Review: Inside a Star-filled Sky
by copycatalyst (7)
March 14th 2012

I'll just say this up front: I don't get Inside a Star-filled Sky. I can tell you it’s a multi-directional shooter for PC (using mouse and keyboard, no controller support), I can tell you it’s abstract (no story or visual theme to speak of), and I can tell you it’s about infinity (an endless cascade of pseudo-randomly generated levels). What I can’t tell you is where to find fun in this game.

Intrigued by the unique concept -that virtually all of the objects can be entered, turning the pixels of an enemy into the boundaries of a new level- I decided to give it a shot. It seemed to offer a less frantic, tactical take on the top-down shooter. The goal, such as it is, is to advance upward in scale by finding exit points. Reaching these exit points expands your view so that the entire previous level is now your new avatar to pilot. Of course, enemies stand between you and the exits. The idea, it seems, is that with their range, bullet spread, and rate of fire greater than yours, they often require certain power-ups to defeat.

Thus you enter enemies or other things (turning them into a new level) in search of power-ups. Making things somewhat confusing is that the powers are only applied upon extraction back up to the higher level. I couldn’t always tell if the power-ups I had found would work against the very foes for which I sought them. These power-ups are not always strictly upgrades either: a shot that abruptly turns 90 degrees could be useful, but it could also bite you in the ass.

This confusing design would be excusable and even defensible if I felt compelled to keep playing in order to learn the ins and outs of the mechanics; get to know the power-ups, learn if entering certain things is more advantageous than others, etc.  But it is here that the nail was driven into the coffin. It just wasn’t fun.

I had no motivation to advance. There’s no finishing an infinite game, so it can only be about getting a bit further than you were before. Despite their pseudo-random generation (or perhaps because of it) the levels all feel similar. The abstract nature of the game means that the increases in scale as you advance never produce any sense of, well, scale. Contrast Katamari Damacy, another game that involves a constantly expanding game space. In Katamari you begin rolling over trinkets and toys and expand snowball-like to later consume tables, cars, ships, buildings, and it goes on. At each point you feel bigger than before. In Star-filled Sky, despite the designer’s claim that (due to the order-of-magnitude level transitions) by level 14 you have reached the scale of the entire universe, the game looks and plays the same as level 1. You’re still just an abstract pixel creature in an abstract pixel world the same size (relative to you) as the last.

I’ve heard it said that the game gets much better at higher levels, perhaps because by then the player can grok the power-ups and how best to combine them. But in an infinite game, how high is high enough? How much further would I have to go in order to “get it”? At an area far greater than size of the entire universe I still hadn’t found the fun.

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