Review: Space Age: A Cosmic Adventure16 Feb 2015 0
There's a plasma-hot streak of can-do spirit and 1950s pizzazz in Space Age, an unwavering optimism that colors every moment of the game's pulp adventure. Early space race kitsch is the style here, with our cast of cosmic explorers decked out in fishbowl helmets and garish spacesuits (with hoop skirts for the ladies, of course). Out of this crew tasked with investigating the alien world of Kepler-16—a crew which includes a suspenders-wearing, toolbox-carrying engineer and an Obvious Love Interest/chief science officer—we have a most average of Seemingly Average Heroes, a lowly private who can barely manage to communicate with his fellows between rapid-fire gees, goshes, shucks, and painfully naïve quips. (Quick paraphrase: “Is there a special girl back home, Private?” “Of course! My mom! Oh, and the family dog's a girl too, I think. And maybe my neighb- OH YOU MEAN ROMANTICALLY.”)
Space Age is an odd mash-up of action, adventure, and some light (like, lunar gravity light) squad-based tactics. The game itself, as befits the dream of a push-button future, seems to want it all: a little bit of twee sensibility here, a little bit of stealth-game sneakery there, some timing puzzles off to the side and then a big, earnest slice of American apple pie on top. That is a tough ship to get into orbit.
Space Age's first few levels serve largely as tutorial for the game's squad-play. Tap on an explorer to select them, then tap to move around and scout the area. Pinch and spread (wink?) to select a group. Teammates with blasters will automatically fire on threats, medic units can heal damaged pals, engineers (rather your one engineer, Kowalski) have a knack for fixing things and operating computer terminals, while science officers (or, again, THE science officer) can decipher alien ruins and learn the natives' language.
Here's that boundless optimism again, right? Space Age is, surely, a game about the power of teamwork, where the player is challenged to deploy a squad of impeccably attired heroes working in perfect concert to surmount any obstacle—X-Com meets Wes Anderson, perhaps?
This is sometimes the case. One mission in Space Age had the ever-ready Green Team storming an alien base from three different points: our main character blasting up through a cargo hold, an attachment of armed scouts pushing past the perimeter guards and defensive turrets, and our engineer and science officer making their way past some automated robot defenses and patrolling guards. Everyone contributed to the assault. There was a little hacking for Kowalski, some translation for our science officer (though “communications officer” would make more sense...), and some soldiers that the private and our cannon fodder scouts dealt with. All this plus a series of carefully placed switches and automated gates that had team members skirting around threats in order to let key members of the squad into the right areas.
Problem is the above mission happens to be the last in the game, and it's only in this mission where you can clearly see just a bit of what Space Age is trying to do with its more action-oriented parts. More common among the game's 14 chapters are stages where you park a trio of scouts in place to soak up a few alien warriors while one of your unarmed, easily killed Green Team members searches the immediate vicinity for one of several MacGuffins. Or, even more commonly, stages where you're given control of just a single Green Team rookie, and where Space Age makes an uncomfortable shift into a stealth game—one with wonky pathing, unclear lines-of-sight, and dull, largely open spaces for you to not-quite-sneak around.
Space Age also takes an honest stab at working in some puzzles, and it's in this wheelhouse where the game finds some success. Again, the pathing and imprecise controls (our heroes seem unable to walk within two feet of any other object, including each other) make a few puzzles more challenging than they need to be, such as a section in the aforementioned base assault where you need to guide a character past some robots on patrol--quickly, too, while another team member keeps the mechs at bay operating time-locked doors. For the most part, though, Space Age's puzzles--though conceptually simple--serve as the strongest elements of the game, even though Space Age goes out of its way to drop the stakes for these puzzles as low as possible.
A standout example comes when our main character takes a breaks from saving the planet to bake an apple pie. For some other character. Like, to eat. Just because. This culinary interlude brings the game's already sluggish pacing to a standstill, wasting what little suspension of disbelief Space Age has engendered up to that point for the dubious pleasures of tapping on a cookbook (to read), then tapping on some apples (to slice them), then tapping on the dough (to, uh, you know, the thing where you make lines with a knife--scoring!) and so on.
It's clear Space Age is going for bittersweet heart-tugs here. Without spoiling too much, this pie malarky comes before a major revelation, where we come to understand the game's villain in full and the hero makes a choice to ACT, dammit. There's an out-of-place log cabin, flashbacks within flashbacks, high-waisted pants, decades of regret and, of course, apple frickin' pie because America will BE. This stretch of wasted time ("Be sure to preheat the oven to 400," etc.) ought to be a quiet prelude to Space Age's non-existent whizz-bang finale. What this moment actually is, though, is a poor excuse to shove some unwanted interactivity into a game which never makes a good argument that it needs to be a game at all.
Space Age loves its endless inane cutscenes a lot more than you will, and it tops them off with a completely discordant endgame boss that fulfills Space Age's cinematic aspirations while throwing the game bits out the airlock. As the cutscenes stretch longer and the interactive sections grow shorter, the alt-history of Space Age's “far future” '76 quickly goes from sweet to saccarhine. Like scenery dressing in a B-movie, much of Space Age seems phony and thrown-together. That's not to say the game fails because it tries to stitch too many disparate elements together, but rather because each one of those elements is poorly executed, there only to be laughingly excused the same way the game's purposefully cheesy (but, also, gratingly cheesy) writing is. Space Age doesn't build on the tropes it's adopted so much as it uses them to cover up for a lack of compelling mechanics or deep puzzles.
Space Age was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.