How the heck do you make a tiny, extremely pixelly protagonist feel both inhumanly heavy and yet powerfully agile at the same time? The age old question. Sort of. In any case, just ask the somewhat mysterious one-person army behind upcoming action-RPG Radio the Universe, 6E6E6E, because they clearly have the answer. The short demo of their debut release showcases some mighty slick, SNES-styled sci-fi environments that, combined with cohesive and thoughtful sound design, manage to evoke really quite a palpable atmosphere.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll do a right swoon when you look through the screenshots. And then feel immediately vulnerable. We’ve all fallen too hard for charming graphics and been hurt by lack of substance before. But fear not! There’s depth to Radio the Universe, and it pays attention to the little things. So have a carefree watch of the announcement trailer and then find the full preview below.
Radio the Universe is available to wishlist on Steam now, though the release date is yet to be announced
Story – Less Will Probably be More
It’s hard to make definitive statements about Radio the Universe’s plot from the demo alone, wrapping up as it does after only about an hour. Still, here’re the facts so far. Cyborg (android?) wakes from a dream. Not one of electric sheep, but seemingly of a human girl (her former self?) wading until fully submerged into a glistening, pixel-art ocean. Some distinctly horror-inspired instrumentals accompany this sequence, so presumably we’re not witnessing a nice little frolic in the surf on a beach-side vaycay here. I won’t lie, I got goosebumps.
And that’s it for exposition! The game fires up proper and it’s straight into the environmental storytelling, which is pretty light on tangible narrative but sets an enthralling backdrop full of cyber-gothic architecture and a sprawling, fallen megacity. A neglected phone terminal in the dimly-lit far corner of one hallway reports a wait time of “four billion, two hundred and ninety four million, nine hundred and sixty seven thousand, two hundred and ninety six minutes” to access the network. Sweet little crumbs of story, then. And while some folks prefer to sink their teeth into meatier chunks of traditional narrative, Radio the Universe is perfectly suited to more understated offerings.
On the project’s Kickstarter page, the creator refers to an “offbeat narrative” and cut scenes (plural!) that “help illustrate the vast and desolate setting of the game”. So we can assume that not everything will be left to the player’s imagination. Still, judging by the demo and other snippets from the developer, focus has been placed primarily on atmosphere and tone. With great results, too. The indifferent beauty of 6E6E6E’s world hits hard, as do the nasty AI robots.
Gameplay – Finely Tuned Roaming and Roboticide
Taking my first steps in the starting area, I was puzzled by something. Jumps trigger a surprisingly mechanical clonking sound. Bit odd for such a petite character, I thought. She must be wearing some massive boots. Arriving at my first obstacle, a bottomless pit right out of the Mushroom Kingdom, an illegible HUD notification appeared at the bottom of the screen. I leapt and clonked safely across, which briefly summoned some kind of gyroscopic readout. This is how I discovered that my character was not actually a fan of goth footwear, but is a cybernetically augmented being. And it’s this concept that elegantly ties together the game’s themes with its mechanics and allows its unique character to shine.
Radio the Universe controls the way I imagine The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past would if you whipped poor Link out of there and replaced him with Major Motoko Kusanagi. There’s more agility here – owing to a short dash manoeuvre that can be combined with attacks – but not to the level of your Hyper Light Drifters or your Hadeses. That’s right, Hadeses. It’s a precisely calibrated pace that encourages strategic positioning and reactions in combat rather than reliance on over-powered dodges to bungle out of danger. Details like this contribute to a clear sense of the character’s capabilities. Dropping from height feels more likely to buckle a floor panel than cause fall damage.
Slashy, Blasty Exploration
Melee attacks take the form of various bloody savage-looking swings of a bloody savage-looking blade. The responsiveness of these strikes is characteristically well-considered, and the same can be said of the ranged sidearm. The latter takes the form of a satisfying, shotgun-like weapon by default, but can be switched out for other guns.
The snipey one benefits from a hugely welcome consideration for quality-of-life features, which is a theme throughout the demo. Given that Radio the Universe uses the classic 8 directions of movement and is most comfortably played with a D-pad, fast, pixel-perfect sniping ain’t easy. But that’s no problem. The laser sight auto-locks onto nearby baddies, eliminating the frustration entirely. And why not? This isn’t a FPS so it’s sensible to focus instead on the important stuff. This is one of many instances of design maturity you might expect from a veteran developer at their absolute peak.
Platforms and overlays
Platforming sections exist more to tickle your brain with quick traversal puzzles than to test your sick jumping skills. Another wise design choice. And since we’re on a roll, here’s a third. Those fleeting HUD readouts I mentioned are part of a sort of semi-diagetic system of contextual overlays. I say semi-diagetic because, sure, the player sees these text threads and gyroscopic scales from a different perspective, but we can assume our bionic hero benefits from those same reports as some kind of augmented-reality enhancement to their own vision. Some of them are informative. Some of them are flavour. All of them are brilliant.
The most useful one maps out the trajectory of your next jump during platforming sections. An admission from the developer, perhaps, that the low-res aesthetics can be difficult to parse. Still, it’s a nifty, inoffensive little solution to the issue. Another good ‘un comes in the form of a warning symbol when leaning over a pit that will mean death rather than progression. A union of theming and clarity that could warm the heart of even the most demented security bot.
Graphics and sound – Captivating Eye and Ear Candy
Visually, Radio the Universe is all about the 16-bit nostalgia. There’s a lot of that about these days, but even if you did a sigh rather than a swoon when you saw the screenshots, there might yet be enough character to win you over. Apparent influences range from Hotline Miami to Dark Souls to anything dark sci-fi. Still, the aesthetic here is unique. The end of an otherwise eerie metallic corridor might grab attention with a neon orange glow. Another might lead out into an ornate courtyard bathed in otherworldly light.
All this pixelly pizzazz and low-res nostalgia does come at the cost of occasional, mild confusion. For the most part it isn’t an issue, but in busier areas I sometimes felt compelled to nudge up against anything that looked like a climbable box or pillar to see if a ‘jump here’ overlay appeared. That’s a minor quibble, but opening the character upgrade screen for the first time was really something. My face must have resembled a recently-used emote list. First the shocked face, then the twirly-eyed one, then the angry guy, finally the relieved one. I sat for a good 30 seconds trying to decode the interface. With so few pixels to work with, there are times when function really should be prioritized over form.
Enemy design and audio atmosphere
Getting back to the success stories: loads of cool robots. There’s no sign of Gundam-style, bipedal mobile suits (what do you mean, a “big ask”?) in the demo, but the range of hostile mecha that do appear seem to take heavy inspiration from anime designs. Which, I think we can all agree, is absolutely the best place to get roboty inspo. There looks to be a good amount of unique types, all with their own attack patterns and weaponry.
From the mechanoids to the menus, sound design is phenomenal in all areas. Effects are punchy, hits feel heavy, and the death audio is somehow the most visceral and succinct I’ve come across in a long time. There’s the obligatory somber ambiance to accompany your descent into the city too, which is more than alright by me.
Radio the Universe was previewed on PC (Steam) with a pre-Next Fest demo key provided by PostHornPR.