Originally posted in the Kongregate forums here. I find it intriguing that someone would spend so much time writing about a piece of shit game (Orbital Decay) he so much hated. Oh well. Internet is a curious place 🙂
This is my first of what might be a regular thing. I’m not sure anyone cares what I have to say about games, but I don’t think that’s likely to stop me. My general gaming perspective is that I’ve been playing games for many years (computer and board games), and am generally a cynical misanthrope who would be quite content if all life on the planet died out and the Earth was left a barren rock.
With that in mind, here is my review of Orbital Decay. Also, there will be spoilers.
Orbital Decay begins with you having no clue where you are or why you’re there. This is fitting, because about five minutes later you will be wondering why you’re still playing (it’s probably because of badges). The first thing that is likely to leap out at you when you start is the size of your ship—it’s a great big huge thing that soaks up any errant bullet that is evenly vaguely aimed at you, and it comes with a great big gun positioned on the ship in a fashion that suggests the builders were compensating for something. Unfortunately, performance of this particular piece of equipment is lacking, which is a major point of frustration in the game. The bullets travel at walking speed, which means that at long ranges you’re required to lead targets by an incredible distance, and changes in your aim have a multiple second delay before the new shots reach the end of the playing field. Hitting any enemy that isn’t on a purely predictable course is a matter of aiming in its general vicinity and hoping it wanders into your bullets. This applies even when the enemy in question is huge. You can hit the broad side of a barn, but only if that barn isn’t dodging. Worse, your gun starts out only slightly more effective than shouting harsh language at the enemies. Tiny little ships take three shots to kill. With larger ships, you generally get the feeling that you ought to have packed a lunch. You can upgrade your cannon to be more damaging and to fire faster, but the issue with how fast the bullets travel never gets any better. This is annoying enough that it makes one wonder if the designer playtested the game at all. It seems like the sort of thing they should notice. The game area is also a bit of a problem. As mentioned, it’s wide enough that you have to scroll to see it all, and your shots take a long time to travel across it. Worse, it also extends quite a bit above and below your view vertically, and enemies (and your fighters) will often wander off the screen to maneuver in areas where they are very difficult to adequately aim at. These positions are indicated with arrows that let you know where you would need to hit the thing now, but with the slow speed your shots travel at, this is not enough. As you can’t see the enemy maneuvering, you can’t lead it at all. Another massively frustrating game element that should have been purged.
The upgrade system is nice. I liked the general modular feel of the ship, and actually would have liked to see more options in terms of what I can buy (for instance, rather than just fighters, being able to buy different types of defending ships would have been nice). Further, what choices there are rapidly vanish once you realize that the flak cannons and rockets are complete and utter trash. The rockets in particular made me outright laugh at how badly they functioned. A fired rocket will pursue targets, but not effectively enough to actually hit them. As such, the rocket looks like it’s tagging along behind the thing it’s trying to kill. When I was trying out rocket launchers, they never caught up with any target smaller than a capital ship before it got destroyed by lasers, fighters, or the main gun. Again, desperately in need of more playtesting. Once you scratch that out, you basically end up with the ability to upgrade your main gun, buy/upgrade fighters, build/upgrade lasers, and upgrade your repair systems. Still not too shabby, all in all. I’m willing to give credit where it’s due, and I kind of liked the general idea of how the ship functioned vis a vis the upgrade system.
Now, a lot of the people in the game comments loved the plot. I hold this up as a general example of mankind’s failures. The plot in this game is lackluster. I’d say that it gets points for having a plot (over a game like Amorphous+ which is quite openly plotless), but it doesn’t work that way. Once you make plot a major feature in the game, you have some responsibility to make sure it’s decent, and that it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay. The game starts out in a plot sequence that you can’t skip or speed up, which is greatly irritating as you are likely going to have to restart several times if you are trying for the hard badge. Each restart means being stuck watching this bit of plot again that you have already seen and likely weren’t particularly impressed with the first time. After that, for the most part you can ignore it, and likely will, as a lot of the plot-related messages come up on the bottom of the screen during firefights (as the game is almost entirely one long firefight). When you force the player to choose between reading your plot and shooting the enemies, they’ll generally pick the latter, especially when the enemies are back. But, if you pay attention to everything, you will notice that the designer appeared to have something planned… and then decided to phone it in for the grand finale. The plot starts out with you not sure where you are but trying to resume an old mission. Your ship is beaten up, and you’re under attack. So far, so good. Later, you discover that the locals seem to have legends about a ghost ship tearing through their civilization, and that this was probably you during a time when your controlling AIs were offline and the ship was cruising around with the automated defences running. Cool, now we know why they’re so ticked off. And then the grand finale drops… turns out when you got damaged your repair drones built another of you, which has had 15000 years to improve itself, while you spent that time flying around getting shot up. They decide to kill you for some random reason (as opposed to just saying, “Hey, here’s the information you’re looking for. Best of luck, alternate us!”) Likely, this is so that you can prove once and for all that you are completely incompetent by demonstrating that given 15000 years to improve your ship, you will manage to make it less effective than a beat-up original. So, big thumb’s down on that.
The game balance is also a bit screwy, which you’ll notice if you go for the hard badge. And before the inevitable wash of people going “You just suck”, I’ll point out that I got said hard badge. But, getting that badge requires making exactly the right expenditures from the beginning of the game. There is no room to correct for a mistake (you can sell turrets and the like, but the margins on cash are so tight that that kills your chances). This is one place where the uselessness of the flak/rocket turrets really can be a kick in the genitals, as any strategy you try that includes them is going to fail horribly. Worse, it takes about three chapters to evaluate whether or not your strategy is one that allows you to complete the game—if you can defeat the trio of capital ships at the end of chapter three, you can probably beat the game with your strategy. If you can’t (and usually this is the case), you will be brutally crushed by those three ships. You’ll probably be tempted to try “return to last checkpoint” to give you another shot at beating them, but this is just there to waste your time, as you will have to restart to redo your buying decisions from the start. A further factor here is that your ship has oodles of hit points, but it gets worn down fast if there are a lot of ships around. Worse is that until you get your repair systems well-upgraded, it repairs terribly slowly, so for the first few levels your hit points are decreasing slowly, and if you don’t start chapter three with enough hit points, you’re not going to be able to finish it. Now, a game being tough isn’t a bad thing, but in this case the game doesn’t feel “fair” as it’s tough. You get to chapter three, and usually it doesn’t matter how much skill you have at operating your little gun, you are going to lose. Further, you’re going to lose while being annoyed at how little damage the gun is doing, and how useless it is against most of the enemies that are whittling down your hit points. This is not a recipe for fun. Amusingly, once you have a setup that works to get you past chapter three, much of the game will probably be a snoozefest, even on hard. There’s a couple other points that might give you a challenge, but you’ll likely have upgraded enough as the game goes along that you just sail through the opposition in a hail of fire. A transition from impossible to simple is not really ideal.
All in all, this game felt like a good start—that there was a good idea and the framework of a good game, but that it was released way too early and without enough playtesting. It feels like a game in alpha, before the bugs are entirely hammered out, before some of the crazy plot ideas have been amended to be a little more reasonable, and before things that the game designers thought were great ideas but annoy an actual gamer have been fixed. It’s not the worst game I’ve ever played, but it’s definitely not one I’ll be going back to after I get the badge. Two stars. I’d have given it one for the actual experience, but I have to be a bit more charitable because there is something there that could be retrofitted into a much better game.
If you’ve enjoyed this review and want to see more, toss suggestions for games to review next below. I can’t promise I’ll listen to or care what you think, but it may be useful.