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Rocking The Boat… ‘Capsized’ [Review]

When the first footage of Alientrap‘s physics-driven platform/shooter Capsized landed, a great number of older gamers immediately thought back to Exile, a seminal open-world adventure for the Amiga, Atari ST and other such home computers of the time. Now complete and released, does Capsized manage to live up to its progenitor?

In a word: No. But not for the reasons you might think. Despite the outward similarities to Exile, Capsized feels far more like a tribute to mid 90′s shareware shooters such as Abuse or perhaps even the Turrican series. Linear and level-based, your goal is simple; blast your way through 12 levels of alien jungle planet in an attempt to get your spacesuit-clad backside out of danger and back into space. Each level, you start out fresh, with an allowance of extra lives, no weapons beyond your infinite-ammo pistol and an empty tank of jetpack fuel. Everything needs to be picked up in the field. Weapons represented by projectile icons, healh pickups present themselves as floating crosses and so on. It’s immediately familiar stuff if you’re an avid gamer on the grey-and-crinkly side of 25 years old.

The comparisons with Exile aren’t entirely undeserved, though. The setting and premise is very similar – a jetpacking, space-suited hero stranded on a jungle world full of threats, and often using the power of physics to push, throw or otherwise batter around a variety of objects in order to solve basic puzzles. All things considered, the core combat feels far more like Abuse than anything, with the keyboard handling basic running and jumping, and the mouse dedicated to aiming and shooting, assuming keyboard control is chosen – I tried using my 360 controller at first, but settled on the slightly more precise mouse-based aiming.

As you can see from the trailer and screenshots, Capsized is a beautiful looking game. The plot is simple, but told effectively via a smattering of silent comic-book panels, with the facial expressions on the lost astronauts effectively selling their fear, anger and confusion with shocking effectiveness. The in-game graphics live up to the interstitial illustrations, immersing you into a lush and overgrown tropical planet filled with distinct and threatening indigenous lifeforms. While generally looking great in motion, the art-style does falter a bit when rendering the larger enemy types, with their limited animation and single pose making them appear to glide across the ground, rather than walking. The impressive detail on the foliage also presents the occasional problem, with smaller insect-like enemies easily getting obscured by the foreground flora, forcing you to just fire wildly until you kill the critter slowly chewing its way through your health bar.

The music, too, is fantastic. Taken from Solar Fields‘ 2009 album, Movements, it almost immediately earned itself a place on my personal listening library. A range of low-BPM beats, sweeping, spacey ambient tunes and atmospheric background drones. The problem is that it sounds like it should be in another game entirely. Once the intro is out of the way, and the game starts throwing wave upon wave of expendable angry alien natives at you, Capsized feels like it demands an upbeat, high-energy soundtrack to match the twitch shooter gameplay. The fact that the music keeps playing the same playlist on shuffle/loop, not even changing track on level completion makes this feel all the more jarring. It doesn’t feel so much like the soundtrack to the game as rather an album of far-too-relaxing (and quite lovely) tunes played over the top of it all. Indeed, the default audio balance causes the music to drown out many of the sound effects entirely – lowering music volume to half of default is advisable.

For a stranded spaceman lost on Planet Murder, you’re shockingly well prepared. At the start of each level, you’re equipped with a basic infinite-ammo laser pistol (with a chargeable, explosive alternate fire mode that does an impressive amount of damage even compared to much rarer weaponry), the Gravity Hook – more of an atomic bungee cord than a grappling hook, allowing you to fling yourself and other objects huge distances through the air – and the Gravity Ram, which behaves like an infinite-ammo rocket-jumping device. Point it down at the ground and fire to launch yourself into the sky at ridiculous speeds without taking a jot of damage. It can also be used to knock enemies and physical objects around the levels, but the recoil will likely send you flying in the opposite direction. An entertaining toolset, and that’s before you pick up any items in the field.

Among the powerups you’ll find scattered around are another 7 weapons, each with two distinct firing modes, a range of temporary power-ups (such as energy shields, anti-gravity belts and such), and tanks of jetpack fuel in two varieties – one-use or recharging – and given the impressively large stockpiles of resources you’ll find lying around everywhere, it’s very rare to run low on firepower, even on Hard mode (which sadly only changes the amount of health you and the enemies have), so it’s advisable to just go wild and not bother conserving anything, as it’ll all be taken away again once you complete the level.

The arsenal of weapons, as impressively broad as it is, highlights one of the key problems with the game. There’s a strange lack of feedback in combat. Some weapons sound shockingly weak, and others (bizarrely, the rocket-launcher like Plasmortar and the Black-Hole generating final weapon) make almost no noise at all. While I’m aware that the sci-fi setting demands that most projectiles be either coherent light or superheated gas, if I fire a shoulder-mounted cannon capable of exploding an alien soldier into a cloud of green bloody chunks, I want to at least hear something solid and bass’y on firing, and a concussive thump on impact. Weirdly, every weapon has the exact same effect on the enemies. Once their health is depleted, even the bosses just seem to lose cohesion and collapse into a pile of their component parts, even if you tickled them to death with the starting pistol. Despite the varied arsenal, one spray of blue plasma feels as good as another after a while, and only a couple of weapons really stand out.

Another major stumbling block is the level design. Despite the 12 levels only taking around 2 hours (maybe 3 at a stretch) to complete, the first two thirds of the campaign seem almost unsure of what they can get away with, largely limiting you to relatively narrow stretches of jungle environment hemmed in by walls of greenery and stone. While the first few stages show a lot of potential, just when things should expand outwards it sends you underground for a particularly clumsy stretch involving a great many dark, narrow tunnels. With those complete, and a full two thirds of the campaign over, you’re finally let out into the open air, and the game begins to shine at last.

Once released into the wild and allowed to roam freely across a range of floating islands and bobbing platforms, you can really harness the power of the gravity hook and ram to launch yourself around the levels, engaging enemies in the air and on the ground. When it works, it’s a joy, and if the entire game had been based around levels like this, and the concept expanded a little further, I’d have found the whole experience far more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, even in this handful of longer, more open levels, your objectives force you back into the claustrophobic tunnels, now lined with an almost comical excess of near-instantly lethal green gas vents, and due to the longer levels and the lack of a proper checkpoint system, you need to complete them in a single sitting without running out of lives. Not normally a problem, except for the times when you get stuck in a wall due to a physics glitch (forcing you to kill yourself with a splash-damage weapon), or stuck in a cycle of endless respawn and death because the game wants to bring you back to life in the middle of a swarm of enemies, or (worse still, and happened twice to me) right under one of the green gas vents.

While by no means bilge – all flaws aside, it’s a fun bit of 90s nostalgia – Capsized has taken on somewhat more water than it should. Still, the worst problems with the game are nothing that a couple of solid patches and revisions couldn’t fix. This ship might yet sail again, but until then, I can’t honestly recommend it at full price when there’s freeware romps like Hurrican and TAGAP (for that mid-90s nostalgia hit) and The Nameless (for the Exile fans) out there.

You can buy Capsized for $10 (or your regional equivalent) on Steam now.