Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Inside a Star-filled Sky Review

Inside a Star-filled Sky, developed and published by Jason Rohrer.
The Good: Numerous item combinations gathered then absorbed at level exit, procedurally generated levels, enter enemies and powerups to alter them, flexible pricing, multiplatform
The Not So Good: Unflinching difficulty reached quickly, insufficient instructions, no explicit goals, lacks sound effects, no multiplayer
What say you? An action shooter where swapping powerups before exiting random creatures, combined with alterations made by entering items, enemies, and yourself, provides unique fun for a while: 6/8

Indie games are a constant source of interesting ideas. And by “interesting,” I mean “weird.” Take, for instance, Jason Rohrer, who rose to prominence with Passage and continued an upward trend with the excellent two-player storytelling game Sleep is Death. He’s back with another oddly-named game: Inside a Star-filled Sky. Curiously, the game does not feature stars or skies, but instead is an infinite recursive shooter that has you traveling through creatures, collecting and altering their powerups along the way. Or something like that.

Inside a Star-filled Sky features some low-resolution, pixilated graphics, but they actually work well given the context of the game. You’ll be entering (and exiting) procedurally-generated creatures, whose body shapes define each level in the game. While each level consists of colored squares, when zoomed out, it looks like a cute little creature of some kind. The bright colors serve up some nice variety as you venture through increasingly larger beings. The game also has a nice subtle highlight for the shortest path towards the exit, and smooth transitions when exiting a creature. So, despite the relatively simple presentation, it is effective. Sounds design is less so: while the game features some dynamic background music that adjusts based on the chaos on the screen, there are no sound effects for bullets or enemies whatsoever.

Inside a Star-filled Sky is an action game where you shoot enemies. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. The gist of the game is that you are trying to escape the creature you are in: find the exit, and then you become that creature, trapped in another creature. Each of the game’s levels are procedurally generated on the fly, based off shapes used for enemies since you can enter and exit enemies for each level. There is no end to the game (there are technically over 2,000,000,000 levels) and no scoring involved, so people who need an overarching goal will be disappointed. I suppose you could set a personal objective of an arbitrary level to reach, and there’s always the motivation of collecting a badass assortment of powerups. Your character is moved using the WASD keys and aiming is accomplished using the mouse cursor: typical controls for any top-down shooter. While the game displays some basic instructions while you move through the first couple of levels, there’s no substitution for an extensive manual, something Inside a Star-filled Sky lacks. For about the first hour or so, I was really confused about a couple of game mechanics, but eventually figured it out (turns out you can’t enter anything until you pass level nine). Still, for a game that is this odd, a lack of specific documentation is a problem. Your progress is automatically saved, starting you out on the same level upon reentering the game, though with a different selection of creatures. This is actually OK, because if you get stuck (very likely, especially if you are greedy and start entering powerups), you can exit the game and come back in and hopefully fare better. There is no cooperative play, which is slightly disappointing. Lastly, Inside a Star-filled Sky currently features flexible, name-your-own pricing starting at $1.75 to cover bandwidth and credit card fees and is available for WIndows, Mac, and Linux.

In Inside a Star-filled Sky, you shoot things and collect powerups on the way to the level exit.

Oh, but it’s more complex than that! First, there are many (around ten) leveled powerups you can collect that affect your bullets, like bounce, distance, size, speed, firing rate, spread, and sticky. You can only carry three powerups simultaneously, so there is a Magicka-like combination mini-game here: you can add, say, level five cornering, level three sticky, and level four spread to create some zig-zagging mines with shrapnel. Or level six size, level four speed, and level two distance for a huge torpedo of death. Or level seven spread, level three fire rate, and level four burst for a crazy chaotic cone of manic destruction. I am still stumbling upon wacky combinations. In addition, the order matters (a cornering-burst-spread will behave differently than a spread-burst-cornering) and the level design (both corridors and large rooms) supports different solutions. The possibilities are many, and experimenting to find a combination you like is part of the fun. Thing is, you can’t get too comfortable with a single recipe, because each time you go up a level and exit a creature, your least powerful item is downgraded. Health powerups are also decreased every time you are hit. So, Inside a Star-filled Sky is a game of constant replacement, collecting powerups that will be given to you once you exit the creature you are currently in. Luckily, the game sorts your powerups by quality (making the poorest ones replaced first), making the overall goal to advance to the next level.

Here’s where the game gets really weird/interesting (if it hasn’t already): in addition to simply exiting yourself, you can enter anything you encounter by holding down the shift key. Why? Well, entering powerups lets you switch what its value is: you can queue up to three powerups inside the powerup at a time, but identical abilities will add together, effectively increasing its overall capabilities. This really lets you customize your loadout to feel like a total badass, at the expense of encountering some very, very, very difficult enemies inside the powerup. In fact, entering powerups is almost never worth it because of the drastically increased difficulty, unless it's a lowly level one item you can convert into a much better enhancement. You can also enter challenging enemies you meet, though you can only swap out an enemy’s powerups with ones of similar power they have inside, so this tactic is pretty limited in its appeal. It would be nice if you could enter enemies and steal their powerups, rather than simply switching them out with ones of similar power. It seems like the intent of entering enemies is to swap out their powers with other ones, like trading range for health, so you can get past them. Another viable tactic may be entering the powerups of the enemies you enter, hopefully swapping their attributes with less effective ones, but that seems like a lot of work when you could just shoot them in the face. You can also enter yourself and make a quick swap of powerup: if an upcoming enemy is far away, trade cornering for range and send him to his untimely death.

The AI is typical for arcade shooters: they move in predictable patterns (at least until to get to some higher levels, then they will hunt you down), and a crafty player can time their maneuvers to get past them. That’s not to say that Inside a Star-filled Sky is an easy game: some enemies are quite difficult, spewing out tons of bullets pointed in your direction, and when they are present in large numbers, rooms can be littered with enemy fire that can be impossible to bypass. Death is pretty common, but the penalty is thankfully slight: you simply go down a level and hearts replace the left-most powerup (the next one to be replaced). You will have to go back and defeat the same enemy that just killed you, but hopefully you'll equip some better powerups along the way first. Still, the game can be frustratingly difficult, as some enemies are placed at inconvenient locations; most players will reach a "glass ceiling" based on their skill, beyond which they will not advance. You will likely grow tiresome of being "stuck" on the same set of levels, and your personal limit might be reached rather quickly as the difficulty spools up fast after the tutorial messages end (I'm permanently hovering around level 20). You will also routinely get stuck with a terrible weapon combination, and suffer the consequence of getting knocked down several to many levels before you can right the ship. Still, the combination of powerup manipulation with entering and exiting your opponents (and yourself (and powerups (and powerups within enemies (and enemies within powerups within enemies (you get the idea))))) makes for a weird, but appealing, arcade shooter.

Inside a Star-filled Sky takes two novel, overarching concepts and combines them to produce an effective action shooter. First, there are over ten powerups you can collect inside each creature, holding three at a time that will be transferred to your arsenal once you exit your host (who you will then become in the next level). You can also enter any powerup, enemy, or even yourself to alter the powerups they (or you) contain. If this sounds kind of confusing, it is, at least for the first hour or so of playing the game: specific documentation would be really helpful in this regard. The end result is swapping powerups around, picking up increasingly better combinations to deal with the more powerful (and more numerous) enemies encountered at higher levels. You'll need to change your loadout constantly, as powerups degrade in quality over time. Inside a Star-filled Sky is like Inception: you’ll be shooting an enemy in a powerup in an enemy in yourself, ten levels up from where you began the game. Unlike a movie, however, Inside a Star-filled Sky has no end, as each level is procedurally generated based on the randomized shapes of each enemy, and you can keep going and going until you reach the upper limit of your skill (which happens way too quickly). This, coupled with the lack of a scoring system, means Inside a Star-filled Sky lacks a “point” or “goal” to reach for, other than trying to pass a certain level. Still, the varied level layouts and constantly shifting powerups means you'll be having fun until you reach your talent limit and the insurmountable hordes of AI creatures with superior weapons and numbers become too much. The game is best when played in short bursts, as the gameplay can become repetitive and getting stuck is a common problem best solved by exiting and coming back in with a new set of levels and enemies. Inside a Star-filled Sky is a very interesting idea, and shooter fans will find its unique mechanics rather intriguing.