This isn’t the first time I’ve swept through unfriendly alien worlds, rescuing scientists who have alarmingly got themselves trapped amongst a plethora of perils. Nova-111 is highly reminiscent of PixelJunk Shooter in that sense, which isn’t entirely surprising since the developers at Funktronic Labs migrated from Q-Games to their own new studio in California. They’ve aimed to create a game which fuses two normally antithetical game mechanics into a single play-style – and to their credit it works brilliantly.
Nova-111 blends turn based strategy with real-time elements, and while that might sound preposterous, it works. Each movement or action you make uses a turn, and enemies also adhere to these turns, at least during the opening stages of the game. You can skip turns too, which gives you a way to manipulate and anticipate enemy movements, depending upon your strategy. However, environmental hazards such as falling stalactites and certain enemy attacks are dictated by the passage of real-time, whether based on a timer or in the case of some enemies being entirely in real time.
There’s a lot of variation in the enemies to keep things interesting. The first you come across is the ‘chomper’ – an alien whose turns and movements are similar to the Nova’s at the beginning of the game. This leads to a dance of death performance, as both ships move a single space in a turn. New enemies quickly appear whose behaviour, patterns and restrictions evolve and become more challenging; turn-based enemies move further distances when they charge, gain invulnerability windows, invisibility, projectiles – both real-time and turn based – lay timed mines and more. In addition each world ends with a boss level, which forms a single large puzzle to beat.
Your ship, the titular Nova, is not entirely fitted for combat. As a research vessel its design was never centred around confrontation, therefore your main mode of attack is bashing into enemies with its face. This adds a huge element of vulnerability to the ship and can become chaotic when various enemies are present simultaneously. Thankfully, as you progress you do accumulate a small arsenal to help despatch the aliens invading.
The Polybomb is the first, and acts as a small blast which damages and stuns nearby creatures, allowing you to bash into them whilst they’re frozen. Polybombs require Polygel to use – a ubiquitous substance scattered through levels – but the other three abilities you gain all use ‘Science in order to let you fire a short range laser beam, phase through enemies and objects or stop time. Science builds up as you use turns, which means careful consideration is required during larger brawls, or you’ll find yourself defenceless and surrounded.
Controlling the Nova is fluid, tight and precise, which is greatly appreciated when many sections require you to think and act very quickly. Funktronic have clearly created the game with various play-styles and compulsions in mind, off the back of this. Finish a zone and you’re greeted with a screen, containing details regarding secrets and scientists found, but also the time and number of turns taken. Speed-runners may enjoy the challenge Nova-111 possesses, since the efficacy of a perfect run finds itself conceptually at odds with the traditional patience of turn-based mechanics.
However, Nova-111 is a puzzle game at heart and it truly shines in those moments where you’re tasked with traversing a large room with a swathe of different enemies – both those restricted to turn based systems, others who have active abilities and an eclectic array of environmental dangers. This mix of strategy can be complete bedlam, necessitating both turn-based awareness and dexterity, but a degree of fiendish planning goes a long way. The best results stem from directing enemies into each other and the various planetary dangers, whether these are lasers, indestructible Bouncer robots or fast spreading fire.
It doesn’t appear to be possible to ever completely flunk and break a puzzle. Levels are set up in a way that if a necessary component to getting through an area is breakable, then it will respawn in some fashion. Considering this is often an enemy creature, this is relieving, but death is less forgiving. Levels are all split into three fairly long sections, with death sometimes meaning you have to replay the last few minutes. Thankfully, insta-death is very rare, health upgrades are frequent for those attentive and most importantly the game almost never appears to be cheap or cruel in its difficulty.
During the later stages of the game, the story finds more purpose as brain-teasers involving the literal schism between worlds becomes apparent – with some interesting solutions involving use and reverse use of the timestop ability. Though the story a little thin, the abridged version is that scientists ruined everything by playing with science, causing a collapse between the turn-based and real-time continuums. Details and commentary come in from your ship’s resident scientist known as Dr Science, whose dialogue jarringly shifts between cringe-worthy and charming – although towards the end of the game I’d warmed to him.
It’s a shame that some of the puzzles are so rudimentary in design and inspiration. Switches, blocks, buttons and portals are pervasive video game conventions and considering the novel main mechanic this is somewhat disappointing. One repeating set of puzzles through the second world has you funnel objects through portals in what is essentially Aperture Lite. Anyone who has played Valve’s seminal games will breeze through these sections in moments, without stopping for thought.
Another disappointment I found was the level design. Nova-111 is marketed partly as an exploration game, but I found the linear levels to be a bit restrictive. Most have a single narrow path through, with occasional off-shoots and hidden secrets for extra puzzles, to rescue the 111 scientists of the game’s title or find health upgrades. Many secrets unfortunately require flailing aimlessly into walls, occasionally yielding a hidden path behind the foreground – the contents of which can sometimes be disappointing; upgrades are frugal and often a hidden path merely contains a peculiar sock-puppet called Mr George whose only reward is a repeated line of ‘random’ dialogue.
Aesthetically too, the levels can become fairly repetitive as each individual world’s zones look fairly similar – the first world in particular I found overstayed its welcome as brown canyons are universally indistinguishable. Nevertheless, this was only a minor gripe, especially since much of the artwork is superb, illustrating the developers’ PixelJunk heritage.
These flaws shouldn’t diminish any interest in Nova-111, however. When everything falls into place you have a manic, strategic playground that is often excellent fun. A very special commendation goes to the sound design. The dynamic music works wonderfully, but each creature and object has clearly had a lot of heart poured into their audio design which I found particularly pleasing, especially the cute, euphoric ‘yay!’ from newly liberated scientists.
Nova-111 should definitely be played by those who enjoy games with unusual and interesting concepts. Despite a few flaws, it remains a great game, featuring some superb moments and while the first few levels are a slow burn, the pace soon becomes manic. I’m personally very excited to see what Funktronic Labs create in the future.
Versions tested: PC, PS4, PS Vita