Orbital Bullet Preview: 360 No Scope

Try not to spin out of control in SmokeStab’s 360-degree action roguelike. Traverse circular levels and take out hordes of aliens in this fast-paced shooter-platformer, but make sure to watch your back – and your front – for enemies and projectiles sneaking up from the other side!

Orbital Bullet Review: 360 No Scope

Orbital Bullet tasks you with taking down waves of alien enemies across numerous procedurally-generated worlds, armed only with your smarts and a small arsenal of heavy weaponry. This isn’t your grandpa’s side-scrolling shoot-em-up, though: each level is a ring, allowing you to circle round in either direction and keep an eye on what’s happening in the ‘background’. Play your cards right and you could even nab an oh-so-satisfying snipe from the other side of the map altogether.

Orbital Bullet is out now in Early Access on Steam.

Story – More Like Nah-rrative

The game puts you in the boots of an unnamed space marine and sends you travelling off to a battery of procedurally-generated planets to kick ass against hordes of aliens which all seem to have it out for you. And…that’s kind of it, honestly.

Orbital Bullet is clearly not a game that trades on its story – which is to say, there isn’t one. Usually with this type of game you might at least be able to find some slivers of narrative hidden away on the Steam page or the website, or whatever passes as the 21st-century equivalent of a manual, but there isn’t even that. There’s no context as to why you’re there and why you’re mowing through wave after wave of hostile aliens. You just suit up, go out and shoot stuff.

Whose underwater base is this? You'll never know.

Whose underwater base is this? You’ll never know.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. While some roguelikes (Hades comes to mind) manage to combine story and gameplay to cement the desire to go through the same loop over and over again, others just lean that much more heavily on their mechanics instead, and it seems Orbital Bullet falls squarely into the latter category. If the gameplay loop is enjoyable enough, players don’t necessarily need external justification to keep playing. However, having no story whatsoever is certainly a little unusual: it’s hard to think of another game of this type that doesn’t attach at least a flimsy narrative hook to provide a little context for the gameplay.

It’s entirely possible that any story is a casualty of its Early Access release, though, put on the back burner while they fine-tune and perfect the gameplay. But is that gameplay good enough to make you want to take on run after run without an overarching narrative to provide a sense of progression or even any context for why you’re there in the first place? The answer is: kinda!

Mind you don't singe your eyebrows off.

Mind you don’t singe your eyebrows off.

Gameplay – Circular Logic

Orbital Bullet is a side-scrolling roguelike shooter, but with a twist (literally): each level is a ring, and you can fight your way round clockwise or anti-clockwise. What that means is that you can see enemies in the ‘background’, and even curve your bullets or lasers round corners to score an extremely satisfying snipe on a distant enemy if you position yourself right. Once all the enemies have been taken care of, you move on to the next floor, either jumping up, dropping down or transferring to a new cylinder via some high-tech bridge or other.

Your space marine avatar is a nimble little fellow, moving from side to side quickly and able to perform a dodge roll and a double jump right off the bat. You wield two weapons and can also jump on the heads of a lot of enemies, Super Mario-style, in case you’re running a little light on ammo (that’s unlikely to happen though – the drops are pretty generous). It’s a good thing too, because things can get pretty hairy very quickly if you’re not careful, especially once you hit the second planet and more enemies start hurling bombs at you.

Sometimes the inner ring will fire a laser out at you - watch your step.

Sometimes the inner ring will fire a laser out at you – watch your step.

The 360-degree mechanic seems like a gimmick at first, but it can inspire a surprising amount of strategic consideration. Just as you can shoot round corners, so can enemies, and most levels feature concentric rings that you’ll need to jump to in order to take out the remaining enemies. Each weapon type plays slightly differently and those of a similar family will draw from the same ammo cache: shotguns are very much a short-range, high-power option, while some rifles and lasers can fire round the whole arena in one go if you find the right spot. Grenade launchers fire in an arc and bounce off walls, and you’d do well to stay alert around your own explosives, because they can hurt you too without the right upgrades.

Those upgrades are possibly the big replayability factor in Orbital Bullet. There are a ton of systems at play, many of which will be familiar to roguelike enthusiasts and each of which uses its own ‘currency’: credits to buy things from the shop, weapon parts to unlock new things with which to kill the bad guys, what looks like a Windows logo to unlock class-specific abilities (oh yes, there’s a rudimentary class system in the mix too). The two separate talent trees are an interesting example, one handling persistent upgrades that will carry through all future playthroughs, the other bestowing extra abilities and the like for a single playthrough – think of it like Hades’ Mirror of Night vs the Boons received from the Olympians.

This pleasant fella will sell you things periodically.

This pleasant fella will sell you things periodically.

The persistent skill tree will prove very helpful, unlocking new items at the vendors and offering helpful things like the ability to save some of the various currencies at the end of each run rather than losing it all, but the per-run upgrades are where the replayability really comes in. You start each run with four randomly-chosen abilities which you can improve periodically at upgrade stations, and every so often you’ll have to choose the next similarly-randomised layer of your talent tree before plugging upgrade points into those as well.

The abilities range from the mundane (more health, higher damage) to the honestly kind of game-breaking (fire a powerful laser from your feet every time you double jump), but the variety on offer and the randomised nature of it all but guarantees that you’ll never have quite the same run twice.

That said, it’s not without its foibles. When choosing new ‘branches’ of the in-run ability tree, you’re unable to see the details of each skill, just a small icon, which means that you’re essentially guessing at what you’re getting until you start to become more familiar with the abilities. Additionally, there’s currently not an option to save and quit a run midway through, likely due to the game still technically being in development. The Early Access nature of the game also reveals itself in the occasional bug: I never encountered anything game-breaking in my time with it, but frequently the UI and other bits of text would overlap with each other or not render properly, obscuring things like perk descriptions and making them difficult or impossible to read.

Pictured: a very satisfying 360 degree snipe.

Pictured: a very satisfying 360 degree snipe.

All in all, while it’s hard to state what exactly Orbital Bullet does differently from other action roguelikes beyond its undeniably unique perspective shift, and there are definitely some rough edges to be sanded down in Early Access, fighting through those randomised, cylindrical battlegrounds has nevertheless been surprisingly fun. It manages to avoid many of the frustrations to which other roguelikes fall prey, while still delivering a challenging and satisfying action/bullet-hell experience.

It may not bring much that’s new to the table in its mechanics, but the execution is robust, smooth and enjoyable. The lack of story suggests more of a focus on the gameplay and making the experience fun for the player, and they’ve certainly achieved that.

Graphics and Audio – Head-Banging Hellscapes

Orbital Bullet has a great-looking visual style, combining pixel art aesthetics for the player character and many of the enemies with a more polygonal look for things like the level design, particle effects and even some boss monsters. The enemy designs are clear and recognisable for the most part, meaning that once you know how a particular alien attacks and moves you’ll rarely be caught by surprise by unexpected behaviour if you can keep on top of things. As an added bonus, the design of the player character and the comically oversized weaponry brings to mind classic arcade experiences like Metal Slug, and that’s certainly no bad thing.

The soundtrack is an impressively varied electronica soundscape from music team Niilo Takalainen (of bewitching indie game Noita) and Juha Korpelainen, bringing some really punchy beats to every level that lend an air of badassery to the whole affair. The background music changes subtly once you’ve cleared a floor, becoming more muted until you take the plunge (or the leap) to the next level, which is a nice touch, and all in all the music is diverse enough that it doesn’t become a drag listening when playing through the same levels time and again. In the developers’ own words, ‘if you die a lot, at least you can listen to some catchy tunes.’

Orbital Bullet was previewed on PC with a Steam key provided by UberStrategist.

Summary
The usual Early Access caveats still apply to Orbital Bullet, but all things considered it’s a remarkably robust and enjoyable game experience despite still technically being in development. It’s not going to reinvent the genre, but it does what it does cleanly and impressively, and delivers a genuinely fun romp across its procedurally-generated worlds. With more content and updates likely to come as it nears its official release, you’ll certainly want to get in on the ground floor with this one (and then fight your way to the top).
Good
  • Beautiful graphical style
  • Badass electronica soundtrack
  • Satisfying gameplay loop that'll bring you back for more
Bad
  • No story
  • Some bugs, and the odd missing feature due to Early Access

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