Indie Wonderland: Space Run

A few hours in

Hey, welcome back! I flew a whole bunch of missions. For the beautiful — but cold — Susana Siren of Big Cargo, for the unnamed legitimate businessman of Nuclear Star, for space-travel-entrepreneur ‘Brandon Richards’ of VP Travel. Yep, you can say it’s a fine bunch of human beings I’ve lugged around cargo for.

Pictured: a fine human specimen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my previous-page intuition turned out to be right: five companies, five mission lists, five different cargo types. We’ve already seen BC’s inert cargo and Nuclear Star’s explosive nuclear waste, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. VP Travel, for instance, is in the business of offering star travel for tourists… meaning their ‘cargo containers’, VIP travel suites, need to take up valuable edge-of-ship real estate, and receive a steady supply of power. As for the remaining two companies… but let’s not spoil everything, here.

Pictured: a picturesque journey through friendly space.

Companies diversify their cargo in later missions as well. BC’s offerings expand to include not just small containers, but also large containers — I know, what a shock — and ‘mechanic’ modules, which can actually be used to build more containers than you start out with. VP’s super-VIP suites take up even more ship space. And Nuclear Star moves from small nuclear waste cisterns, to long-form fuel rods, to actual nuclear missiles.

Yes, you’re allowed to fire the missiles if you need to. No, you won’t get paid if you do so.

Unless I’m mistaken, each company eventually unlocks six missions in total, following some convoluted narrative path that’s not really worth getting into right now. Six missions per company, five reputation points per mission, for a total of 150 reputation max — and hey, Space Run happens to have an achievement for that. Between the five of them, I reckon I’ve done about half of them. And between thát and the fact that I can now see all the potential unlockable modules — six per category, because why adopt this neat hex theme if you’re not obsessively sticking to it — I feel pretty confident in writing this second page of review. I’m not at the end just yet, but I don’t see my opinion as-is regarding Space Run change much.

So, what is my opinion as-is regarding Space Run? It’s, er, pretty decent, you guys. Space Run’s core play loop is fairly engaging, with the different cargo types, ship loadouts and enemy patterns doing a decent job of keeping fresh an otherwise simple concept. Closer inspection of that loop does reveal some fundamentally odd design choices, particularly regarding the module unlocking system, but the ill repercussions of these design choices are limited enough to not sour the generally enjoyable gameplay experience — overmuch. Space Run’s excellent visual aesthetic definitely helps: the spaceship-building and enemy-shooting are made that much more fun because of pretty and visually consistent the whole thing looks. And while the writing occasionally sounds like a crash course on overdone clichés, and the voice acting’s a little flat sometimes, I still got quite a few chuckles out of the whole thing.

*chuckle*

Gameplay-wise… Well, no need to mince words here, I guess. Gameplay-wise, Space Run is basically a tower defense game. Type B, if I have my terminology correct*. You get a limited space to build your towers in, your lasers and your missiles and your shields and whatnot, and enemies pass past your ship in clear, pre-defined paths. Your goal is not to defeat these waves, necessarily, but to survive them, sit them out: your ‘engine’ towers slowly fill up the victory bar, and the faster you get that done, the better you win.

I mean, sure, that’s not what playing Space Run feels like. What it feels like is streaking through space at the speed of zoom, engines bursting into blue fire as soon as they’re constructed, stars and planets zipping past as you hurtle from space-dock A to space-dock B. What it feels like, under the best circumstances, is a mad dash for safety, a terrifying trip through a space-shipping lane filled to the brim with asteroids, travelers, and more pirates out to blow you to hexagonal dust than you can shake an interstellar stick at. What it feels like is, almost, a ludonarrative explanation for just why Buck Mann is in such high demand: because he’s the only person crazy enough to brave the much-maligned aether-ways in service of cargo transport, who’s also skilled enough to actually do it.

Laying the interstellar smack down like it ain’t no thing.

But there’s no denying that mechanically, Space Run is a tower defense game with a victory bar. Some towers charge the victory bar, some towers are immutable objectives, and all the other towers serve to keep those important towers in one piece. And Space Run’s visceral appeal does take a certain hit when you realize that adding engines to your ship doesn’t actually make it go faster. You can’t outrun enemies, or even outrun asteroids, and there’s no fancy maneuvering of any kind.

In a way, it’s almost more realistic this way, isn’t it? Yours is not one of those fancy six-degrees-of-freedom space fighters, that just fly in and out as they please. What you have is really just a flat plate with engines that you strap cargo to. You point it at the space-dock you want to get to, fire the engines, and hope you get there relatively intact before lasers and space dust rip you apart.

Try as you might, this big-ass asteroid *will* reach your ship. And it won’t be pretty.

Taken for what it is, Space Run is a decent tower defense game with an interestingly different mechanical setup. I’ve already mentioned the basics: every level, you get a different ship size and layout, and a preset number of cargo containers of different shapes and attributes. And one basic engine. You actually have to wonder why Buck Mann tears his ship apart at the end of every mission, then fails to buy any more starting components for his new ship save for one engine. Even in missions where he’s literally warned by space pirates that they’re going to rob him, Buck takes to the space-lanes with nary but one engine, a handful of hexnuts, and whatever nonsense he gets people to pay him for for strapping to the ship. I’m curious if Addam ever points this out to him.

“Buck, seriously? Brown Beard gave us advance warning, and you’re not even springing for a shield generator?”

Then again, I guess he does get the job done. With maybe a few laser scuff-marks here and there, but hey. Dangers of space.

Space Run starts out relatively simple, just lasers and engines, but grows in complexity rather rapidly. Both many of the new modules you unlock and the special abilities you add to existing modules require a resource called power, which is spread in a small radius by placable power generators. Newer modules get incrementally bigger, too: while the basic laser and engine take up one inside hex each, higher-level modules can go for two hexes, or three, or even four, in varying layout patterns. And while missile launchers and shield generators of all kinds are okay with just inside hexes, the second-tier laser actually requires three outside hexes free in order to be placed! It’s kind of a prima donna that way.

In fairness, it has some pretty sweet moves once you get it set up *properly*.

All modules can gain access to two active special abilities, at varying power costs, following the simple formula of: Ability 1 costs as much power as it takes to keep the module online, and ability 2 costs that much power plus one. Again, with the basic modules, this system is simple enough: lasers and shield generators and engines will always be able to access their basic abilities, and they’ll get to their second abilities — and passives, if you’ve unlocked those — when next to any one power generator. But for later modules… getting the turbo-laser online alone costs two power. So you either place two basic power generators next to it, or one level-2 generator… which takes more space. But now it still can’t use its second ability, so you still need to add a secondary generator. Or just go for the leve-3 generator immediately, which takes even more space. Or you could use the activated abilities of the earlier-tier power generators in a pinch, both of which are to the effect of ‘add more power to nearby stuff for a while’. That is, assuming you have the hexnuts for that…

And that’s not even tapping into the content of the special abilities. For instance, regular lasers’ first ability allows you to rotate them, a much-needed upgrade (that you can basically immediately get) that strongly increases their usefulness against threats from different angles. Their second ability, powered, increases their fire rate for a while, at the expense of locking them in place. Simple shields can be recharged and expanded. Power generators repair nearby structures. Engines can be boosted for extra gain, or cut off to gain you credits over time. Missiles deal extra splash damage. Ion cannons scramble targeting computers. And so on, and so on…

In effect, with the later modules and abilities in play, Space Run becomes an incredibly hectic dance. As waves of enemies pour in from every direction at once, you’ll frantically scramble up and down, trying to keep track of what’s what: which towers did you build, what are their orientations, which constructions are powered and shielded, which abilities are available and on cooldown and… oh, great, that power generator just exploded, now I can’t rapid-fire. Do I have enough hexnuts to replace that? Maybe I can Tactical Break the engine… no, that’s on cooldown. Why is that on cooldown? And why isn’t my front laser working? Is that one still powered?… Oh, wait, I left it in alternate configuration, of course it can’t shoot straight! Should I keep it that way, or change it back, should I build a new power generator or another gun or maybe another shield generator, why are enemies coming from every direction at once?

“What did you expect us to do? Approach you one at a time like cartoon lemmings?”

Space Run’s hectic terror nature is its strength, as no runs are more memorable than the ones where you just barely managed to keep in one piece. It’s also its weakness, however, because… well, as the previous example hopefully demonstrates, Space Run is just too hectic sometimes.

Honestly, my biggest perceived failing in Space Run is that it doesn’t have an active pause button. Or even something like temporary bullet time. I know something like that would go against its high-octane nature, but there’s just so much happening on-screen at once that it’s nigh-impossible to keep track of and manage everything. And it’s one thing to lose because you built the wrong towers facing the wrong way, but another thing entirely to lose because your feeble human hands didn’t manage to active Mass Repair quickly enough. Again, I understand that rapid-response gameplay is probably the core of the intended Space Run experience, but that doesn’t mean I can’t begrudge it its lack of a ‘take a calm look at the situation’ options.

And regarding the former: ‘building the wrong towers’ actually happened to me more and more in the later missions. At the start, you’re given an increasingly large supply of start-up hexnuts, but no idea what to build or prepare for… and it’s incredibly easy to spring for a new engine or two, then find yourself short on funds when three pirate missile boats suddenly show up. It’s not quite Do It Again, Stupid, but I can’t shake the feeling that later levels get a little trial-and-error-y sometimes. Particularly when boss fights are involved.

Oh, yeah: there are boss fights. They hook you with a holo-chain, slowly fly a partial circle around you while shooting lasers and missiles at everything you own, and then either explode or fly away. Both are victory states, surprisingly.

“Yarr, I have you now! Your engines are disabled, your weapons are destroyed, and your precious cargo be mine for the takin’! I’ll be leaving now, bye.”

Actually, come to think of it: all enemies do this. They fly up to you, shoot you a prescribed number of times, and then fly away again if they’re not dead yet. It’s a little weird, looking back. What exactly is these pirates’ game plan? Because right now, I can see three possibly outcomes: either they die in a fiery explosion, they leave without any profit, or I explode, taking my valuable cargo with me. What is up with that?

And for that matter, I’m not entirely sure what the deal is with the other transport ships, either. While enemies are red-ringed and asteroids are yellow, you occasionally pass by green-ringed ships, independent transporters, ferrying the same kind of cargo you’re currently carting around and not making a big deal of it. And Buck just shoots them. They’re usually not even armed! For all I can tell, these people are slowing down to say hi to a fellow space-trucker, and Buck’s automatic death cannons just blast them into a paltry sum of hexnuts without as much as a hello.

I’d really like to sit in on one of Buck’s post-mission debriefings, is what I’m saying here.

“Buck, thank you for coming. You transported four containers of valuable cargo to this station, and we’re very grateful for that. However, you… also seem to have attacked and destroyed three other carriers on your way here, *destroying* *nine* similar containers. We’re… Buck, we’re not entirely sure what to make of this.”

Ludonarrative weirdness aside, however, and assuming you can either deal with or actually enjoy the super-rapid stress-pace, Space Run is a fun game. It’s equal parts tower defense, limited space puzzler, and adaptation engine: one big rush to see if you have what it takes to get the cargo there, fast and safe. And while most of the enemies blend together after a while, the growing variety in cargo types and ship modules ensures that your brain and your trigger fingers’ll have enough to do for most of it.

Though if we’re being honest: I’m not entirely sold on the module unlocking and upgrading mechanic as-is. I understand the joy of getting new toys, sure. But tying access to these toys to your level-score-based money account rubs me the wrong way a little bit. Later modules and upgrades in particular become really expensive really fast. And with levels becoming correspondingly harder, your money supply dies down just as your money demand ramps up. You can redo earlier levels at leisure, and it can be fun to try and get all five reputation stars in levels that used to be way too difficult. But I can’t shake the sensation that I’m expected to grind some of these earlier levels, in order to get the more powerful toys necessary to do well in the later ones.

Then again, they’re really pretty toys, so I do forgive them there. Space Run’s visual aesthetic is definitely a strong point in its favour, and one of the reasons I’ve played it for as long as I have was to see just what kinds of cool new swag I’d be getting my hands on next. The visual clutter of larger ships does contribute to the sense of being overwhelmed by choice and unclear potential, but that’s a small price to pay for looking as cool as you do.

Though you may never be Space-Captain Blackbeard cool.

Final thoughts

So yeah, Space Run. Fun, interesting, hectic, high-octane. Challenging, both in the good ‘gotta try your best’ and the bad ‘gotta work your way up’ ways. Narratively okay, chuckle-worthy, if a little weird. Looks pretty, and uses ambient sound design to good effect. I had my fun with it.

Will I play more Space Run in the future? Honestly, realistically, probably not. I just don’t have the time! In-between the future games I’ll play for this column, the games I play to socialize with friends, and the games I play because they’re addictively enjoyable, I tend to find I don’t have the time or the gumption to spend much more time on games I’ve already poured my focus in for a week straight. But Space Run is definitely going on the ‘wish I had the concerted time and effort to play more of this game in the future’ list… which I should really try to get to one of these days. There’s so much good stuff on there.

If Space Run sounds like your cup of Earl Grey, hot, it’s available on Steam for a paltry €15-equivalent. Less, even, during the Summer Sales, so get it while supplies last and all that.

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*Tower Defense Terminology, Jarenth Edition: Type-A tower defense games are games where you use towers to path monsters and to build a maze. Type-B tower defense games are games where monsters follow a pre-set path, and you place towers on certain pre-defined places to kill them before they reach the end. Spread the word!

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