Science fiction fans rejoice: that conceptual mashup of Deep Space Nine and Flatland you never knew you wanted is here. Rymdkapsel (pronounced however you like) eschews story and detailed graphics in favor of ruthlessly stripped-down gameplay, and I’m delighted with that. It’s got a no-frills approach to a system that’s easy to understand but deceptively hard to master, and an aesthetic that just can’t be beat. It’s so intense that until I started writing this review, I almost forgot to take screenshots to show you what I mean.
The core concept is simple: build the best, most efficient space station possible using the same geometric shapes we all know and love/hate from Tetris. The game provides a random progression of shapes, each of which you choose to make into a room, or part of a corridor that connects all the rooms. Each room in your base serves a specific function: gathering one of your three main resources, making new minions to carry out tasks, or defending against a fresh wave of enemy ships bent on destroying them (for unknown reasons, though I prefer to think my crew stole the space cookies from their space cookie jar). Arranging your blocks in an optimal way is key to ensuring your minions can actually get work done between bombing raids.
That’s it. Aside from the option to task your minions to research four strange monoliths which increase your station’s overall efficiency (powering up your minions to move faster, shoot farther, and so on), that’s the whole game: build a great system and keep it running until you’re overwhelmed by malevolent aliens. The easier it is for your minions to switch tasks and get from one place to another in a short amount of time, the longer you’ll hold out against the alien waves (which arrive in greater numbers and less time as the game progresses). For such a straightforward approach to puzzle gaming, it’s amazingly well executed.
For starters, Grapefrukt (Martin Jonasson’s one-man operation that’s brought us Jesus vs. Dinosaurs and Glorg) has a real grasp on what makes a mobile interface click. Rymdkapsel was always built with tablets in mind, so even though you can buy it for the PS Vita or play on a PS3 (though God alone knows why), you would risk letting the clunky D-pad or cursor mess up your flow. The tablet-first approach does mean things get a bit cramped on some phones, but it’s rarely a problem.
Jonasson also chose to forgo fancy graphics and sound in favor of an utterly minimalist approach, and the end result is stunning. Everything in Rymdkapsel is a simple two-dimensional shape existing in three-dimensional space. You’d think that would make the game feel flat, but the opposite is actually true—there is a surprising depth to the visuals here, thanks to some great coloring and realistic perspective, that made me loathe to look away. Add a soothing, yet occasionally eerie, ambient soundtrack from Niklas Ström and you end up with a gameplay experience that is stripped down and immersive at the same time.
The challenge of the game—setting up your base so as to maximize efficiency and use your time effectively—is simultaneously the game’s biggest success and failure. Figuring out the best possible combination of rooms and corridors with a random assortment of blocks is quite satisfying, but your minions are supremely unhelpful in this task. When assigning a group of them to build a new room, two or more will inevitably grab surplus resources, which automatically return to your stockpile when the building they intended to work on is completed. This results in a lot of extra running around, as does the minions’ tendency to report to whatever weapons room they want; more than once I saw a minion walk leisurely past multiple weapons rooms it could have used to defend its comrades in favor of one on the other end of the base, where it was of no use at all. In the beginning of the game this isn’t much of a problem, but once your base is huge and the enemies come in droves, the limitations of the AI can really impede your progress.
Apart from that, however, I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a game that was so simple, engaging, and fresh. There have been complaints on the Play Store about a lack of replay value that I don’t understand. Yes, it’s four dollars. Yes, there are only three “achievements” to unlock, and only one “level.” But just like Tetris, the fun here is in the unique experience you’ll get with each random set of blocks in a new game, and in the ever-increasing intensity and desperation you feel as the stakes get higher and the pace gets quicker. Rymdkapsel is one game that will live in my phone for a long time.
The AI may be unhelpful, but that just adds another challenge to this amazingly stripped-down puzzler.