Remember Asteroids? The old game for Atari, one of the first ever made? The one where you play as a triangular spaceship shooting down space rocks and flying saucers? The only reason I do is because my godfather is an incredibly nostalgic guy who found an old system and games and so exposed my sisters and I to the classics. Imagine if Asteroids were made today by a modern indie developer and you have sphereFACE by Voxelstorm. What we have is a loving tribute to one of the first games ever created in the form of a science fiction roguelike. Though there are problems with the story, camera, and gameplay, sphereFACE is a a good game to pick up if you are a fan of this kind of game. This is due to the fast-paced action, charming graphics, a killer soundtrack, and a truly different experience every time.
sphereFACE is available on Steam for $12.99.
In an age where humanity has gone interstellar, there have been whispers of alien life among the stars. The bad news is that the life isn't exactly friendly. Ships have been either been disappearing or found destroyed with no signs of any more organic life. You play as a nameless character who has done all of this before in a dream. You feel as though you've done this before. You need to go to the center of the sphereFACE wormhole network to find the source, which will hopefully answer all of your questions.
I only have two main complaints about the story: First is that it doesn't seem to do much original. It's a standard alien invasion, albeit on a bigger scale. At some point I did start to wonder if perhaps I was the menace because I am destroying these ships to get the audio logs, but that leads me to my second complaint: execution. Everything about the player character is stuff I gleaned from the three-minute story trailer. The rest I found in the ship logs you can sometimes find off of hostile ships. The problem is that the logs are all disjointed and that in order to read them you need to pause the game, go into your inventory, and read them. If you forget to look at them and then die, you have to wait until you pick them up again in later playthroughs. It really breaks the flow of the gameplay. If the logs could be read between playthroughs when the pace has already stopped, that would be so much better. As is, I just have to hope that the ship log I got from that last enemy isn't the same one I got the last eighteen games. I know ships have been disappearing and I want to know more, but the game does not have an easily accessible story.
Your ship will only move forward and turn. If you are blessed with the reverse thrusters, you can then move backwards. Your weapon is tied to the front of your ship, so you must always be facing whatever you plan on shooting. The controls are all very intuitive and should work just fine, but they can be infuriating. Part of that has to do with the way your ship slides around the map like a dog on a hardwood floor. Your first few tries you will die just trying to move around, hitting a meteor, then careening out of control around the sphere until either by some miracle you stop or, even more likely, you slam into a remnant of that same meteor and are scattered across the universe. This is something that gets better as you figure out exactly how everything works, but coupled with a few of my other issues this becomes a real pain.
I can't be too angry at the game for this though, because I get it. In the friction-less environment of deep space you wouldn't have anything to stop you. I'm not suggesting that Voxelstorm make a drastic change to keep you in control at all times, just perhaps an emergency stop that could be utilized once every few levels wouldn't go amiss. It would help the player keep in control without making things too easy. In a game in which death is so easy and carries a lot of penalty (I'll get to that in a second), there is no worse feeling than moving to a new level only to be blindsided by a meteor half a second in, then the resulting spiral results in crashing into some other meteor for instant death. This is even worse when the run has been going otherwise very well, but the meteor just plowed through your shields and killed you before you could even react.
This is separate from the basic controls because the default camera is the most erratic, irrational, and obnoxious thing ever. This can only mean one thing: you are in complete control. Here's the thing, the camera is controlled with the mouse while your ship is controlled with the keyboard. The camera is completely independent of the ship. Therefore, whenever you inevitably go out of control you will have to follow a ship spinning around a spherical level in order to find a way to get it to work. This is perhaps the most vertigo inducing thing I have ever had to do in any game ever. If I had done this in VR I would have definitely needed a puke bucket on standby. There is the option to have the camera follow you around, which does help but not by much. I will say that the separate camera is an asset in allowing you to scout around the sphere so you don't accidentally send yourself flying into a meteor or an enemy, and is also great with helping you plot out shots.
Some of these are definitely more useful than others. You start off with a shield and a split gun. As you explore around the levels, you will get more weapons and equipment. As I previously mentioned you can find reverse thrusters, but there is a plethora of things you can find. You can restore your shields, and you can even find other unusual weapons. The variety is vast, but they range from near useless, like the flak cannon or flamethrower (side note: how does a flamethrower work in the vacuum of space?), to the nearly unbeatable laser weapons. Sometimes I just upgraded my starting split gun to the point where every shot provided bullets at a near 180 degree angle, other times I found a beam laser and tore a swath of destruction before my inevitable death.
You can't have a roguelike without permadeath, so why does this merit its own category? Well, it just grinds my gears when roguelikes give you permadeath but no smaller goals. In a game like FTL or Rogue Legacy you may not, and in fact will not, beat your first runs, but you may unlock a new class or ship. It's all about the exploration of the unique world you get in each run. SphereFACE does not have that, when you die you are starting again tabula rasa. That would be fine, but death can come so unexpectedly, so you are one bad move from losing everything at all times. Some people like that but I like to have at least a few allowances in case the random number generator isn't in my favor.
To the game's credit, each run is short and so it isn't a waste of more than roughly ten minutes before you need to start over again, but I still found it frustrating that I could get to the carrier which I assume is the end only to be blindsided by a meteor each time. I would then just find I beat a high score previously held by myself and I had to start from scratch. If there were a way to even change which weapon you could get at the start if you get so many kills with a weapon you find in one run that would be something. I don't need a lot, just smaller goals to help me keep motivated to get to the big one. Or at least let us keep the ship logs permanently so the story can be more easily revealed. Maybe I'm just a wimp, but if death can come so quickly and unexpectedly I would like to not lose all of my hard-earned progress.
Graphics and AUdio
The graphics are good for what they were going for. White is a meteor, green is an upgrade, red is an enemy. You can easily distinguish between everything and the color palate is very TRON, which helps the retro aesthetic. Something I really like about what they did with the graphics is how you can see everything in the neighboring spheres from where you are. That really lends to the epic intergalactic scope they were going for, and it really is great to be able to look ahead to maybe avoid a difficult conflict. They aren't fantastic, but Voxelstorm succeeded in creating a sort of retro charm.
I would definitely buy this game's soundtrack. I mean, it's no Undertale, but I'll be damned if I didn't find myself humming a few of these tunes after I decided to give the game a bit of a break. There was an odd static-sounding thing that my speakers don't normally have. I think it was supposed to be my thruster sound, but the music either made my speakers pop abnormally or it sounded like my speakers were popping. Either way, that could probably use some more work.
SphereFACE is a perfectly adequate game. I do have problems with it, but the run and gun aspects are a ton of fun and even though I was frustrated it never made me want to stop playing altogether. It just made me want to grit my teeth, hunch a bit closer to the screen, and get the job done. Do I have my gripes? Of course, the camera is weird, the story is difficult to pick up, and there are no smaller goals to help you keep motivated to beat the ultimate goal. Still, I have to recommend sphereFACE if you're a fan of a good retro roguelike. The good qualities do outweigh the bad. I'd be surprised if I never found myself playing it again after reviewing it. If you have a lot of time and want an engaging and in-depth roguelike experience, maybe try FTL, The Binding of Isaac, or Rogue Legacy, but if you just have a few minutes to kill and you need to unwind, sphereFACE is the action-packed retro space roguelike you're looking for.
|+ Charming retro aesthetic||– Dizzying camera|
|+ Fast-paced action||– Awkward controls|
|+ Phenominal soundtrack||– Too easy to die|
|+ Vast weapon variety||– Story is tough to follow|