Indie Wonderland: Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?!

A few hours in

I did end up finding that cat.

She was a good cat. I ended up calling her Nebula.

So, this is how my adventures in space went: First, I found the space cat. This was actually tenser than I thought, because evil lackeys of an evil doctor (associated with the evil Eclipse) showed up too, and I had to save the cat from being vivisected. It was an exciting boss battles, big guns, many stages, and at the end, good triumphed over evil and I took the cat on board. There was some narrative justification on beforehand about the cat increasing our warp drive potential, but none of that was referenced again or reflected mechanically, but whatever.

In the second galaxy, Harrison Potato-Joke Ford asked Cassie and Fay to help him find the Temple of the Lost Quark. And then Raid that temple, obviously. This quest was also interesting, because instead of being a multi-stage affair like the cat hunt, the whole thing sort of came to a head on the very first objective. By which I mean a boss fight happened. That I was woefully under-prepared and under-equipped for.

So I lost.

Pictured: me not doing so hot.

You might be wondering how, if this game apparently has tough boss fights, Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! handles things like saving and checkpointing. The answer is that you don’t manually save, but the game saves at certain important intervals. Like right before a boss fight, which was an unwinnable state for me. Or right at the start of the galaxy, which was one jump away, and I didn’t see any way to get this ship in shape in the allotted Sols. Or right at the start of the previous galaxy, which would essentially amount to starting over.

So I actually started over.

Same name, different ship.

A lesson wiser but an hour shorter, I figured this loss meant I wasn’t strong enough yet. I skipped out of the first two galaxies with plenty of Sols left on the clock, while I could also have used that time explore and get rich. So I did! I nominally worked my way through the cat mission again, but in reality, I spent all the time I could spend on getting loot and money. And that paid off! I was much stronger when I fought the first boss, to the point of almost stomping him with ease.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the slight miscalculation I’d made, which meant that I arrived back at the Hub with 0 Sols left. Which meant that the deadly Eclipse fleet arrived. Which meant I was dead.

They’re strong enough that you really cannot fight them. You’re supposed to be able to escape, but even *after* spent ten minutes figuring out the joke of this password-protected escape screen, it still didn’t matter — low escape chances meant certain death over like three iterations.

I’m on my third playthrough now. I struck a decent balance between ‘getting paid’ and ‘getting out alive’ — getting a third weapon slot and upgraded capacitor early on really helps in the long run. I saved the cat, I discovered that the other galaxies are sort-of randomly selected — no Raiders of the Lost Quark for me — and I woke up a Sleeping Beauty, helped a strange samurai woo his girlfriend called Aunt, and beat back an attack by loose cannon cops Starchsky and Hash. I’m currently in a galaxy where I’m supposed to help some potato actress reach a planet that’s probably not haunted, and I think I’m supposed to overlook the fact that this galaxy is called Phantom of the Space Opera.

In case you were wondering, the answer is no: *nothing* in this game isn’t some incredibly thinly-veiled pop culture reference.

The haunted planet will probably have to wait for a little while, though. Give or take one infinity. Monday rolling around means I’m out of review time for Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?!, and honestly? I don’t really see myself coming back.

Fresh off the heels of Brigador, Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! manages to be the second game in as many weeks that I just don’t really have very strong feelings about. It’s not bad, per se, though it does make a few design decisions I would question. It works fine enough, all the parts move right, and… it for sure definitely is a video game, I guess. But all the same, I can’t quite work out what game this game wants to be. A good damning-with-faint-praise way of describing Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! is that it feels like a grab bag of mechanics and ideas, thrown together for the sake of wanting them included with only limited thought to making them into a mechanical whole, and even less thought to the narrative side of things. It is what it is, is what I’m trying to say, but what is it?

Let’s focus on the mechanical side of things, that might make it clearer what I mean. If you strip away all the cruft, the meat and potatoes (heh) of Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! is the travel and exploration gameplay. The largest discrete units of action are galaxies: Each galaxy has a Star Hub (with the same four upgrade shops), a warp gate, a main quest, a time limit expressed in Sols, and a random selection of brightly-coloured planets. The objective in each galaxy is complete the quest, which ‘unlocks’ the warp gate, and then leave that galaxy before Sols run out. All quests that I’ve been so far involve traveling to planets, exploring them, and satisfying the quest conditions so you can trigger advancement — some quests are really simple and single-stage, while others take you through a small handful of steps. All in all, the game viewed through this lens is reminiscent of FTL: exploring a strange and unknown galaxy, looking for the single point of escape before overwhelming enemy forces arrive.

Traveling around the galaxy takes time and fuel: each trip eats 1 Sol, and about two dozen points of fuel. Similarly, exploring takes a Sol and about a dozen fuel. Running out of fuel means having to pay for intergalactic towing (no, really), so that’s something you want to avoid. The principal way of regaining fuel is revisiting the Star Hub, but then that can take a lot of time. Alternatively, you can get lucky during exploration…

For a certain value of ‘luck’.

I outlined exploration on the previous page, but to recap: by spending the needed Sol and fuel, your ship flies down to the planet, and then travels across a panoramic-scrolling 2D representation of what that planet probably doesn’t at all look like. During exploration, you can run into between 2 and 6 random encounters. Some of these will be Choose-Your-Own-Adventure sections, which involve a bit of dialogue — very often pop-culture related, yeah — and two or three choices. There’s a floating box out in space, what do you do? An elderly spud-woman needs help carrying groceries, what do you do? There’s an asteroid in your way, what do you do? That colony is infested by giant spider, wha- No, wait, that’s FTL, but the comparison is apt here too: the choices aren’t always intuitive and definitely aren’t always set, so most of them are a roll of the die to see if you smile or frown. Or, more commonly, one option is the ‘easy way out’, while the other option is a chance for either wealth and happiness, or chunks blown out of your hull.

Alternatively, you might find some combat! As you no doubt picked up on, combat in Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! is a turn-based point-and-click affair. It’s very much not like FTL, but is instead reminiscent of another game I reviewed earlier, Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander. Except that instead of three ships shooting at three ships, you have one ship with up to four weapons shooting at one other ship with up to four weapons. Listen, though — the comparison stands. You and another ship take turns shooting at each other’s hull, shield, and weapons, until either you explode, the other ship explodes, you flee, or the other ship tries to flee — at which point you’ll probably destroy it anyway.

You can totally accept a decent cash bribe to let fleeing ships escape. But — and this is crucial — if you *destroy* an enemy, you don’t just get cash and weapon blueprints, but also their *fuel*. Which means this fun and colourful space games involves rather a lot of murdering unarmed spacecraft as they desperately try to bribe you for their lives.

Now, so far, so good. In and of by themselves, none of these elements promise a particularly bad or forgettable game. Explore space, fight for resources, save the day — the potential for exciting stuff is there.

The first cracks in the armor start appearing when you pay closer attention to the way quests work. See, I said that in order to complete quests, you have to explore planets. This is technically true, and probably brought to your mind — as it did to mine — the image of having to find things on planets. The very first quest is always the cat hunt, which means that the cat is probably on one planet somewhere, right? You just have to explore and find it. But exploring takes fuel, and incurs damage, so you’ll want to replenish at the Star Hub often, but that takes time, so it might be better to go on and push your luck…

Except this doesn’t seem to be how it actually works. It’s possible, albeit unlikely, that I’ve just had a really abnormal or exceptionally serendipitous experience. But in all the quests I played, the quest trigger always moved to completion after exploring the first planet I flew to. The very first one, every time. What’s more, the exploration usually had nothing to do with the quest: the space cat didn’t show up during an exploration bit, and neither did the Quark Temple, or Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The trigger for completion isn’t ‘exploring the right planet’, it’s ‘exploring any planet at all, any one, we don’t actually care which’.

Which planet is the space cat on? Joke’s on you, it doesn’t matter. Stop trying to influence things.

Since planets don’t really matter, it’s possible to complete any quest in really short time. Particularly the Sleeping Beauty quest, which doesn’t even have a boss encounter at the end, can be in four Sols flat — fly to a planet, do the exploration, finish the quest, fly back to the Hub. And once you complete that quest, Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! pushes you to move on — the new objective is always ‘warp through the gate before Eclipse arrives’. You might even be tempted to do that.

Except there’s still the combat. During the exploration and during the boss fights. And if you’re not vigilant in keeping your weapons up and buying ship upgrades, you will get your ass kicked. That’s what happened during my first playthrough — I jumped into a boss I was in no way prepared for, that I didn’t even know I might not be prepared for. Holy Potatoes‘ combat is cutesy and colourful, but also really tough, owing to the long-term design: enemies can and will target your weapons, and if you’re not either careful or very lucky, they can actually blow your weapons up, leaving you short one gun and traumatizing the associated crew member.

And any time you want to escape from combat, you have to remember the escape password.

This is where the comparison to FTL really rears its head. In order to do well at Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?!, you need to not run from a galaxy the moment the gate goes open, but instead stick around and grind. Your Sols in each galaxy are limited, but otherwise generous, and you need to squeeze as much juice out of your time as you can. Which means exploring every planet you can, even multiple times if your Sols count allows. Remember: exploration gets you crafting resources, and the $tarch you need for everything: ship upgrades, weapon blueprints, more crafting resources, training, research, therapy…

I did finally work out what the Therapy Room is for!

The crafting is such a weird mechanical addon, if you’ll let me pivot. You can find crafting blueprints throughout the game, most commonly by destroying enemy weapons in battle. Crafting weapons takes time, one crew member, and a variety of the five crafting resources, which all have different names and icons but which might as well be called ‘Crafting Resource A through E’ for all the impact it has. The exact stats of crafted weapons range around a mean: one weapon might have higher base damage, or lower accuracy, or higher crit chance, or higher power consumption… this is all summarized in the weapon’s effective grade, which goes from C to SS.

Crafting weapons is also a good way to turn cheap blueprints and materials into actual money.

Anyway, pivoting back: The way difficulty in Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! can suddenly and unexpectedly spike, it feels like the only ‘correct’ way to play is to grind your time for all it’s worth. Which is not necessarily an invalid design choice, and I know a lot of people who profess to enjoy that kind of grinding. But I’m sure you can at least see how any interesting or fun content is going to run dry through repetition pretty fast. Get ready to see a lot of floating boxes, is what I’m saying.

And then there’s the combat. If the larger exploration game is the meat and potatoes of Holy Potatoes, the combat is the spice that gives the meat its capsaicin kick. Which is to say, it’s interesting and engaging, and people might actually enjoy the real sense of danger and impact. At first. But as time goes by, and you keep grinding identical-feeling combat encounters, that initial spicy tingle is going to turn into a burning mouth sensation, the taste of pain on your tongue, and an overwhelming desire for a glass of milk. Which in this analogy means… I don’t know. Might just be milk. That would explain why I went grocery shopping as often as I did this week.

I think this is the point I’m building towards: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Holy Potatoes‘ systems in isolation, and in small bursts the game can actually be pretty fun to play. But the mechanical setup and scaling difficulty seemingly ensure that you have to grind your nose off in order to stay competitive. And once you do, the cracks in the system start becoming apparent. Like the repetitiveness of the enemies, or the incredibly clunkiness of the battle system — where every round you have to manually click and target every single weapon you have to fire, then sit through a small animation of all your shots hitting or missing. Longer if you also add any special abilities. It can be quite a chore to sit through any of the battles. But, crucially, you cannot auto-pilot them — while there is a ‘shoot as many weapons blindly as you can’ one-click button, if you don’t play optimally, there’s always the looming specter of the enemy getting a few good shots in and destroying one of your favourite weapons. And I mean destroy, as in gone forever. It’s at once both crushingly tedious and incredibly dangerous, kind of like driving a fast car on a sparsely populated highway — part of you wants to nod off from all the boring driving, but if you do so there’s a good chance you and a dozen other people are getting hurt or killed. Which isn’t quite the danger with Holy Potatoes, I guess, but listen: the simile stands.

I stopped paying attention for a minute and now I’m fighting enemies with weapons that far outclass mine — and I’ve actually been crafting and upgrading weapons at every turn.

In JRPGs, this is normally where things like plot and character development save the day — people are willing to endure a lot of random grinding if it’s for the sake of digital people they like. But Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! has… well, nothing. Cassie and Fay are barely characters, existing only to put a player-avatar face on the proceedings. And they’re still the most developed by far. Everyone else is just… It’s all pop-culture references, all the way down. I don’t even remember if there is a plot! Something about Jiraga, and Eclipse, and… Something? Your mileage may obviously vary, but it probably won’t. You might play this game for the mechanical challenge, and I can’t promise you’ll never laugh at the easy humor, but you definitely won’t be engrossed in the plot. I certainly wasn’t, and if I’m not…

Example: three galaxies in, I got a mission that looked for all the world like an actual plot-progressing mission. And it was!… Except it also wasn’t. I ‘met again’ with Starchsky and Hash, the Eclipse agents that ‘nearly got us last time’, and now they were going to ‘lure us into a trap’, or whatnot. Which all sounds exciting, except I had no idea who these spuds were, or if I was supposed to have met them before, or why I should care. I wanted to care! It just wasn’t there. These antagonists were dropped out of the blue, thrown into a single-round boss fight, and defeated, and then they ran off swearing eternal revenge or something. I wanted to know why this was something I should care about, but the game wouldn’t tell me.

This would have been a satisfying payoff if I’d ever met these dudes before — say, if the tutorial wasn’t a hundred-year flashback, but me fighting these dudes, and only barely escaping.

But if the story doesn’t hook, all that’s left for Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! is the mechanical iteration of traveling, exploring, and upgrading. You explore planets because you need resources. You need resources to upgrade your ship. You upgrade your ship so you can stand up to enemies in later galaxies, and explore the planets there. You explore the planets there because you need resources…

Final thoughts

Have I mentioned the systems I haven’t mentioned? I mean, by definition I probably haven’t. There’s about half a dozen systems in Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! that just… don’t seem to matter much. Like, crew members can learn skills, which seems important — but once you have the health-regenerating skill for each weapon and maybe a crafting skill, the actual numbers are busywork. Planets have difficulty indicators, which I think are supposed to guide your travel plans. You can find treasures for special crew members. And maybe the most ur-example of all: You can actually switch between Cassie and Fay as pilots in-between explorations, and both have different pilot abilities. Not that this is ever mentioned, or explained in-depth. It just… exists. In the pilot menu of the overview sub-menu, which you can play for a long time without ever accidentally finding.

And that’s Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! in a nutshell, really. It’s a game with a lot of ideas, some good, some bad, some funny, some cringeworthy, of which only five or so have been developed into an actual gameplay loop. The rest is just… there. To provide occasional flavour to what is otherwise heavy on grind for the sake of grind, a number-increasing race with as nominal goal the completion of the story, but as actual mechanical goal the increasing of the numbers.

This self-meta text adventure bit was pretty clever! Too bad there’s not more of this stuff in the game, and instead, a million random battles.

Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! isn’t a bad game by a stretch, but it’s also not really good. At my most positive, I would call it a competent space battle and resource foraging game that leans a little too heavy on repeated random battles and pop culture references. It could definitely stand to develop a little more of its own identity and cosmology, as well as work on ease of user control and UI optimization. And maybe pare down the endless references a bit. Just a bit.

Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space?! runs 15 bucks on Steam. That’s a lot of French fries you could otherwise be buying.

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Jarenth doesn’t actually think fifteen bucks gets you all that many French fries. More than enough for one person, sure, but is it a fair comparison? Bring this up on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

4 comments

  1. Ah, but 15 dollars worth of spuds, that you then make into your own French Fries? That’d be loads.

    Jarenth, I’m curious about the review process. I read a lot of reviews, but I don’t have much insight into the review process. Would you be interested in writing a piece about how you do these things? I’m interested in everything: what makes a good/bad review game for you? How long does a review take, in terms of gameplay and writing? Do you make notes whilst playing, and if so, how detailed are they? How much writing gets online and how much of it gets thrown out? I’d like all of the details.

    Sound interesting to you, or not your thing?

    1. I mean, I can probably try. I don’t know how insightful that would be about ‘the review process’ in general, but I’d be happy to pull back the sausage factory curtain on my own work method.

      1. Yeah, I imagine each reviewer’s process is as different as the reviewers themselves, but that’s part of why I’m interested. I think you can get more out of reviews if you know a little about the mindset and preferences of the person doing the review. I’m also curious to learn just how a person with a full time job manages to put out a lengthy, high quality review pretty much every week. :)

  2. I’m guessing 14.511 is meant to be fourteen and a fraction (various countries have opposite meanings for “,” and “.” in number notation), unless that is a reference I don’t get.

    The first game was…okay, but I had filled my potato people quota for life by the time this one came out. I was surprised to see this game get a day-one release on GOG, though, so good for them.

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