Review: Cosmic Express13 May 2017 11
Review: Cosmic Express
Released 04 Apr 2017
Draknek's Cosmic Express is a challenging puzzle game. It takes that elemental, relentless player drive to understand and grow, strips it of any grand thematic or vainglorious baggage, and refashions it as a relaxing trip across the stars. This is less of a mental showdown - where either the player breaks the puzzle or the puzzle breaks the player - and more of a neighbourly invitation to come stay awhile. Yet despite the game's cozy aesthetic and encouraging progression, Cosmic Express remains unremittingly hard.
You serve as a pan-galactic locomotive conductor, setting the proper paths to pick up various aliens and later deposit them at their color-coded destinations. Each of the levels is sorted into the larger set of a constellation, with each constellation showcasing a new technique. Higher-numbered levels in a group are harder, but it possible and preferable to sample new constellations as they are unlocked rather than insist on entirely finishing each constellation in sequence before moving on to the next.
I had to give up my pride and completionist mindset early on. The final Andromeda solutions eluded me, so I jumped to the Delphinus constellation. There, I met unctuous green aliens whose fare-hopping left a glowing residue that made the whole compartment noxious and thus unsuitable for any other type of alien. This wrinkle was a novel development, but thankfully the lower-numbered levels proved quite instructive. Early easy victories in Delphinus smoothed the path and cemented this new consideration, but then I got stumped yet again. Now I headed south to Vela, then east to Ursa Minor and Major. As I bounced around the constellations, doing what I could and anxiously leaving the rest unsolved, I gained some mental stamina and affinity for the game's unspoken logic.
Some levels could be solved by ruthlessly running through permutations of near-misses, those solutions that looked good on paper but fell apart once the train left the station. Still, this kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach only paid off once I properly understood what a given level was asking me to accomplish. Insights would beckon uninvited and crack levels wide open, but only once I had lost my single-mindedness and let my mind unfocus, like when waiting for a Magic Eye's 3D image to jump out at you. Feeling my way around insights, learning to accept my limits in order to exceed them, was uncharted territory. It was a galvanizing experience, and one that remained fresh even upon its unlikely repetition, like a series of lightning strikes.
Eventually I completed those Andromeda levels I once found so trying. The grace the game had endowed me was not that of making the adversity easier, but that of honing my resolution and patience. I finished many more capstone levels and constellations, then found myself, quivering with a sense of excitement and a tenuous self-regard, at the game's final area. Aptly named 'Nova,' this ultimate constellation combines the mechanics which had previously been confined to their original constellations to devastating effect. It is the largest and most complex of the game's offerings, and when I first saw the extent of its demands I grew disheartened.
Then I went to sleep. Giving up every now and then had long since become par for the course. Accepting and understanding failure had become part of my winning tool-set. Not just on particular levels, but more generally when drawing paths. Recognizing when my train's route had crossed an unsalvageable fail-state took a long time, but made successive levels easier. I had started internally considering if...then conditions for each of the harder levels, breaking down something insurmountable into manageable chunks. Some levels still seemed to ask the impossible. This meant, obviously enough, that I was missing something, so the question became what clever loophole I had overlooked. Strange how special such discoveries and revelations felt, whether I found them after one try or a baker's dozen. Even now, months after release, I have yet to finish the last couple levels Nova or Ursa Major, but this no longer feels like a black mark on my character.
Puzzle games ought to render their players immune to considerations of ego, but this is rarely the case in practice. In a genre which trains its players on sets of patterns and consequences, players themselves might begin to feel accomplished, even masterful, as they progress and grow more skillful at doing what is asked of them. Cosmic Express is excellent at challenging you to discard these trifling vanities and simply get to work; it knocks the player down a peg, but not unkindly. Quite fitting that the game is set in the greater dark of outer space; what better place to consider the unknown unknowns? Cosmic Express' escalation of demands feels precipitous but promising. 'Even with hewn ability and honed talent, success takes time': the game seems to say. Discard your preconceptions and learn something new. This constant exhortation to refresh your perspective; to push yourself harder without growing complacent; is omnipresent. It is true, quite literally, of every level.
Not since last year's The Witness has a puzzle game haunted me so. Whereas The Witness was achingly tendentious, Cosmic Express is mute and hopeful. The latter's puzzles, I would argue, are even more deftly plotted and lovingly laid out for your discovery. Both in terms of raw content and hours of playtime, the game is a steal. It is a singular exercise in training the vital capacity to respect and consider what you don't yet know.
I recommend Cosmic Express wholeheartedly, not merely because it is an excellent game, but because it has remained both challenging and friendly, all the while good-naturedly teasing and encouraging its players to new, dazzling heights.