Version tested: PC
The Earth's axis has stopped turning, and gravity is now something that's less of a given, more of a taken. Things are floating around and keeping anything in orbit, let alone on the surface, is a serious problem. Everything's in limbo: physical objects, time, the seasons. Without the axis spinning, the world's on an indefinite pause.
That's the set-up for Cargo! The Quest for Gravity. It's the new game from Ice Pick Lodge, a Russian developer whose previous games include Pathologic, where you try (and mostly fail) to stop a plague in a very strange Eastern European Town, and The Void, in which you're already dead and you need to bring colour back to purgatory. Both games are extremely bleak, heavy on metaphor and figurative speech, and can be seen as difficult to engage with – partly because, more often than not, the translation from the native Russian has made it difficult to understand what's going on.
So you might think that this game where the world has stopped turning is going to be all about the futility of life, or how 'gravity' can be a metaphor for a grounded nature or a solid idea of person-hood and identity. And it could be those things, but, really, you won't care.
Because Cargo! is a game about FUN. The capitals are important.
The game opens with you playing Flawkes, the pilot of a trading air-ship, delivering goods to some weird island in the middle of nowhere. As you approach, fireworks start to go off all around you. Except the fireworks are actually naked, sexless dwarfs, who seem to be exploding out of sheer excitement at your arrival. One hits the ship, and you crash land, your precious cargo strewn among a small chain of islands and the waters that link them.
I've spent so long filling out the premise of Cargo! because it's very difficult to make sense of much of it, especially out of context. The important thing to note is that FUN provides gravity to objects, and you get FUN by harvesting it from buddies, which would be those little naked dwarfs. Luckily, they've been created purely to have as much FUN as physically possible, and so they have absolutely no problem with you hoofing them into the air with a kick to the backside.
Or, if you're not the sadistic type, you can take them for a ride. But first you'll need a vessel to carry them.
This is where the meat of Cargo! is found. Following in the tradition of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, you're provided with the tools to create pretty much anything you can think of, so long as it's a vehicle. You start off with a cockpit, and then extrapolate from there, using connectors to create a framework, and then shoving propellers, sails, balloons, wheels, pontoons and most other accepted forms of locomotion. It doesn't have to fit a symmetrical design, although if you're going to put too much power on one side, you will end up going around in circles. Luckily, that's also a viable solution in the name of FUN.
There's one other essential component to a vehicle, apart from chassis and engine. Life-savers allow Buddies to grab on, each one latching onto the next in a daisy-chain that streams out behind your vehicle as you pick up speed. And they're having such a whale of a time that your FUN starts to sky-rocket, allowing you to buy more components to make vessels out of or, more importantly, to call down something from the stratosphere.
It's easy to get caught up in creating ever-more-complicated and insane vehicles, but the aim of the game is to get that axis spinning again, and that's going to require you to start throwing weight around. There is all sorts of detritus and debris floating around in orbit – mostly vast buildings and landmarks that have kept some sort of residual weight that's prevented them from floating off to Alpha Centauri – and you can inject them with FUN to have them come crashing down around the islands. Soon enough, you've got a Statue of Liberty here and a Big Ben there, investing in the Macro school of exterior design. If you're stuck here, you might as well irreverently litter the place with famous buildings.