The game fails to properly equip the player for the challenges in the game. That sounds like a criticism, but it really works in its favor.
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, WiiU (2015)
Developer: Nate Schmold
Release date: early access
There's a traceable pattern in some indie game movements, particularly those inspired by so-called retro, 8- and 16-bit aesthetics. Starting (arbitrarily) with Terraria's platform adaptation of Minecraft, we can see Starbound take the same concept into space, Spelunky replaces construction with exploration, Bro Force focuses on destruction. In every case, the formula either grows or is augmented by adding or substituting mechanics. These games share a lot of the same DNA, complicating that DNA each time something new is released. Cosmochoria feels like it's a part of this family, but it's uniqueness lies in reducing the formula of many of these other games, not by adding to it.
Like Terraria and Starbound, the player is dropped into a randomly generated world with the implicit goal of exploring it. Like Spelunky and Shovel Knight, a million things immediately begin to try and kill the player with ever growing effectiveness. Like Bro Force, it is as much fun clearing enemies as it is to be overwhelmed by them. Where Cosmochoria differs, though, is in how straightforward the goals are. The player must drift from planet to planet, planting each one with life. The player must develop a planet from a barren rock into a state of self sufficiency before flying off to the next.
It starts with a single seed, which when it grows into a tree, produces a handful of more seeds, which each then becomes more trees and so on. Everything else in the universe is a distraction from filling it with life. Alien saucers will attack the player, who can repel them with their ray gun or other weapons laying around the universe. Defeated enemies leave behind gems that can upgrade the player's stats, but otherwise, everything returns to the central planting mechanic. Everything else is just background.
A fully terraformed planet gradually fills the player's health, and the larger the planet, the more health that it will restore, but the longer it will take to terraform. The more planets that the player brings to life, the more difficult and numerous enemies become with a space dragon appearing every four terraforms. The player can also collect bricks to construct defense towers to help with ambushes. This creates an internal tension between taking up valuable time and space to build defenses or to nurture inert but necessary plant life.
The player cannot defend themselves while planting or building, but they also cannot win any battle of attrition without a living planet to keep them alive. Moreover, they cannot remain on a single planet indefinitely or they will run out of room to plant. Finding new planets means jetpacking through space where a new ebb and flow dictates the player's decisions. Controlling movement in space is effectively frustrating. Gaining momentum to change course at high speed takes a lot of finesse, while moving slowly opens one up to alien attacks. Only entering a celestial body's gravitational influence gives the player the time to regroup and revitalize another planet.
The game also fails to properly equip the player for the challenges in the game. That sounds like a criticism, but it really works in its favor. The first few attempts to navigate the universe and learn the controls are doomed to failure. The player character just doesn't have enough health or time to restore more than a few planets before enemy patterns become unrecognizable. However. Resources gained between lives don't disappear, so every failed attempt allows the player to invest gems in upgrades. While learning the game at a mechanical level, the player-character gradually grows more powerful. It opens up the same memorization and pattern recognition that Spelunky operates on while pacing the in-game avatar's growth in a way superficially similar to Bro Force`s gradually expanding repertoire of bros. It's a grind, but the good kind of grind that couples learning and pacing with rote repetition.
It's also helpful that Cosmochoria had a sense of humour about itself. Most obviously, the hero is a naked man with a fishbowl on his head, but this sense of humor also reveals itself in the descriptions of his equipment and powerups. Moreover, enemies are an over the top mix between enemy sprites from the early console era and slug beasts from a Saturday morning cartoons. It's a nostalgic look that fits in with the game's generally silly tone. It’s also nakedly (ha!) fun. Like the platforms that it and its cousins are based on, it feels primarily interested in encouraging joy in moving and exploring. Finally, even though losing lives is just a part of the game, it lacks the implicit cynicism of FTL or The Binding of Issac that similarly insists on slaying the player’s avatar.
The game asks the player to die over and over again with the promise that both the player and the universe will be better next time. Every time the universe kills the player, they return more capable of bringing life to it, keeping aliens away, and exploring the void deeper. Unlike Terraria where all ecology and geology exists for the player’s exploitation, Cosmochoria sets the player on a journey to bring life and let it be. Unlike FTL where the player’s crew shrivels in the universe’s enormity, Cosmochoria presents a universe that accepts growth and learning even in the face of that enormity. Coupled with its open silliness, the game maintains an unironic levity about itself.
Cosmochoria does not reinvent the wheel. In many ways, it has an ineffable familiarity, reminding one of a number of independent, faux-retro games from the last few years. But as has been expected from the best games in this category, it has enough of its own identity to stand out. It's fun, endearing, and surprisingly positive with enough of the whimsical spirit of the arcade and the pioneering spirit of the independent scene to strike just the right balance.