Escape from the Universe, developed and published by CAT-astrophe Games, is a side scrolling shooter that puts you in the role of one of the last survivors of the human race. The player takes on various missions as they progress through the game. Sometimes it’s to help preserve what’s left of humanity, and sometimes you just gotta keep your ship flying.
At first glance Escape from the Universe is your standard side-scrolling space shooter. However, there is a twist to this game’s design that I found interesting. Instead of the speed of the screen’s progress being locked, it fluctuates depending on where on the screen your ship currently is. The further forward you are, the faster you go. Initially, this concept intrigued me. I expected to find timing challenges and swarms of enemies that would require me to utilize my ships speed to gain my victories. However, this promise never managed to fully materialize.
The potential I saw in Escape from the Universe is quickly drowned by a series of uninteresting levels. Most missions in the game boil down to tasking the player with one of three objectives. The first is to simply survive the course. Sometimes the player would have to contend with numerous enemy ships trying to prevent their success. And while the action on screen never truly managed to reach levels I’d call exciting, it was better than the alternatives.
The more common challenge to these levels tended to be presented by having large obstacles scattered throughout the level. Though scattered may be making these obstructions sound too numerous, these levels were often devoid of practically anything. Many times I’d go several seconds with absolutely nothing on screen but my ship. These dead stretches would occur repeatedly during a level.
Players could also find themselves having to destroy a certain number of enemies to complete a level in Escape from the Universe. These tended to be more fun than the survival missions. I found these levels to be better, but they still failed to provide enough action to really grab me.
The third style of level in Escape the Universe I found to be far and away the best. In these missions I found myself having to chase down a feeling enemy. This scenario was the only one to really utilize the speed altering mechanics in the game. Your target would pull away from you if you didn’t maintain a fast enough speed. This forced me into taking risks to eventually capture my target. These level delivered the tension I wanted from the rest of the game. The difficulty present in these levels also highlighted a big flaw in the game’s overall structure.
I accumulated credits, as I played each mission in Escape from the Universe. These credits have three important uses. The first use is to upgrade your ship, with both additional guns and increasing your health bar being extremely helpful for surviving boss battles. The second use is for unlocking storylines. These are not cheap and can require a fair amount of playing side missions to gather the amounts needed to progress. This calls into question if these missions are really “side quests” when you need to play so many of them. And lastly, the player uses credits for continuous.
I found using credits continues to completely break the gameplay loop of Escape from the Universe for me. Especially as the cost to continue goes up the further into a level I died. I found myself caught in a spiral I derived no enjoyment from. Having to earn credits from playing side quests whose biggest challenge came from having to start the level over from the beginning every time I died lest the continued defeat the purpose of playing the mission, to begin with was not enjoyable. This entire loop felt like it existed simply to prolong the life of the game and did nothing to enhance its appeal.
The lack of appeal to playing through these side missions is further exacerbated by the underwhelming storylines that are unlocked. With minimal explanation and many reused scenarios scattered throughout the game, not much felt new except the names of places and people. I would occasionally come across a plot moment that would require a decision on my part. However, I was so unattached to anything present in the story that these decisions were devoid of any weight or impact.
The visuals of Escape from the Universe are very eye-catching. The simple flat colors and wireframing lent the game a retro look without calling back to any particular game. I liked this as it felt like the game was allowed to visually stand on its own without aping another game’s style to achieve a retro feel.
So while there is certainly some points of innovation to be appreciated in Escape from the Universe I walked away from my experience underwhelmed. Lackluster level design and a frustrating gameplay loop mire what could have been a unique experience in the side-scrolling genre. If CAT-astrophe can take some lessons from this and apply them to a more polished attempt I think they could yet bring together a winning formula from Escape the Universe.
Escape from the Universe is available on the Nintendo Switch on August 16th.
Escape from the Universe
So while there is certainly some points of innovation to be appreciated in Escape from the Universe I walked away from my experience underwhelmed.