Platform: PC via Steam
Release Date: August 11, 2015
The platformer genre is crowded with games that stick to the tried-and-true formulas of the past, endlessly trying to one-up the great titles that have come before them. New ideas are often hard to come by, and entirely new experiences even more so. But every once in a while, a game like Airscape: The Fall of Gravity comes along that is so chock-full of new ideas and mechanics that you can barely catch your breath before another mechanic is thrown at you. They’re not always well-implemented, and they’re not always used to their full potential, but in those levels when they do come together, they turn playing Airscape into a thing of beauty. That is, unless the swirling camera has already sent you to find a plastic bag.
And this is a game where the camera swirls a lot. As the title implies, gravity (and sometimes the lack thereof) plays a fundamental role in the design of the game. Gravity’s direction changes frequently, and the screen whips around to match the new orientation of your character. Those familiar with the Mario Galaxy series may have seen similar concepts there, but here, gravitational effects are far more varied and extreme, despite play operating only within a two-dimensional plane. It’s common, for example, to jump between gravitational fields, turning a ceiling suddenly into a floor, or switch from running around a small circular mote of land into gliding through a suspended fluid as though gravity didn’t exist at all.
It can be a bit disorienting at times. The options menu lets you change the camera rotation speed so as it find something more comfortable, but it was difficult to play the game for a significant length of time without beginning to feel a bit queasy or detecting the early onset of a motion headache. The very nature of the game is one of its greatest obstacles to success.
It’s unfortunate, since the mechanics themselves are novel, complex, and worth exploring. Fittingly, it’s all obstacle-based gameplay, with no fighting, no bosses, no power-ups. You must simply run, jump, swim, navigate and puzzle-solve your way through mind-boggling worlds filled with dozens of ways to die.
Like any good platformer, however, it starts out simple. You take on the role of a tiny, nameless, helmet-wearing octopus that was abducted from his happy underwater home along with his buddies. There are no words to this narrative, and no story elements beyond a short introductory scene. You then find yourself cast into a fantastic and physics-defying outer-space world, apparently tasked with completing increasingly difficult levels and helping your abducted friends escape their new captivity. Initially, you can move side to side, jump, and run. Combine a run with a jump, and you go farther. But then things get interesting when fluids are involved, in which you can swim around, utterly untouched by gravity.
The levels build on this concept, adding all manner of deathtraps. From flying saucers, to homing missiles, to lasers, to giant sniper rifles that kill you in a flash if you stop moving. Switches might alter the direction of gravity, or cause a room to flood, or to set some deadly (but necessary) machinery in motion. The strength of gravity might vary from level to level, or change in the middle. There are also collectibles: tiny suspended aquatic friends that unlock tougher gateway levels that one needs to complete before gaining access to the higher-level zones. These are usually placed in particularly difficult spots, inviting you to try for them and die. At times, you’ll float freely in zero-gravity, or other times, jump from planet-to-planet or fluid-ball-to-fluid ball, all while avoiding the many things designed to kill you.
And you’ll die often. Taking a page from Super Meat Boy, Airscape revels in its fast deaths and fast respawns. The levels are longer than in Super Meat Boy, however, so checkpoints are scattered about them. Die, and you’ll immediately pop back to your last checkpoint. Mostly, these checkpoints are placed between challenging sections, but once in a while, they’ll be strangely within them, or even in places that make it seemingly impossible to complete the level if you respawn on them. While this is rare, it’s doubly frustrating to finally make your way through one section only to die on the next and find out you have to restart the entire level.
Frustration is all too frequent. Airscape is a hard game, and it never holds your hand or provides an escape route. While the first few zones won’t prove too taxing, the higher levels are insidiously, cruelly difficult. Those wanting to test their platforming mettle can’t do much better than this, but without any sort of difficulty option, everyone else might give up when they find themselves shredded to pieces for the nine-thousandth time. Coupled with the fact that checkpoints are sporadic and sometimes quite far apart, Airscape can feel like it’s forcing repetition to perfection over problem-solving and skill.
Yet at other times, everything comes together perfectly. The colourful visuals and the soaring orchestral tracks join with brilliant level design and mechanics to create a challenging, but rewarding, series of obstacles to overcome. You might jump from rocket-powered-platform to rocket-powered-platform, guiding each through tunnels and mines. Maybe you’ll ride air currents between fluid bubbles, swimming and flying in turn. There are moments that will leave you fist-pumping in your chair, and there are moments that will have you slamming your fist down onto whatever happens to be nearby.
The Bottom Line
Airscape is a game of new ideas, and new experiences. But despite the introductions to many new ideas, it’s hard not to feel it’s a sort of prototype, or a proof of concept. It works, and it works well at achieving the mind-bending and perspective-altering game play at its core, but there’s a lack of refinement in the final design.
I feel it needs just a bit more testing, more feedback, and more thought. It’s a game that swings hard for the fences, and succeeds as often as it fails. But it’s a game worth trying, even if you only make it through the first few levels before you have to grab the Tylenol.