Capsized is an indie darling. A 2D shoot ‘em up, meets bullet hell shooter, meets platformer, meets run and gun, meets physics puzzler. Made by two guys who call themselves Alientrap. On PC, the game has been a critical success. Overall: quite a triumph.
Yet, in the new console port to Xbox 360, all the fun and well conceived mechanics under the game’s belt, which work fine on PC, are consistently undermined by the game’s frustrating elements, which are exacerbated with a joypad.
One minute you’ll be swinging from bulbous floating platforms with your Bionic Commando-like gravity hook, the next you’ll get blasted across the level by an alien kicking-plant, and will die instantly against a wall. One minute you’ll be exploring the amazing alien landscape in wonder and intrigue with your flashlight illuminating little pieces of mystery, the next a horde of thirty tiny, dangerous pods will fly out of nowhere, with several big suction bulbs and a huge mother fly following behind. You’ll be dead in an instant if you don’t jetpack out of there immediately- if you have a jetpack. You can’t even auto-aim lock-on to the most dangerous threats.
One minute you’ll be dragging huge chunks of rock carved with interesting alien patterns, trying to dig into a tunnel system to reach salvage. The next moment you accidentally drop a rock, which you need to activate a lever, down a hole, leaving your only option as a path through noxious gas fumes which will kill you in an instant. For the first time in a long time, I dropped my controller and turned my console off in frustration at this. Ten minutes into a level and some haphazard design element will kill you, and you have to reset.
It feels like luck plays into the gameplay far too much.
I love PC shooters. I love the run-and-gun genre. I love old classics like Metal Slug, Soldat and Stick Soldiers. Even going back to the SNES and early Sega generations, I enjoyed Contra and Super Probotector. And bullet-hellers, from old to modern, like Ikaruga or Geometry Wars.
But there are some control systems which, in a fast-paced shooting game, should stick on PC.
The fact that this game has up to seven or eight weapons is fine. It’s good, in fact. But what isn’t good is that you have to scroll through each of these individually with either Y on the Xbox 360 controller, or the notoriously wonky D-pad. On PC, a player simply hits the number four key if they want the Plas-Mortar, or hits eight if they want the Quasar-Array. It’s an instantaneous choice. They can have a finger ready to pounce on the button at any instant, if they reckon bad guys are coming soon.
But on the Xbox Live Arcade edition of Capsized, the player has to scroll imprecisely and frantically through the list of eight to reach what they want. When you are, out of nowhere, surrounded by thirty flying insects, and you need to swap from your big splash damage cannon to your rapid-fire machinegun, you need to do it quickly. And with these controls? You can’t. The issue would have been fixed if the developers had implemented a directional selection system, ala Batman: Arkham Asylum, where there are two weapons assigned to each direction on the D-pad. But they didn’t.
In fact, you can’t change the controls at all. There’s no freedom in how you can tailor the oft-frustrating experience.
Add in a pretty questionable auto-aim system and you have a lot of combat issues in a game which is based around combat. Auto aim is cleverly executed and useful when there are three or four enemies on screen, but any more than that and your guns will probably end up targeting a tiny insignificant insect while a huge armoured alien warrior blasts you to pieces.
There are moments where Capsized captures the dextrous thrill of a bullet-hell shooter. Aliens swarm from all sides, you make agile jumps and subtle direction changes to avoid the swathes of needles and spears and flies which come at you. For short periods, it’s thrilling. But inevitably the control system and the lack 360 degree precision of analogue sticks will get in the way.
Then there’s the imprecision of the game-world itself. The player has to pick up power-ups to give them more jetpack fuel, or more bullets, or more health. I encountered frequent issues with this: I couldn’t pick up power-ups, or the health which enemies drop would be untouchable for a couple of seconds, denying me a quick fix of health and getting me killed. Then there’s the game’s walls, which are often hard to interact with and which you roll off awkwardly, as if it’s a voxel game. But it’s not.
Despite all the gameplay issues and quirks, visually, the game is brilliant. In fact, on every aesthetic level, I’d call it a hit. The artists have done an incredible job, coming up with some of the most intricate 2D graphics I’ve ever seen. To call the alien world lush is an understatement. It’s positively brimming with specks of grass and dust and spores, detailed rocky patterns, bizarre and exotic plantlife, deadly and believable creatures. The music is brilliant Mass Effect-quality 80′s sci-fi drones and synth.
But despite the nice illustrated cutscenes and great, atmospheric style, I wouldn’t say Capsized functions that well as a game. It’s still a decent experience, the exploration is good, the levels are very open and good, the combat is good when it doesn’t throw too many enemies at you. It’s just the haphazardness of the grass-roots of gameplay which is hard to swallow when your controls are so imprecise, and when little gameplay systems often collaborate to annoy you.
At the time of writing, I’ve failed the game’s last level about five times. And bear in mind- each of those times includes three lives which you are given by default when you start the level up. So that’s at least fifteen deaths. One time, as I said above, I was kicked across the map into a wall. Twice I’ve been surrounded by swarms of enemies with no way of escaping or effectively fighting them off. Three times I’ve been killed by stupid gas-spouting puzzles, where you have to miraculously time your wall-jumps to get through gas geysers which constantly switch on and off. With the imprecise controls this is nearly impossible. The platforming is good but wonky, and often your controls don’t pick up a wall to attach to or make an arbitrary decision as to whether a wall is there or not.
However, having tried the game’s Arcade modes, which feature a time-trial run-through, a survival mode, and an “armless mode” where you have no weapons, my opinion of the game improved slightly.
It appears that when the game’s trying to give you a puzzle-ish objective, and posits itself partially as an adventure/ platformer, issues arise. Combat seems too confrontational and seems to saturate the experience. But on the game’s Survival mode, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. When the point of the game is just to kill aliens, the combat and mechanics work fine. They’re fun, even.
But that story mode is ruined by too many demands on a player with a rubbish control scheme. I also tried co-op with a friend- it was equally messy and hard to follow. My co-astronaut hated it.
At it’s core, I like Capsized. It’s cool, it’s stylish, it’s got a great and unique sci-fi atmosphere. The gameplay is, in broad strokes, compelling and engaging. But the gameplay devil is in the gameplay details. And almost all of Capsized gameplay details are flawed.