A few months back my friend and I had a brilliant idea to enter the Great Ham Jam a Hamilton-based game development event where you work together to create a game for a weekend. Thanks to our rigid discipline, perseverance, and innate ability to wolf down over four pounds of fortune cookies in two days, we somehow did pretty well and received a copy of Lost Orbit on Steam, courtesy of PixelNAUTS games.
Lost Orbit is a 2D top down, action-arcade game with a focus on quick reflexes and the age-old struggle to beat a stage faster than you did two minutes ago. It features a time trial mode devoted to achieving exactly that speedy time as well as a campaign mode geared towards a more laid back experience for casual players.
In the campaign you play as Harrison, a maintenance worker whose ship was unceremoniously destroyed, trapping him in the middle of unknown space. Since that's essentially my biggest fear, I was relieved to find that Harrison has a booster pack to navigate the stars and meets a drone named Atley, who not only saves his life but subsequently decides to accompany him on his journey back home.
This relationship between Atley and Harrison slowly grows as the cynical robot narrates their trek from sector to sector. Initially, the dialogue comes across as a more on the hoaky side, using terms such as “gens” and “spans” which feels a little too cheesy in a golden-age science fiction sort of way. However, the game’s narrative gradually started to grip me more and more as I advanced through the levels.
Harrison is described as ‘nowhere near the fine line between brave and stupid’. Despite only hearing his muffled cheers from inside his helmet (or screams, depending on how well I was playing), Atley describes him as rambling about food like grilled meats and wondering aloud whether or not minerals he discovers are edible. Atley, on the other hand, comes across as analytical and cold, tolerating Harrison out of sheer curiosity for his actions. This dynamic works great and proved to be the biggest hook that kept me playing from level to level to find out what happened next in the story. As the plot progresses, Atley begins to reflect on Harrison’s thought processes in an attempt to better understand organic life. The two begin to form a friendly bond that culminates in a campaign which expresses wonderfully themes such as hope, fear and what it means to be human. Overall it proved to be a surprisingly moving narrative overall, something that caught me off guard considering how focused the game is on it’s core gameplay.
The gameplay in Lost Orbit consists of vertically scrolling levels with a focus on navigating through the level as quickly as you can. It’s fairly reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge or Trials; while you’re free to move through the stages at your own pace, the game encourages you to play as fast as possible by reminding you of your speed at the end of a stage, ranking you based on your performance and creating a ghost for you to race against. If you’re the kind of player who strives to be the best you can be (or at least better than your friends) then Lost Orbit has a sizeable amount of replayability to it. The campaign mode is only a few hours long, however, so the time trials are where the game shows its lasting appeal.
It’s no wonder that it encourages such quick maneuvering and timing either - what Lost Orbit truly excels at is achieving a sense of flow. Something about the movement and interactions with the game made me lose sense of the world around me in a rather startling way. There were numerous instances during the game where I found myself completely invested in spinning and weaving through stray boulders while almost completely forgetting I had left something in the oven and scrambling to grab it before my apartment burned down completely. Very rarely does a game enrapture me to the point that I lose sense of where I am (or what I’m cooking). To say the absolute least, the feeling I get while playing is a complete fire hazard. A beautiful, euphoric fire hazard.
Lost Planet also features a gorgeous soundtrack by Giancarlo Feltrin that matches the mood and atmosphere of the game perfectly, blending electronica/trance music that helps build upon the feeling you get as you play the game, and fits the tone and tenacity of each of the levels as well.
One detriment that comes along with this euphoria is that, much like time trial-centric games, Lost Orbit struggles alongside them in the same departments. That is to say when you fail, you fail hard. Running into a rock after what was previously a flawless run or being shot by a stray photon beam over and over feels completely crippling and caused me to take notice of a few sections of the game that felt poorly designed out that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not been so intent on playing the stage as flawlessly as possible. When you restart from a checkpoint, the game doesn’t restart the environmental hazards to their starting positions either, so I had a few instances of flying poor Harrison head-first into a stray photon beam immediately after he just sprung back into existence.
And be warned PC fans: though the controls are tight the game itself warns that a controller is recommended. While I don’t disagree in the slightest with the amount of twirling and rotating movements involved, this could be a bit of a handicap to anyone without a PC-compatible controller.
While it does still have similar problems as other games of its type, Lost Orbit creates an experience that feels wholly unique and engaging in ways I had never thought myself to being susceptible to before. Whether you’re the type of player who seeks that formidable challenge of steamrolling your past self’s previous times or the kind who prefers to keep it simple and go along with a moving story, there’s something in Lost Orbit that will appeal to you.