Margate, Jul 2018
CTRL ALT ESC’s second game takes you into space, on a mission to a planet called Dirt. Naturally the mission does not go smoothly, and you need to make an emergency escape from your failing spaceship.
Spacescape is an ambitious game with some interesting ideas. One of its innovations is that every player has an assigned role (captain, medic, etc.), and at least one of those roles has a particular job to perform. Another unusual feature of the game is that the team must constantly take care to keep the spaceship’s vital functions on board. For example (and as explained in the pre-game briefing), a screen shows oxygen levels, which gradually deplete; every time the level drops too low an alarm message warns you to provide more oxygen. This is done by inserting one of a number of oxygen refill cylinders into the appropriate slot. There are multiple such ‘maintenance’ actions to perform, and dealing with these to keep everyone alive is a continual requirement throughout the game.
All of that gives a frantic sense of struggling to keep a damaged spaceship under control which is reinforced by the style of the game elsewhere too. The various puzzles are framed as engineering and navigational requirements for accessing the ship’s systems and finding a way to your destination. Getting a grip on all the different parts to the game is made easier by a ‘technical manual’ that gives pointers on how to approach each of its main stages, which was particularly helpful as a clue for which things should be ignored until later.
The result is a superb, impressive game. The surprisingly expansive play area gives a very physical style of game where you need to clamber and crawl, a welcome counterpoint to the many parts of the game built around screens and electronics. It’s a busy and dynamic environment where, from the start through to the gratuitously fun ending, everything fits with the story and theme. The hint system is a highlight, designed in a way that builds immersion rather than detracting from it.
For me the weakest aspect of the game was the way it sometimes relies on pure trial and error. One screen-based task was the worst example of that, being little more than an annoying time-sink. Another electronic puzzle had to be solved with a trial and error approach that seemed fair enough, but which was structured in a way that struck me as unnecessarily confusing. More generally I found the overall structure of the puzzles much less clear than in the venue’s original game, and despite having the ‘manual’ as a guide I still found it unclear where to focus my efforts.
All those features of the game would give a better experience for a larger group of players. We played as a team of two, but I’d suggest perhaps four players as ideal here. The sections that felt like unnecessary drains on our precious time would with a larger team help ensure everyone is kept busy. Similarly, the continual ‘maintenance’ actions needed to top up oxygen levels and so on started to become an irksome interruption for us, but when divided across a couple more players it’d provide just the right level of background urgency.
Although for those reasons I think Spacescape is better suited to a larger team, the 90 minute time limit meant it was very approachable for two players, even when we made heavy weather of some sections. If it was a little confusing at times, it was also great fun, with some very black humour that was right up my street. And the sprawling design is full of surprises and memorable moments that make it an easy game to love. It’s chaotic and sometimes more confusing than it should be, less suited to puzzle purists than to teams looking for a sci-fi romp, but it’s also pretty damn epic and not to be missed.