Caveat viator – Let the traveler beware.
Once upon a time, travel was a thing you could commonly do. Flights back at the turn of the millennium to Vegas were ridiculously low to the point where an on-a-whim trip could cost about $100 round trip on a discount airliner like Southwest Airlines. Today, flying places or taking road trips is so expensive we've created a term for pretend vacations in your home area: the “staycation.”
The staycation. Okay, you might have a fun time, but please tell me I'm not the only one that thinks that's a little lame. Fortunately, that's where Uexplore™ steps in. They may not be able to get you to Cabo San Lucas any faster, or Walt Disney World any cheaper, but they can swing you a sweet deal in space.
But as any travel industry employee will tell you, sometimes you get exactly what you pay for, so caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. And should anything happen to your personal Small Craft™ while you're aboard, well, let's just hope you bought the optional insurance package.
Therein lies the premise of the indie puzzle/space simulator Affordable Space Adventures, now on the eShop for the Wii U. Unlike spaceship games of the past, such as Gradius or R-Type, players don't go in with all guns blazing because they don't have guns—the Small Craft™ is a personal, tourist spacecraft, designed for leisurely exploring friendly alien planets, taking in all its beauty and intrigue, and departing in three days.
So when your discount spacecraft is left stranded on a remote alien planet surrounded by severe electromagnetic storms, it's clear that you're woefully underprepared. Thus, the goal of Affordable Space Adventures is, simply put, to find a way home. Quickly players learn, however, that the happy, pretty pictures in the brochures don't exactly match the planet that they're stuck on, and that someone or something doesn't exactly want them there.
Before I go any further, this game immediately deserves special commendation for its brilliant use of the Wii U GamePad. This game is exclusive to the Nintendo home console, because there's simply no way it can be replicated on any other console. A few years ago at E3, the overused buzzword of the year was the “second-screen experience.” Everyone, especially Microsoft, was so eager to tell everyone about the second-screen experiences that you as a player would have in the eighth generation. Realistically, only Nintendo's Wii U had the capability for a true second-screen experience, but with the exceptions of maybe ZombiU and the Wii U port of Batman: Arkham City, few games utilized this concept or did so with underwhelming results.
Affordable Space Adventures delivers the second-screen experience in spades. The GamePad acts as the Small Craft's “Heads Down Display,” constructed according to brochures at a fraction of the cost of those fancier spacecraft model's heads-up displays and perfect for tourist's needs. Not so perfect, however, when surrounded by lasers, sentries, and other obstacles, any one of them willing to incinerate, incapacitate, or otherwise obliterate your Uexplore™ Small Craft™ at any given moment. The GamePad houses the flips and switches to switch engine types, gravitational pull, thrust, and all the meters to measure heat, electricity, and sound waves. But your TV acts as your camera guide, showing a screen of your Small Craft™ and its surroundings.
The two cannot flip. In order to focus on one screen, you must take your eyes off the other. And that, in the world of Affordable Space Adventures, is an incredibly risky and incredibly dangerous undertaking, especially when many of the puzzles require precision down to fine detail. There is little room for error, whether it be slowly and carefully proceeding down a narrow gap between two red-hot lasers, or evading the wide swaths of a sentry's sensor only to narrowly miss another.
I confess, Affordable Space Adventures made me go back and lower the difficulty setting. Even then, it didn't make the puzzles any less difficult, just made some of the spacecraft's settings a bit easier to manage.
It's also rare that a puzzle game can evoke such raw emotion, but during play, especially at night, I got the true feeling of isolation. I was alone. The only help really provided during the game are quick, brief (very brief) tutorials of each component of the Small Craft™ once it came back online (as most elements were damaged in the initial crash) as well as the electronic manual found in the GamePad.
Yes, the electronic manual. The thing no one reads but constantly laments replacing physical manuals. Once a tutorial blips by, it's one of the very few ways to figure out, or remind yourself, how to do something.
The game can be played by three people – a pilot, a science officer, and an engineer – but it does take away some of the challenge and a large part of the isolation the game is designed to evoke.
For everything it does right, Affordable Space Adventures lacks one thing that every puzzle game needs to be a great title—that which, for lack of a better term, I call the “pick up factor.” The pick up factor is that trait that makes a rational, sane gamer not only enjoy the damnable hard torment of a challenging puzzle, but want to put oneself into that same predicament over and over again. It's the factor that causes me to cut showers short only to attempt a puzzle for the tenth time in BOXBOY! or attempt Level 120 for nearly three weeks straight in Pokemon Shuffle (seriously, f*ck you, Mega Glalie).
Affordable Space Adventures does not have that pick up factor. Every time I went to sit back down with the game, I could think of at least three other games on the Wii U alone I would rather be playing. Why don't I pick up Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker again? That's a great puzzle game. Maybe I should put more time into unlocking 200cc mode in Mario Kart 8 or play some Super Smash Bros. online. No, Affordable Space Adventures made coming back to it seem more like a chore. Once I was back in my Small Craft™, I was sucked back into the atmosphere KnapNok Games created, but getting back to it was the difficult part.
With that being said, Affordable Space Adventures still is a fine puzzle game. If general puzzles aren't your thing, this may be the type of puzzle game you're looking for. The plot reveals itself throughout, and for those who play stealth strategies in games like Thief or the Assassin's Creed or Arkham titles, this game rewards players for crafty play. Get it? Craft-y play? Man, I seriously outdo myself with these puns. Maybe Uexplore™ is looking for a new marketer…