In Affordable Space Adventures you take control of a “cheap but functional” spaceship called a Small Craft as you embark on a seemingly idyllic colonisation mission to a far-away world called Spectaculon. The story, and overarching world of the game, are mainly brought to you by infomercials and brochure pages from travel company Uexplore which may remind you of the Buy ‘n’ Large adverts seen in Pixar’s Wall-E. They offer the same fixed-grin type of marketing, promoting the safety of space travel, and the company’s safety record, though the player comes to know that there is a darker, less primary-coloured underbelly to proceedings.
In single player, the control of your Small Craft is via the Wii U gamepad, with you exploring in your delicate ship through the 2D landscape, following the allegedly safe Uexplore transport ship crash-landing on the planet. The ship’s systems are controlled by the main Heads Down display which appears on the gamepad’s screen, as well as shortcuts which are assigned to the pad’s face buttons.
At the outset the game gives you control of your standard fuel engine, with other systems coming online as you progress through the game. They expand to include an electric engine, enemy scanner, flares, as well as anti-gravity assists, a mass generator which can help move objects or submerge yourself in water and heat shutters which can stop enemies from detecting your craft’s engine output.
Enemies take the form of alien relics, which the travel brochures advise you to avoid at all costs. This is due to the fact that if they discover your craft they will destroy it without hesitation, via various destructive means. The puzzle elements often involve working out how to manipulate your ship’s systems in order to make your way past these enemies, with your scanner enabling you to see their sensor range and what they react to, with three dials on your Heads Down readout relating to sound, heat and electricity.
Your fuel engine is loud and creates heat, whilst your electric engine is quieter and makes no heat, but uses a lot of voltage. As you progress you gain use of extra systems, such as heat shutters that can mask your heat signature, though these often only work for a limited time, requiring fast and accurate operation to make your way through the landscape.
Affordable Space Adventures can often be quite punishing, though on the whole it never feels unfair, despite the perserverance that some sections need. Progress through the game, beyond making your way past enemies, requires thoughtful use of objects, and your ship’s myriad abilities, to beat different location-based puzzles. You’ll get used to the perfunctory bang your ship makes when it’s destroyed by laser beams or captured by alien foliage, as it happens a lot, but you’ll be coming straight back to work out where you went wrong.
When you play co-operatively though prepare for hilarity, frustration and a wonderful sensation of reward when you successfully work as a team. Playing with others splits the ship’s systems for up to three players, with one taking on the role of Pilot, who controls the Small Craft’s flight, another becoming the Science Officer, who controls the scanner, and the Engineer who utilises the ship’s systems via the gamepad’s Heads Down display.
Relying on others to perform their roles, and within the window of time the game often affords you, can at times be teeth gnashingly hard, and there were occasions that roles were ‘redistributed’, when certain members of the team failed to perform. Please note that playing with family members or partners who aren’t as good at games as you are may strain your relationship with them – and of course postpone important planetary exploration.
Visually speaking the game is attractive, and though you’ll often find yourself making your way through claustrophobic and labyrinthine corridors beneath Spectaculon’s surface it’s never dull, with glimpses of alien technology and new relics continuing to keep you interested throughout the game. The game’s audio is wonderfully understated, focussing on the sounds of your ship, and of the different enemy types, with electronic pulses and distant rumbling occasionally swelling beneath the action.
There are some fantastic little touches that make all the difference to the atmosphere. Visual glitching on the Gamepad when you’re being jammed, how your ship jitters when you turn the inertial stabilisers off, the way silence envelops your ship when you plunge into water and, my personal favourite, the sound of windscreen wipers when you find yourself above ground in a storm, all add to your investment in a fully realised and grounded fantasy world. Coupled with an endgame that is surprisingly emotionally resonant, and you have an early entry for game of the year.
The only technical issue the game suffers from is the extended loading times, which are alleviated somewhat by being able to read the Small Craft manual and Uexplore paraphernalia which is often increasingly amusing in its sheer banality. From integral systems to operating the glove box, co-developers Nifflas and Knapnok have successfully made loading screens a way of furthering the world of the game, a trick that many other software houses fail to replicate.
Affordable Space Adventures is a rare beast – a Wii U title that makes integral and natural use of the Gamepad, whilst also offering a careful and considered local co-op option alongside a hugely enjoyable single player mode. It’s a game that you can become truly involved in – I laughed, I cheered, I shouted at the screen in frustration – all within this remarkable world. It’s a game that Wii U owners simply need to experience, and one which other developers need to take note of when creating software for Nintendo’s unique console.