Now that Hades has won BAFTAs and The Game Awards, we’re going to see its holy trinity of mechanics everywhere: build something randomly generated, then reward the player at the end of each level by offering a random selection of perks, and – finally – let them keep some progression when they die. These ideas go together like bacon, cheese and, um, more bacon, and – mark our words – we’re going to see them in everything.
In this sense, Space Robinson is ahead of its time. It has shamelessly piggy-backed onto the structure popularised by Hades, and that’s okay. You wade into a randomly generated alien world with just a wrench, a shoddy pistol and infinite ammo; you get a choice of three perks at the end of each level; and you’re showered with experience, relics and purple crystals, which all represent progression that you get to keep. Then it’s back into the game, feeling more powerful than ever, hoping it’s enough to take you further, maybe even to completion.
The structure works extremely well, and it will continue to do so until we get bored of it. There’s no complaints here: Space Robinson has been wise enough to adopt it. The random perks make each run just different enough from the last (although we would welcome feeling more overpowered, as they’re a touch meek). The persistent progress means that maybe, just maybe, we’re powerful enough to get past the level we’re stuck on. And generally, there’s a more-ishness to Space Robinson that gets us booting it back up for half an hour at a time.
The key is in Colony 21, the game hub, where all your achievements are showcased, and a promised future can be seen behind every door. You’ll see upgrades, unlocks and even pets just out of reach, and they may well be yours as the hours roll on. The doors need to be powered, which requires purple crystals, so you are making small progress towards power thresholds with every level. Meanwhile, the upgrades require you to find relics, which are randomly located on your travels. It’s daunting, and you unlock it at a snail’s pace, but you feel like you’re Simba sitting on Pride Rock, being told that “one of these days, all of this will be yours”.
With all the praise we could lavish on Space Robinson’s structure, it’s easy to forget that there’s a game underneath it. This is a hybrid between a hack-and-slash and a twin-stick shooter, and you can switch between the two whenever you like. You’re given a space-wrench that’s the melee weapon, and most enemies – particularly at the start – pop with the slightest of grazes. You can merrily churn through the first level with the wrench alone. You’re also given a service weapon, which is aimed with the right-stick and fired with a trigger button, which does roughly the same amount of damage.
As we’ve noted, this status quo doesn’t remain for long. You’ll be regularly coming across chests that pop open to reveal weapons, which have limited ammo but dramatically up your DPS. It’s your usual sci-fi armoury of railguns, plasma guns, shotguns and grenade launchers, but they all feel satisfying when crunching through waves of eyeballs, space-slugs and sentient meteorites. At the end of each level, you’ll also find a technological widget that reveals three perks to choose from: perhaps you might cause enemies to explode when you kill them, stack extra health onto your health bar, or choose other fanciful things. Then it’s into a teleporter and onward to the next level.
Every few levels there’s a horde-mode encounter or boss, and you’re looking to overcome these hurdles, because they often lead to mini-hubs, where an even greater number of things can be improved. Space Robinson loves to throw gubbins at you that need upgrading or unlocking, and – should you fall deeply in love with it – there’s reasons to play it for years.
There’s another edge to the longevity sword, though, as Space Robinson – at least to our taste – is a little too stingy with its pacing. It has enough content to unlock that it could afford to be more generous. You will be resetting to the same levels ad nauseum, and there’s clearly room for more checkpointing and a greater ability to skip the stuff you’ve done. The artefacts that represent real progress in the hub are drip-fed, and – since they are random – you’ll often be shouting at Space Robinson, demanding the drop you need. While it is enjoyable to replay, and there’s genuine variety in doing so, there is a brink that Space Robinson strays dangerously close to.
The difficulty levels are pitched pretty high, which makes sense as this is a rogue-like, but it slows down play, and Space Robinson can be a tentative game to progress through. Health and first aid kits are extremely limited, while you can easily get surrounded if you don’t have an exit in mind. You can imagine a version of this where the speed has been dialled up, the damage increased on both sides, but the player’s life points increased too. It would make Space Robinson more frantic – a Geometry Wars mixed with Hades – and that would have been immense. As it stands, it can be a slightly plodding shooter with extremely high stakes, and the difficulty slows it down further.
That difficulty also comes from a day-night cycle that Space Robinson dabbles with. Time progresses in a compacted real-time, and the lights will occasionally go out, giving you limited visibility. Then zombie-like aliens swarm you, and they explode on death, so you’re often stopping to deal with an Evil Dead movie that you’ve found yourself in. It’s good in theory, but it is madness to take on these night-time sequences while also encountering the game’s other enemies, so you’re often stopping still. It adds to the stop-start, pedestrian progress.
That’s not to say that the hacking and shooting is bad, by any stretch. While it’s a little slower than we’d like, it does everything it should. The enemies are wily and aggressive. The gun pick-ups are badass. With practice, you won’t exactly make quick progress, but you will clear out rooms through quick-switches between melee and ranged weapons. It’s a competent shooter, with a fantastic layer of randomisation and progression on top.
As a pure shooter, Space Robinson on Xbox would have come out on par. It’s turtle-paced and keeps slowing you down when you want to be bringing the noise. But the trick is to borrow virtually everything that made Hades shine, and layer it on top. As a cover version goes, this adds nothing new, but the structure that it pilfers from is so good that it barely matters. Random dungeons, random perks and continuous progress: it’s a winning mix, and it elevates Space Robinson beyond mediocrity and into the realms of ‘just one more go’.