Indie Early Access Land: Cosmochoria

Have you heard of Indie Gamer Chick‘s #GamesMatter operation? The gist of it is basically this: in order to counteract the recent wave of negativity and hate that has become associated with video games, and in order to remind everyone that games are a force of positivity and happiness for so many people the world over, IGC has teamed up with developers to give away free videogames. To… more or less anyone who wants them. Cool, innit? Giveaways happen in time-limited and amount-limited batches, so check out IGC’s Twitter if you’re interested.

It is through #GamesMatter that I got a hold of (among several other games) an Early Access key to Nate Schmold‘s Cosmochoria. From a brief developer stream, I got the impression that it looked like a happy colourful game where you jetpack around the universe planting plants on planets. Which is to say, it looked pretty interesting. And because of that, in the spirit of the originating event, and because I didn’t have anything more pressing to write about this week… well, here we are.

Standard Early Access warnings apply: everything that I say can, and probably will, change over the course of development. Cosmochoria is more or less in the Earliest Access, too, so normal caveats apply doubly.

Cosmochoria: An Early Access Look

I can review Cosmochoria as it currently is in three sentences. Here, watch:

Much like I expected, Cosmochoria is a happy colourful game where you jetpack around the universe planting plants on planets. It has its charm, but the current build is also deeply flawed, confusing repetitive pressuring combat for challenge and lack of meaning and direction for exploration incentives. It has potential, but bringing out that potential will require some rigorous digging into what kind of fun Cosmochoria wants to provide.

But none of you read Indie Wonderland to watch me be concise about things, now do you? So let’s take this from the top.

Cosmochoria starts out cutesy. Here, title screen:

This is pretty cutesy and I won’t hear otherwise.

Yes, the main character on that screen appears to be a naked kid with a bubble helmet and a ray gun. Far as I can tell, Cosmochoria’s plot involves that baby-kid being ejected from planet about to be eaten by a tentacle space dragon. I assume that messed them a little up, somehow. And… made them immune to the vacuum of space?

Evil tentacle space dragons have that effect on people, sometimes.

Now a fully grown… child, Naked Space Kid is on a mission. A mission to rejuvenate space. A mission that can be summarized in four words, which just so happen to correspond to the four main controls.

*Conveniently so.*

But, regardless of the presence or absence of space dragons, Cosmochoria still opens up cutesy. Every new game starts you out on an abandoned, rocky planet, with only a single plant seed in your inventory. PRESS S, Cosmochoria intones, and you learn you can plant the seed.

There is also a magic 8 ball, for reasons unclear.

HOLD S, the game tells you, and you find out you can water the baby sprout. NOW WAIT, you are told, as the plant slowly matures.

Then, the plant fully blooms. The miracle of life! The blooming plant injects some vigor into the previously-dead world, as evidenced by the smattering of colour that returns to it, and by the center heart that starts filling up. The blooming plant also holds a handful of seeds: seeds that you can use to fill the planet with even more life.

It’s a pretty concise circle of life.

Bloom enough plants, and the planet returns to a full life cycle! As its heart fills up and spills over, an atmosphere is formed around the once-dead rock, clouds and a blue sheen directly, non-verbally telling you that your work here is done. Good job, Naked Space Kid. You rejuvenated this planet!

[victory fanfare plays]

At this point, Cosmochoria drops the ball a little. No prompts are offered as to what you can do after saving a planet, beside running laps around it and planting even more plants. I suppose paying attention to the controls screen earlier could give you a hint? But for me, if I hadn’t caught that developer stream earlier, I would have had no idea that the right mouse button actives Naked Space Kid’s jetpack, allowing them to rocket off the planet into space.

“I must go. My… other planet, needs me.”

In search of other planets to save.

“That other planet meant nothing to me, baby.”

Flying through space, returning life to barren planets, havin’ adventures. Sounds like a pretty fulfilling, if low-effort task, am I right? Well, it would be low effort, if it wasn’t for the aliens.

Did I mention the aliens yet?

*Fuck* the aliens.

While Naked Space Kid (NSK) is doing their thing, random UFOs will blink into existence every so often. These UFOs shoot lasers at you. They also drop various small monsters on the planet you are on, as UFOs do. Slimes, eyeball monsters, Day of the Tentacle tentacles… Both the UFO lasers and the monsters drain NSK’s health, ever-so-slowly, and it’s up to you and your trusty blaster to scatter them into atoms.

They all deserve it.

This is where Cosmochoria starts to come undone.

Individual UFOs and aliens are not a major threat to NSK: they deal paltry damage, and they explode relatively quickly. They’re mostly just annoying to deal with.

A typical Cosmochoria scenario is this: you’re on a planet, working your magic on a seed you just planted, when you hear the tell-tale sound of a laser blast. Maybe the red laser line will enter your direct area of vision, which means the UFO is somewhere in your current hemisphere. In that case, you can stop planting your seed to fire your gun in its general direction until you hear it explode. Or maybe you don’t see the laser directly, which means the UFO is on the other side of the planet. In that case, you can either stop planting your seed now, walk over, and kill it… or you can ignore it for the time being, wait for it to make its way over to your side of the world, and then stop planting your seed to kill it.

The alien invader vanquished, you return to the task of planting your seed. Until the next alien warps in, or the next laser sound pings on your eardrums. This will happen more quickly than you think.

And in larger numbers.

Individual UFOs and aliens are not a major threat to NSK. Cosmochoria compensates for this by making them many. UFOs spawn fast, and often. It might have been my imagination, but I definitely had the feeling the intensity of their appearance ramped up over time: UFO spawning on the first planet was subdued, but on later planets, it sometimes felt like I couldn’t go for five seconds without another one of the bastards showing up.

What definitely isn’t my imagination is the floating robot heads, which start showing up later in the game whenever you jetpack off a planet. Punishment for daring to progress the game? And neither have I imagined the giant fireball-blasting space worm dragons. Every three planets, like clockwork.

“*yawn*. ANOTHER giant fire-breathing space worm.”

But for the most parts, you’ll be fighting the same four UFOs and the same planet-bound monsters over and over. And over. And over.

Killing monsters in Cosmochoria never feels like a fun thing. It’s busywork: an repetitive task you have to undertake every so often, not for any intrinsic benefit, but because there will be consequences if you don’t. Like cleaning your house, or brushing your teeth. Fighting monsters in Cosmochoria is as much fun as brushing your teeth. You can imagine why I’m not too positive about it, overall.

Defeated enemies drop crystals, the meta-game currency used to unlock new weapons and upgrades. What monsters markedly don’t drop is any kind of health. Rather, health is regained by you hanging out on planets you’ve healed: the giant planetary heart of love you fill up slowly siphons back into your health bar. It’s an interesting idea, and I can see how it works in the context of the gameplay Cosmochoria purports to support: you are incentivized to keep exploring the galaxy, finding and healing new planets in order to keep yourself on top of your game…

…except that, as I mentioned, the game starts punishing you for doing exactly that. Both the no-space-for-you robot heads and the planet-gated boss dragons impose hard caps on the amount of exploratory, space-flying-y fun you’re allowed to have.

The first two dragon worms are beatable. The third one breathes stun-locking ice balls.

The long and the short of it is that Cosmochoria’s combat does not feel like fun. Rather, it feels like an obstacle, unwanted busywork standing between you and healing barren planets with your array of colourful, happy plants. Which makes it so weird that so much of the game is currently devoted towards the combat. Almost the entire meta-game upgrade system consists of combat-related upgrades: health, and movement speed, and jetpack speed, and a wide array of different weapons. There is a poorly-implemented tower-building mechanic, the sole purpose of which is to help you shoot down the endless waves of identical UFOs. There’s even a killstreak-based weapon upgrade system of some description, that I totally overlooked the first two times around. I don’t want to upgrade my guns, Cosmochoria! I want to heal the universe.

I want more giant planets to give atmospheres to, not more giant space worms!

Unfortunately, ‘healing the universe’ isn’t entirely there yet in Cosmochoria either. Right now, the planet-healing gameplay lacks a lot of direction. Any kind of direction, really. All players have to go on is the advice of the magic 8 ball, which tells you to ‘find the bearded one’. Which… okay, sure, I’ll try. Can you tell me, like, where to go? Space is kind of large! I could be flying around for a long while before I find any sign of life.

But no, you’re not told where to go. Just… kinda fly around, I guess? Fly around, and fight aliens, and heal planets, and hope you trip over the game’s larger plot before you heal so many planets that the aliens and the space worms overwhelm you.

There are plot elements in Cosmochoria’s universe: a bearded man, parts of a superweapon, warp portals, and some kind of space cop who trades seeds for weapon upgrades for reasons I don’t fully understand. But by and large, it seems as though you’re supposed to find those on your own. By way of random exploration. And the problem about random exploration is that the second word in that combination is quickly subsumed in the first: without directions, without something to go on, ‘exploration’ becomes ‘randomly flying from planet to planet, fighting off endless bad guys while vainly hoping to find something, anything, that is more interesting than just another empty planet to spam full of plants’.

Seriously, though, what *was* the deal with this?

I think Cosmochoria has potential. It looks nice, it sounds nice, it controls well, and the idea of spreading life through the universe as Naked Space Kid is at least unique enough to warrant some initial attention. But I feel as though Cosmochoria doesn’t know what kind of game it wants to be. Its mechanics conflict, fighting each other for dominance: healing planets is interrupted by endless combat, space exploration is punished by robot heads and space dragons, the storyline is let down by lack of direction in a giant, open world.

Consequently, what Cosmochoria needs right now is to focus. What kind of game does it want to be? What experience are we supposed to take home, here? That of a universe-healing plant man? That of a space-dragon-killing warrior? That of a dauntless explorer delving into the age-old mysteries of the universe? What is this game about? And how do the mechanics of the game, the controls and the objectives and the possibilities, play into how that focus is presented?

If Cosmochoria wants to be a game about healing planets and exploring the universe, the relentless oppressive combat needs to change its tune. If Cosmochoria wants to be a game about fighting the dragons from beyond the edge of time, it can’t intersperse that with long periods of waiting for buds to sprout. If Cosmochoria wants to be a game about uncovering an ancient mystery and collecting a Crucible, it can’t punish players every time they venture out to explore. And so on, and so forth, und so weiter.

If Cosmochoria wants to be a game about awful, awful puns…

And I haven’t even talked much about the grind-based meta-game upgrade system, which trades hundreds of the crystals you get for killing enemies — one at a time — for incremental upgrades to health, speed and jetpack. Some larger upgrades do sound potentially game-changing — like a star map of some sort — but getting to that upgrade requires killing thousands of UFOs. And guess who’s not going to do that?

Cosmochoria is currently a deeply flawed game with a lot of potential. Should you pick it up as-is? I don’t know. Purportedly, this is more or less the kind of game Early Access is for: a game in search of direction, a game where fan input can directly, measurably help make it better. At its current 10-euro price point, that’s… a trade-off you could make. It’s not particularly pricey, so if the screenshots my story draw your interest, feel free to try it out for yourself.

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