I would also attribute this surge of popularity to the continued prevalence of high quality audio and 3D graphics, especially in the indie sector. It’s a lot easier to create a terrifying or thrilling game experience with high-fidelity 3D graphics as realism can be stipulated upon to a much greater degree, whereas that same level of realism is not possible with 2D sprites. With the paradigm shift from 2D sprites to 3D polygons comes the greater potential for immersion and atmosphere, which is precisely what these games exploit to induce horror.
I recently had the pleasure of receiving a pre-release key for an upcoming indie game called Cosmonaut (product received for free). Cosmonaut is a narrative focused metroidvania action-platformer. It fuses it’s retro presentation with modern horror sensibilities to great effect, managing to create an unbearably eerie and tense gaming experience that I never thought possible considering it’s graphical limitations.
The game is legitimately thrilling, but you really ought to use a good pair of headphones to get the most immersive experience. I am not an aficionado of horror games by any means, but Cosmonaut managed to get my heart racing. For a game limited to a retro aesthetic, unable to compete with the fidelity of a fully 3D game series like Amnesia, this is an astounding accomplishment.
The narrative is simple but so effective. It plays with the ambiguity of artificial intelligence in a way not dissimilar to legendary author Philip K. Dick, which adds a great deal of tension and anticipation. Much of the game revolves around the player, a cosmonaut named Jarobi, repairing a derelict ship under the direction of its newly reawakened AI named Simon. Whether or not Simon’s seemingly unemotional intentions are suspect remains ambiguous. This is further toyed with in the on-ship logs that Jarobi encounters on the Diogenes. These are optional story terminals that slowly reveal what happened to the derelict ship and it’s missing crew, and they are a nice added touch to the already frighteningly mysterious narrative at work.
I was immediately blown away by the presentation. The art style features quality pixel graphics and animations, while the music is reminiscent of Metroid, with ambiance and synth wave taking center stage. Powerful moments of silence are used to great effect, augmented with the frantic breathing of Jarobi. The numerous moments of tension are periodically eased with the majestic harmonies of the save points; like bonfires in Dark Souls, they are Jarobi’s only solace on the Diogenes. You can’t even take refuge on a pause screen or menu – there are none. Quitting the game requires holding down the escape key while the words “I was too weak to go on” solidify on the screen before Jarobi blips out of existence. It’s a nice touch.
The game also has a Stranger Things feel to it. Besides the synth wave inspired music, which is a sound that was made iconic with the theme to Stranger Things, there are also chapter headings with lengthy ‘overture’ intro text, like Star Wars but the words don’t crawl. The game is also made to look like the player is using an old CRT television or monitor. The game has a decidedly 80’s retro feel. This all does wonders for the aesthetic, and is in part responsible for the exceptional presentation: Cosmonaut features an exceptional level of polish and attention to detail. Some may dislike the effects that simulate the CRT experience, such as the fish eye lens or scan lines, but I absolutely loved it.
The game play features your fairly standard side-scrolling with some interesting platforming mechanics thrown in – gravity manipulation. The gravity mechanics are a welcome twist to the typical metroidvania platforming. Changing your gravitational pull from platform to platform in quick succession is exciting and intricate, and quickly pulls you into a rhythm, like a kind of parkour. Checking the map is crucial; changing gravitational direction really challenged my navigational abilities. There are two stages in the final chapter of the game that ramp up the difficulty, both of which required several retries, each accompanied by clusters of profanity. This game gets legitimately hard at the end, which is fantastic.
The game changes in tone as soon as you get your first weapon. In terms of thrilling moments, there’s a lot to be exploited from weapons. In any other shooting game, gaining a weapon is a notable event but not a game-changing one. Upgrading from a pistol to a shotgun is minor compared to going from unarmed and helpless to armed and defensible; a good horror game bestows its weapons upon the player sparsely, to toy with the tension caused by the sudden acquisition and expenditure of power. A horror game like Resident Evil 5, while an enjoyable third-person shooter, does not achieve the same level of dread as the previous iterations in it’s series due to the overabundance of power given to the player. Luckily Cosmonaut does not suffer from this issue. So while Jarobi does attain a weapon at some point in the game, the combat never really seems to be the main focus, which is great. Instead, Cosmonaut consists mostly in intricately platforming from checkpoint to checkpoint, solving puzzles and killing aliens in pursuit of reawakening the Diogenes and furthering the excellent plot.
Cosmonaut is an excellent and compelling game, but it’s a mentally exhausting game. The presentation elements are so good, and the atmosphere so dripping with tension, that I found myself ending my play sessions prematurely than I would have otherwise, to relieve the angst. But the angst won’t be around for too long, as the game is rather short – my play through clocked in at just over 3 hours – and there isn’t much replayability once you’ve experienced the story. But again, the story is magnificent. Of course, there may be something to be said about the fact that the notion of a sentient AI on a ship conspiring against the humans within it is a derivative sci-fi trope. But if it is, I don’t think it matters. It’s done well, and it’s most definitely worth the price of admission.
There is room for improvement on the technical side of things. There does not seem to be an options menu to speak of, which is disappointing. It would have been nice to change my resolution, switch to windowed mode, or maybe even rebind keys or controller buttons on the fly.
I loved Cosmonaut, especially the last chapter; it features the greatest challenge, objective design, and writing, and wraps up the story in a satisfying way. The game asks a lot of the player in this last chapter – running, gunning, navigating, and platforming in real time, without a pause screen – and to see all of the game’s mechanics come together to overcome it’s greatest challenge is a thing of beauty. It doesn’t overstay its welcome – in fact it under-stays it. I wanted more Cosmonaut. I especially wanted to play some more of the game at the heightened level of difficulty it throws at you in the final chapter. Cosmonaut is just begging for a sequel to take these mechanics to their logical conclusions.
Cosmonaut launches on January 12th, 2018 on Steam (Windows). Simon says – go play it.
(this product was received for free)