A puzzle game that really pulls you in.
3,096SRP: £2.79My wife’s workplace has a charity box. Not just any charity box, but the kind that looks like a giant funnel. The kind that when you put a penny in it spends the next minute making a satisfying whirring noise as it defies gravity, whirling around and around in ever decreasing circles before dropping into a central pit. Clink. Between the noise and the motion it always steals a few coppers from me whenever I pick her up.
I’d like to think that Alan Zucconi must have donated a few coins that way, too. As my latest satellite circles a planet, slowly being drawn down into its atmosphere, its orbits getting dangerously close to its surface, I can’t but help see the similarities between his creation 0RBITALIS and that charity box. Clink.
0RBITALIS is a devilishly simple puzzler that pits you against the greatest force in the universe: gravity. In the deepest reaches of space you fire out probes, sending them on arcing trajectories through the void to skim past moons and slingshot round suns. Why is left a mystery but what is certain is that none of them will last very long. Though the intent is keeping them orbiting for as long as possible the pull of the heavenly bodies is irresistible and so always it is a matter of when your probe will be sucked down and not if.
Although this may sound like a lesson in futility, a constant stream of failure, it is actually quite the opposite. The overriding sensation I felt was one of fascination. Every time I fired off a probe into space the following seconds – that’s the sort of life expectancy we have here - saw me sit in rapt attention as it flew off on its initial, predictable path before being taken by forces out of my control. The plan you had in mind hardly ever comes off and so you watch, learning how this particular part of the star chart likes to toy with you. You have an idea, of course, but watching as your poor probe is flung around is mesmerising.
The use of geometric shapes leads to a striking visual style but their simplicity also offers far more than that. Each planet’s gravitational pull is determined by its number of sides. Tiny meteor-like triangles may tug at you half-heartedly but large heptagonal suns suck you in from a far greater distance. Even the stars are affected, bending under the force of nearby planets as though iron filings drawn towards a magnet. It’s an intuitive system and one that allows for each new galaxy to be assessed at a glance.
Fire and forgetA portion of 0RBITALIS’s draw is due to how easy the controls are yet how uncertain their result is. It’s possible to play single-handed as your cursor controls both direction and power, a heavy line drawn in front of the probe indicating both whilst a second dotted one shows the trajectory as soon as gravity takes hold. Although this sort of prediction may be considered cheating in most snooker games the forces acting upon the probe are too great to survive unaided, especially when you consider all those forces are constantly in motion around you. Leave your mouse still and you’ll see the probe bend away through space, its predicted route altering wildly as it goes. With such a range of influences it’s nigh on impossible to pull of the same launch twice in a row leading to you cherishing your more successful efforts as you vainly attempt to recreate them. This is as much a weakness as it is a strength however as this inaccuracy and variability occasionally grated during particularly tricky stages.
When they do come off there’s a building sense of excitement as the timer counts down, immediately followed by wonder as to just how long this can go on for. You get to appreciate the slingshot motions as they whip satellites round stars and witness the point where the pull slows their escape and turns them about happy in the knowledge that you’ve already cracked the level. Even after playing for several hours it’s still engaging to watch the forces at work.
The understated nature of both the sound and the visuals provide a perfect marriage for the theme.
The bulk of the game is based purely around keeping your probe happily floating around for a long as possible, and mostly this works thanks to pleasing level design. It would have been all too easy to have a single sun surrounded by more and more nightmarish combinations of planets but instead Zucconi prefers to mix it up. Galaxies with huge gravitational pulls off to one side, threatening to throw your probe off-screen and cast it into the darkness; planets moving through asteroid fields littered with a host of tiny forces; and dual suns that tug back and forth. There’s an understanding that to make any of these too fiendish would be to undermine the mood of the game so although each are achievable, even if through trial and error, they all leave the gate open to improvement. Some of my favourites are the ones that offer the merest hint that a never-ending and stable orbit is achievable, ones where I hope my probe may fly forever. I’ve no doubt this is false hope but it’s the possibility that keeps me going.
The game falters slightly when it turns this core principle on their head and asks you to crash as quickly as possible. Though it mixes things up, these levels never have the same level of satisfaction as they quickly reduce into a series of rapid retries, each time seeing you move your mouse ever so marginally from where you launched before, trying to shave fractions off your time. Even now several leaderboards are topped by scores that are tied because the optimum time has already been seemingly achieved.
0RBITALIS fares far better with some of its other tweaks to the formula. Requiring you to orbit specific planets for periods of time, firing off multiple probes, and presenting blue planets that repulse instead of attract, all refresh by forcing a reconsidered approach. Some of the most challenging see suns whose gravitational pull ebb and flow, meaning it’s no longer about power and direction but more than ever about timing the launch.
Shooting for the stars
- Great physics
- Striking visuals and sound
- Encourages experimentation
Hitting the ceiling
- Odd duff game mode
- Variability in results could annoy
0RBITALIS PC Review0RBITALIS is built around a single, core principle and that focus shows. Alan Zucconi has created a wonderful platform for a physics-based puzzler that if not predictable then at least is always fair. It is never stretched too far and through good judgement he has created a series of levels and variations that for the most part let its strengths shine through.
Though its unpredictability could turn some away, the sound and vision are equally likely to draw them in. A mix of haunting soundtrack and minimalist visuals dotted with many subtle effects work together to make it a pleasure simply being in the game.
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