You couldn’t level a complaint at Space Escape for being complicated. It manages to construct a reasonably original game out of a single button press. You don’t even get to touch the analogue pad. This is a game revolving solely around the A button.
You play a little dude who looks like a character from Among Us with an Oculus Rift strapped to their face. We would assume that you’re in space – there’s a reasonably large clue in the title – but the graphics aren’t stupendously detailed, so you could imagine that you’re in a gloomy warehouse, should you want to.
And then the level starts. You are sent hurtling onwards without pressing a thing. Space Escape is an endless runner in that sense, as you are progressing whether you like it or not. But, unlike an endless runner, you are moving forwards through a fully explorable 2D platforming space, where you’re just as likely to need to go up or down as left and right.
Your only weapon is the A button. This is your jump, but it’s also double-tappable to execute a double-jump, and it can be pressed while you are on a wall to do a kind of reactive wall-jump. These are your tools to navigate the level and reach the portal that represents the level’s end.
The versatility of this move-set means that you can do more than you might expect. A portal at the top of a level can be reached by wall-jumping and then double-leaping onto a platform above you. Then you’re doing this over and over to create a form of staircase all the way to the top. Space Escape ends up feeling like an endless runner that gets folded up like origami, contorting into more shapes than your conventional, linear setup.
To add a bit of spice, Space Escape tosses in some enemies, who stomp back and forth on a kind of patrol route, and the expected traps like spikes and moving platforms. More unexpectedly, there are power-ups, and – if we’re being completely honest – they don’t suit Space Escape. At least, the ones that have been chosen don’t. They speed you up and shrink your size, among others, and we found that almost all of them had a larger downside than upside. It felt like we should want to pick them up but, most of the time, we cursed snagging them. They just became another obstacle to leapfrog.
There’s a tiny fifteen levels to play in Space Escape, which is made even more miniscule by how quickly you can complete a given level. If you know what you’re doing (and, in many cases, we didn’t), you can slam-dunk a Space Escape level in about thirty seconds. That’s barely an aperitif, until you remember that it’s all costing you 79p.
If you’re new to the world of 79p shovelware on the Xbox Store, we should let you know that, like its brethren, Space Escape does not have any achievements. You will have to enjoy Space Escape the old-fashioned way, playing it because you want to, enjoying it as an experience. The question is: should you bother? It’s a toughie that we can only answer with ‘it depends’.
As a concept for a game, Space Escape is onto something. In the first seven or so levels, it’s capable of being tense and satisfying, as you incrementally progress and die, progress and die, working out the right combination of jump, double-jump and wall-jump that will get you to the portal. It’s a smooth blend of reflexes and puzzling, and we found ourselves enjoying it.
But then the difficulty spike arrived at the halfway point, and it impaled us. It’s an almighty spike, one of the largest we’ve encountered. What came before was benign to the point of being too easy, while what came after the halfway point was savage.
The problem is the spike isn’t one of those rewarding, aspirational spikes. Everything happens at once: power ups come thick and fast, and – as mentioned – they’re something to avoid, rather than embrace. We lost count of the number of times that we speed-hugged an enemy after accidentally picking up a boost power-up. The enemies are in all the wrong places, and – this is the clincher – the levels are constructed in such a way that we felt like we had to glitch our way to the portal, rather than form a sensible path. Level 7 in particular is a bastard, putting a key at the bottom of the level and then expecting you to perfectly time a sequence of reactive jumps. If you fail, you’re back to the bottom or worse, restarting the whole shebang.
We’d suggest that Space Escape could have had a slighter gradient, and could have spent more time in the midway spot between easy and impossible. Most of the time, it plumps for one of the two extremes.
Honestly, we only managed to complete a couple of levels by cheesing them, completing them in such a way that we wondered whether the developers intended it. Other times, we completed a level the hard way, yet couldn’t see a simpler way. We weren’t convinced the developers wanted us to do it that way.
So, we come back to that question: should you bother playing Space Escape? Possibly. It’s a slim proposition at fifteen levels for 79p, but there’s the very real possibility that it could be even slighter when you give up at level 7. It’s when the mask slips and Space Escape reveals its demonic face.
We doff a cap to Space Escape for taking the endless runner into a new direction, which is more than we’d expect for a lowly 79p. But with such a good idea in the bag, it’s disappointing to find that developers Pixieland have done the bare minimum with it – only fifteen levels total – and locked much of them behind a steep difficulty curve. Applause for the ideas, boos for the execution.
You can buy Space Escape from the Xbox Store