Operation Zeta is something of a slow burner. At first, I booted it up and immediately didn’t get on with it. I was dead within seconds, couldn’t figure out what was going on and if I wasn’t playing for review may well have not gone back to it at all. Admittedly I was too quick to judge. After spending a short while getting to grips with what was on offer, I started to uncover an enjoyable little game.
In truth this is a game that is just about as close as you can get to the definition of “indie”, because the studio who both developed and published Operation Zeta is run by a single person. That’s right, SFS Studios LLC is owned and operated by Benjamin Thurston, who brought the game to early access on Steam and now the full release is making its console debut on Xbox.
Operation Zeta is a roguelite space action adventure. This means that after each playthrough (and any subsequent deaths) you will retain some of the items you find. Spending credits will upgrade your character’s abilities and marks progression between each run; your character will become more powerful as you play. For balance, the universe is randomly generated which offers a different challenge each time.
The game’s title refers to a battle, codenamed Operation Zeta, which has been lost. You find yourself within minutes of being wiped out by the enemy’s final act, firing the aptly named “death laser”. Your only hope of escape is to search the local planetary system for the scattered parts of your ship and get out of there.
There are thirteen characters to unlock in Operation Zeta. This is achieved by helping them with various tasks as you explore, but you start off playing as the humble human. Before long you’ll have the opportunity to play as a snail, a shark and (my personal favourite) a cat! The planets are explored on foot, and each has a strong gravitational pull. This force will also draw your spaceship in as you travel the universe, a map of which is displayed in the top corner of your screen. There are a whole number of aliens who will do significant damage to you once you make a planetfall, most of which if they get too close, therefore maintaining a safe distance is key to survival.
You have two weapons available to you, which can also be upgraded by finding pickups. These vary by character, but each has a regular and special option which are used by the RT and LT. As well as your health, you will need to keep an eye on your oxygen meter as some planets have a toxic atmosphere. Again, managing this with the help of pickups is vitally important.
As luck would have it, you still have access to a smaller spaceship which you can use to zip between planets. You’ll need to avoid plenty of debris in order to keep it intact. As you explore, collecting radar packs will start to reveal where the parts of your main spaceship are located. However, as you might expect, it’s not quite that simple. This is because a variety of alien creatures will hold the clues to where your missing parts can be located. Or instead they may challenge you to solve one of several puzzles before they hand over what you need. It’s all about a blend of exploration, problem solving and luck to complete your spaceship on time. Once rebuilt, you will need to finish one final step (such as repairing your ship) before you are ready for take off. Not all characters, however, will require you to complete the same objectives.
Your only aid comes in the form of waypoint arrows which will direct you to the planet each part can be found on, and help you navigate back to your home location where you are reassembling your ship. If you should wish to, you can also check out your game stats and the database via the main menu. This details various elements as you discover them.
The replayability value in Operation Zeta is driven by the randomly generated nature of the maps alongside the individual objectives and abilities of each character. However, the core gameplay (a blend of planet hopping exploration, simple combat and find and fetch tasks) is simple and repetitive which although fun for a time, remains fundamentally the same throughout.
Visually, despite its retro inspired looks, Operation Zeta offers a pleasing amount of variation between planetary and alien designs. It may not be the most attractive game, however it does a good job of representing the diverse universe in which you find yourself in.
Despite not being the most welcoming in terms of accessibility, Operation Zeta is an enjoyable roguelite which attempts to keep it fresh with mixed results.
Operation Zeta is available from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Series X|S