Some of the finest fictional tales are those that revolve themes of isolation and loneliness while promoting a sense of disconnect from everything that we know. So it is then that Canadian outfit PixelNAUTS, has infused this particular brand of parable into its latest title, Lost Orbit. However, rather than some grandstanding open-world RPG setting, Lost Orbit instead tells its tale against the backdrop of a top-down, vertically scrolling arcade game that while perhaps a little too meagre in scope, nevertheless emerges as a charmingly compelling effort all the same.
The premise of Lost Orbit is pleasingly straightforward; our hero Harrison is a human astronaut who, after his craft is destroyed while fixing a remote communications satellite, finds himself up deep space creek without a paddle. Soon though, he encounters an intriguing AI who, in an effort to learn more about Harrison’s life and the human race, agrees to help him return to civilisation once more.
Certainly gameplay-wise, it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to posit that Lost Orbit feels like the Velocity games just without all the shooting. A vertically-scrolling affair, our plucky protagonist must use his powered space suit to boost and manoeuvre his diminutive form through a myriad of different asteroid fields before reaching the warp gate at the end of every stage.
Complicating this endeavour are not only the floating masses of rock that you would expect to find in a field full of them, but also great lumps of abandoned machinery, hunks of debris and other dangers to deal with as well. Quite unlike the Velocity games however, Harrison cannot actually shoot his way through the game and, aside from a smart bomb-esque power up, must rely on his talents of evasion rather than aggression in order to reach the conclusion of every sortie that he embarks upon.
Ostensibly with a core concept as lean as this, the whole thing could have come unravelled extremely quickly if the controls and responsiveness weren’t up to scratch. Thankfully, in both cases, Lost Orbit doesn’t disappoint with a level of ultra-responsiveness compounded by a smoothly conveyed sense of momentum and speed that makes traversing Lost Orbit’s forty different stages a bespoke pleasure rather than a frustrating chore.
Adding some sophistication to this otherwise seemingly undemanding task is the presence of different types of planets and other spatial phenomena. The seemingly most pedestrian of these are the regular planets that players will encounter first early on into the game. Here, a clearly defined radius is set around each planetary body and when approached by Harrison, sucks him into its orbit before allowing him to escape and continue his journey. Conversely, if our stranded chap hurtles toward these planets too quickly, instead of orbiting them, he’ll merely splat against its surface in a comically horrific spectacle of sloppy red goo and bouncing giblets.
If entering these orbits dangerous, then so too proves the act of leaving them as each time Harrison gets enough speed to escape from their orbit, he can often find himself flung at high-speed into whatever unknown awaits beyond the scrolling parameters of the screen, so naturally, caution must be exercised lest death follows quickly.
Elsewhere, other planet types can affect Harrison’s journey among the stars in a number of different ways too and as such, add variety to the lean dodge em’ up gameplay that exists at the core of Lost Orbit. Pulsars allow our hero to effectively teleport in a linear direction, while gas giants can shoot him out at great speed and finally water planets secure him in place before allowing the player to decide on the direction that they’ll set off in.
The level design of Lost Orbit is certainly deft and proves itself so in the fashion that the developers have combined all the different planetary types, in addition to a few other things that I won’t spoil here, to great result. This effectively fashions a design where each stage is appears as an intergalactic assault course of sorts, where skilled players can use the various orbits and planet types to slingshot their way forward and maintain a speedy momentum right up to the end of each stage.
Speaking of design, Lost Orbit also permits players to drift off both sides of the screen and many of the stages are actually designed around this mechanic. Thankfully, not knowing exactly where Harrison will appear, and thus the potential of a frustrating death is all but erased here as the developer has implemented a neat little system that projects exactly where our wayward protagonist will end up.
Adding another element to the proceedings are the upgrades that Harrison can purchase by picking up the shiny Obtainium crystals that litter every stage. Enabling upgrades that span the spectrum of defensive improvements to faster boost speeds, it soon becomes almost obsessive to hoover up every one of the glittering pink crystals to ensure that you have the best space suit available; usually throwing you into danger at every possible opportunity as a result.
Another similarity to the Velocity games is glimpsed in the premium that Lost Orbit places on completion times and online leaderboards, making it a far more competitive and skilled affair than its gentle introduction might otherwise suggest. On top of this, multiple tiered badges are also handed out at the end of each stage for level completion times, number of deaths and quantity of Obtainium collected, allowing Lost Orbit to prescribe a similar structure to Futurlab’s titles and thus, provide an equalling compelling hook as a result.
Of course when we talk about compelling, it feels churlish to do so without making mention of Lost Orbit’s masterfully crafted narrative. Told from the perspective of an AI that encounters Harrison shortly after he becomes stranded, the plot is conveyed to the player as a series of bite-sized monologues. Not before long, a touching story soon emerges as the AI communicates how Harrison misses home and how, in the deepness of space, the lost pilot relates his experiences to aspects of his life on Earth. This in turn creates a charming plot dynamic as the AI gains a brief proxy understanding of life, death, humour and tragedy; all of which hit home with palpable aplomb as his voice actor delivers his lines with charisma and verve.
Where Lost Orbit stumbles though, it does so predictably. The game’s primary crux of basically just dodging stuff, mission after mission might grate with those who crave a little more variety while, in terms of longevity, the game finds itself desperately lacking, since outside of replaying the game’s forty levels and engaging in the time trials, little incentive remains to keep on plugging away once the credits roll.
Lost Orbit is a true space odyssey, then. What it lacks in value and scope, it more than compensates for in pixel-perfect gameplay and a refreshingly unconventional narrative that charmingly illustrates not just the tribulations of a stranded protagonist, but also that of the perspicacity belonging to the AI that chronicles his journey. Flaws aside, and much like the planetary bodies that define its expertly constructed cosmic assault courses, Lost Orbit’s yoke proves difficult to escape from.