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Review: Capsized

Stationed in the frozen tundra of Saskatchewan, Alientrap Games recently released its stylish platforming shooter, Capsized, suiting up the player as an astronaut crash-landed on an apparently hostile planet. At first look, one would be forgiven for associating it with the likes of Contra, Metal Slug, or even Super Metroid; however, its many thrills and moments of brilliance scratch a different itch than those games or anything like them. After some time is invested into the game, it becomes clear that it is far more unique and skillfully crafted than most of the dozens of titles like it that packed arcades in the ’90s.

Dazed, but unhurt, Spaceman Spiff crawls from the smoldering wreckage!

The friendly natives greet our hero, showering him with gifts.

In attempting to draw comparisons for frame of reference, I find most examples wanting: Capsized is like Metroid, but with more linear levels and little to no backtracking. It’s as if Halo: Combat Evolved were designed without its third physical dimension; it’s like Super Meat Boy with longer levels and more guns. Though this is a platforming game, its complexities and variety are more like a full-on first-person shooter, the game packing in secondary fire for each of its near-dozen weapons, and no less than three physics-based tools for flinging and soaring through the stages.

My first thirty minutes in the gorgeously hand-drawn world of Capsized were an odd mixture of enjoyment and confusion. My spaceman didn’t react to my input in the way I expected him to, physics appeared to be slightly off at their best, I couldn’t keep track of the many buttons required to fling and jet through the eerily bizarre alien landscapes, and the claustrophobic tunnel passages seemed to easily hinder my progress.  Yet, slowly, it all began to click as I started to realize what Alientrap was going for here: this game is just as much about solid micro-mechanics and building player momentum as it is shooting nasty alien bloodsuckers, its nuanced gameplay hidden for the first few levels until the moment it starts to all gel together gloriously.

He's like Buzz Lightyear without as impressive of a wingspan.

The jetpack becomes an essential tool to navigate the sometimes-sprawling levels.

Do you remember when you first played Counter-Strike, Starcraft, or Street Fighter? You may have thought it was just a fun diversion with some quirks, but several layers beneath the surface lurked a meticulously balanced experience with tons of depth that you had only scratched the surface of; such is the case with Capsized. What seems a tacked-on, wonky grappling hook becomes a natural extension of your brain acting as a lifeline to save your tasty brain from metroid-like, head-chomping alien wildlife. What seems a superfluous jetpack becomes a tool for survival that will have you desperately bashing the spacebar to avoid radiation-infested plant life. I was two or three levels into the campaign before I even used the rocket-jump-like Gravity Ram; now, some of my favorite moments are skipping madly across levels like a superball, my gun rocketing me off the lush ground, overgrowth-covered walls, and stony ceilings.

There is ultimately one exception to the tight gameplay: after a jump, the spaceman’s landing is cursed with a slight moment in which he pauses, adding an unfortunate feeling of lag to an otherwise smooth experience. Every other quirk that I thought was a bug was some feature or mechanic I simply hadn’t figured out yet.  I’m still unsure if the landing lag is by design or by accident, and I didn’t even notice it until I became proficient at blasting through the tribal hostiles and hungry fauna and flora.

Jump, jump, jump around

You'll battle hostile wildlife as well as natives wearing hockey masks.

Even though this fauna and flora want to eat you most of the time, they sure do look great doing it, the lovingly hand-drawn visuals calling to mind recent titles like Braid, A Boy and His Blob, or Aquaria. The unfriendly, fantastical world is anything but static; strange, massive plant formations appear to throb and sway all around the player, giving the unfamiliar planet a great deal of character. Capsized is a rare treat in that it maintains a focused color pallet and theme while still providing enough variety to keep things interesting. Far too many games try to make up for unfocused art design by throwing tons of environments at the player, their bullet points crying out, “Explore 18 massive environments set in jungles, cities and mountains!” Other games suffer from bland presentation or overly similar settings across their levels, but Alientrap neatly sidesteps both pitfalls through both deliberate, focused art direction and creative use of varied backgrounds and lighting schemes. The outstanding art direction extends to the enemies, whose primitive aesthetic (think wooden masks and arrows) works well in the context of the lush jungle world, accompanied by the soothing spacey work of Swedish musician Solar Fields.

Run, Mr. Spaceman. Run!

Gorgeous multi-layered backgrounds provide a nice backdrop for these little fellas to eat your face off.

 

For all its beauty, sometimes the living, breathing, moving backgrounds do not lend themselves to a focused gameplay experience, since the non-interactive creatures meandering about are often appear to be rendered on the same plane and in the same bold stand-out style as the player character. It is impossible to discern, apart from trial-and-error, what creatures will harm poor Spaceman, and which will graze harmlessly by in the layer behind him. On more than one occasion I frantically launched a rocket at something creeping in the shadows, only to take a huge chunk out of my health. The busy, bustling graphics can sometimes detract from the player’s ability to identify threats, helpful items, or friendlies. Detailed game art is always welcome, but it’s a shame it sometimes gets in the way of the game itself.

From a gameplay perspective, level design is refreshingly quite diverse, ranging from free-roaming environments to tight, moody caverns.  Some of the best levels task the player with several basic objectives like “kill four of this baddie” or “rescue three crewmates;” the fun is in roaming the semi-open level and unearthing its secrets, and eventually taking care of the mission’s goals in any order the player sees fit. Do not mistake this for a Metroidvania or a sandbox title, however: the levels are more honed down than that sort of game, and are perfectly conducive to speedruns and high score attempts.

Alientrap’s creation features a 12 mission campaign with a light plot driven by comic book-style interludes, 4 single-player arcade challenge modes, 5-way botmatches, 2-player splitscreen deathmatch, and 2-player local co-op (yes, on a PC game!).  That’s a lot of extra content, though the campaign itself will be over in 4-5 hours for most gamers (a complaint that can hopefully be rectified with more content or a sequel.)  Still, you’ll want to keep going back to get those elusive ten-star ratings, and since the game deducts points for lower difficulties, lives lost, and long completion times, those perfect runs are quite an accomplishment.

Teamwork is necessary for survival. Also, big guns.

Full co-op is included, so you can burn through lives twice as fast.

Allow me to gush for a moment over the inclusion of local co-op and deathmatch modes. Many developers apparently believe PC and console gamers alike don’t care for them, and these options are becoming more and more rare in our increasingly networked, internet-immersed gaming culture. Let me state for the record that the co-op in Capsized was some of the best PC gaming I’ve had all year, my wife and I huddled around her monitor shouting and laughing together as all hell broke loose on our often-doomed missions. Some niggling issues do crop up, including poorly placed respawn points and the occassional physics glitch, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Gamepad support is built-in for player 1 or 2 or both, though you must be ready to finagle if you don’t have an Xbox 360 controller (I used a Logitech Rumblepad quite successfully.) No online play is on offer here, but it isn’t really the sort of title that would benefit from it, with the possible exception of its deathmatch mode.

The game’s smart combat and fluid movement are its strengths.

Capsized is something of an oddity in that it has more in common with a well-executed first-person shooter than it does with the peers of its genre. Its shooting mechanics are more precise than is immediately apparent, and there is a careful construction, a tight design that is nigh imperceptible at first glance. This game demands the player’s attentive practice before its wonderful nuances emerge in their subtle greatness; only then does it begin to transcend its labels and become a different, and better, beast entirely.

Developer: Alientrap

Genre: 2D side-scrolling platforming shooter

Time: 4-5 hour campaign, unlimited time in arcade modes and speed or score runs

Gripes: Campaign length, learning curve, distracting art direction

Get it for the: Nuanced gameplay, local co-op, thrilling action

Full disclosure: Alientrap gave PXOD a copy of Capsized for reviewing purposes.