GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.
Orbitalis is not a puzzle game, though assuming it is one is an easy mistake to make. When you first launch your miniscule red probe into the vacuum of space, you will think its destiny is in your hands. You would be wrong. The game follows the rules of the universe, which exists in a realm outside of our own influence. Here, the immense power of gravity pulls and propels your fragile probe to safety or doom. This is no puzzler; tOrbitalis is a game of trial, error, and a dash of luck, where you shoot for the moon, and pray you'll miss.
There is no story in Orbitalis; your main goal is making sure your probe stays alive as long as possible. Viewing the field from a top-down angle, you use your mouse to adjust the probe's velocity and direction, the latter of which is represented by a dotted line that transforms in real time as the path is affected by the gravitational strength of nearby geometric planets, suns, and other cosmic objects. Planets and asteroids are constantly moving around the map, and the longer you wait to launch your probe, the higher the chance to miss your window. Success is measured in precious seconds; the moment your satellite is released, a countdown in the form of a circular bar moves clockwise around the screen. If the probe manages to navigate the dangerous field in the given time without crashing, the stage is cleared and you move on to the next challenge.
While you get a feeling of satisfaction with every completed mission, the accomplishment feels somewhat hollow. You have no control over the probe once it's in flight, and unknown variables, such as wandering asteroids that come into the screen, make predicting its route nearly impossible. Rarely, you will complete a mission on your first try, which lures you into a false sense of control. In reality, you will fail, fail, fail, and, oh yes, fail again. Experimentation is encouraged, and with every attempt, you gain a better understanding of how to best tackle the stage. Orbitalis' trial-and-error nature gets frustrating, and even after you finish a stage, it feels as if it was due more to luck and persistence than to your own performance. Thankfully, levels don't take long to complete, coming in at around 10 to 20 seconds each. The game also allows you to quickly restart if you need to, and on the rare occasion that your probe is stuck in an infinite orbit, you can go to the next mission without waiting.
Orbitalis evokes an eclectic mix of emotions. At times--when you aren't shrugging off disappointment brought on by a dozen failed launches--you can't deny the relief and gladness you experience when your probe narrowly misses a roving asteroid. Watching your probe lazily return from the edge of the screen to make one last swoop around a burning red sun feels like welcoming back a space-faring hero given up for lost. And, I have to admit, there were times I felt a growing fondness for Orbitalis' charms. You get attached to the probe that fights to stay alive. As your probe slowly dances among blue planets and pulsars, leaving an impressive red epitrochoid behind, the game can be eerily calming, yet strangely beautiful.
In its current build, Orbitalis includes 50 levels split into main missions and extra-challenging star levels, but there is more to come. The developer, Alan Zucconi, has promised that Orbitalis will have more levels when it's finished. Some of the difficult missions will get toned down, while the hardest will become star levels. The only thing that isn't known is the game's final release date, but Zucconi said he hopes to narrow it down sometime this year.
During the two hours I spent with Orbitalis, my favorite missions were the ones in which the goal was to purposely shoot your probe into targets. It was fun, and watching the probe weave through gravity fields was like playing on a skee-ball machine with a warped ramp. I was good at those levels, and as a consequence, I completed them far too quickly for my liking. They did demonstrate, however, that Orbitalis does indeed have the potential for compelling gameplay. However, it still requires more work before getting there: large black borders betray the game's Flash roots, and it suffers from slowdown in the menu. But there is a spark of fun here. If the developer can chase it down and harness it, Orbitalis could turn out to be an enjoyable game to come back to time after time.
More than 50 stages, from regular missions to extra-hard star levels. There is also an online leaderboard, where you can see how you stack up against the best.
What's to Come?
More levels, a friends leaderboard, and histograms that relay performances statistics.
What Does it Cost?
$6.99, available via Steam.
When Will it Be Finished?
Unknown at this point.
What's the Verdict?
Orbitalis is a game of trial and error where victory doesn't always reward a sense of achievement. There are some entertaining moments to be found, but are usually fleeting.