When you think of games like Asteroids or Sinistar, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Moving past the first two answers of “asteroids” and “sinister stars,” you’d probably conjure an image of a space adventure with a simple premise, featuring hordes of enemies that assail you from all sides while you struggle to come to grips with the difficult controls. Cosmochoria – developed by Nate Schmold and officially released on Steam last week – is exactly that, along with a few things that you almost certainly wouldn’t imagine.
Cosmochoria‘s tagline is “A tiny, naked cosmonaut with a jetpack & laser blaster must revive a dying galaxy by planting one seed at a time,” and that pretty much sums it up. The gameplay consists of controlling your naked astronaut as he hurtles through space, planting seeds on dead planets in order to bring them back to life. All the while, you’re endlessly bombarded by UFOs, tiny tentacles, giant space wasps and floating eyeballs.
Cosmochoria starts off slow, dropping you off in the middle of a dead galaxy with nothing but your laser pea shooter and a single seed. A small window in the corner of the screen informs you that you should claim this newfound planet by dropping a flag. Once you’ve staked out the planet, you can plant that seed you’re carrying with you. You open a radial menu, select your seed to plant it, and then hold a button to tend to it for a few seconds. After a bit of waiting, the seed sprouts, and you can pick its bright, shiny fruit for, you guessed it, more seeds!
Keep up this process, and a heart icon in the center of the planet will eventually fill up and the planet will turn back into its brightly-colored old self, complete with a sweet, sweet treasure chest. The chest which might contain a bomb, or crystals that you can trade for upgrades, or maybe a mysterious artifact.
Throughout this process, enemies begin to trickle in – first it’s just one UFO which is easily dispatched, even with your piddly starting gun. But as you plant more seeds and claim more planets, the enemies gradually ramp up, both in number and in variety.
Allow me to paint a mental picture of the average Cosmochoria session for you: Two or three UFOs keep dropping slimy eyeball-stalk monsters at you, while robot heads swoop in to pepper you with lasers and space hornets dart madly around you, harassing you while you try to plant your seeds. You decide that you’re feeling too crowded, so you jet off into space and leave them all behind, only to run into a giant fire-breathing space-dragon. Your traitorous jetpack and the damnable physics of space collude against you, making you fly in circles until you run out of fuel and fly off in a random direction. If you’re lucky, a planet’s gravity will suck you in, and you can start on capturing this new planet while your jetpack recharges. If you’re unlucky, you’ll keep on hurtling through space until you eventually crash into the sun and die.
But even in death, there’s a high note. Killing enemies and opening chests rewards you with crystals, which can be used as currency to purchase upgrades and new weapons or costumes. Pick up a shotgun, or a sniper rifle, or a homing blaster, or maybe just increase your health and speed, and then get right back into the game. Murder more aliens, get more crystals, and buy more upgrades. It’s a cycle that kept me coming back again and again, no matter how many times I swore I’d kill the fool who invented jetpacks.
I have a few complaints about Cosmochoria, aside from the inherent problem that I have with jetpacks. You can’t change the control scheme, nor can you intuitively swap between keyboard and gamepad controls. Instead, you have to open the options menu and manually swap between the two. Not being able to switch controls on the fly isn’t such a big deal, but each mode has its own quirks, so I found myself wanting to switch sporadically. The keyboard and mouse offer you a higher degree of precision, so you’ll never overaim and send a spray of laser into space about six inches too high, while the gamepad makes selecting items from the radial menu a little faster, and holding B (instead of S) feels a little more intuitive. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but being able to drop my controller and start mashing keys on my keyboard while I’m surrounded by enemies would have been nice.
My biggest complaint, however, is that Cosmochoria lacks any clear direction. There were several spots where this simply made me feel frustrated. Maybe scant exposition is part of the inherent nature of paying homage to retro space shooters, but after I’d found my third dimensional stone and picked a “Mysterious Numball” for the ninth time with no clear indication of what either of them did, I started losing patience.
Most of Cosmochoria‘s items have their nature revealed to you when you transport them to a bearded wiseman on a tiny planet, but the magic 8 ball that I kept finding eluded my understanding. The NPC just kept saying “Thanks, I lost that.” Is it a nod to the other items and their easily revealed mysteries? Was it just a knick-knack that I was supposed to laugh at when the bearded man told me that he’d lost it? I have no idea.
The stones are checkpoints (I think), starting your game with a number of planets already captured. But does it do anything else? I dunno. The bearded man just says that they’re stones of power that (probably) let me travel between dimensions.
This happens with a lot of items, which makes me think that it’s a feature instead of a flaw. I’m (probably) supposed to be carrying these items around and searching for effects until I find out what they do, a la other rogue-likes like The Binding of Isaac. But when I bring the items to be identified, I get a brief description (be careful, that pendant is evil!), and then I don’t have it anymore. I don’t know. I just don’t.
So, on to brass tacks – is it fun? Yeah, I’d say so. Cosmochoria revolves around a unique set of mechanics that make it refreshing to play. The fact that Schmold’s work isn’t very complicated makes it very approachable: sit down, drop in, and spend some time in space, no strings attached. The jetpack can feel a bit fickle, but let’s be honest, that’s just me being bad at physics. Cosmochoria can also seem a bit arbitrary at times – pick up this item, fly across space to have it identified because that’s just how it works. But overall, Cosmochoria is a pleasant experience that you can spend a fair amount of time on.