive with similar titles.
Graphically, Lost Orbit looks great. Colour palettes are cohesive and appealing, and the colourful, cartoon-like style is very reminiscent of the Borderlands series. Models have an angular, low-poly appearance, but it's all in keeping with the overall style, and should help to keep things moving at a good pace with no hiccups, even on lower-spec machines.
The real star of the show is the voice acting – mostly for the ever-present AI, who provides ongoing narration with some real gravitas – but Harrison isn't left wanting. Even though he gets no real lines throughout, he does have some excellent minor vocalisations (like whooping with delight as he gets a speed boost) which add a lot of character. Minor touches like this make a big difference in the perceived quality of a game, and it definitely has a positive effect here.
Overall, Lost Orbit is a joy to play. It's challenging in all the right ways, and never fails to raise a smile as you guide the ever-cheerful Harrison on his way back home. It's a shame there isn't more content to enjoy, as the hair-raising speeds mean it all ends far too quickly, but it's a minor complaint when the content that is there is of this quality. Pretty, fast, and fun, Lost Orbit makes it sound like being lost in space might not be all bad after all.
Fast, action-packed gameplay. Lots of fun to be had. Surprising depth of quality.
Not a huge amount of content.