Playful yet surprisingly brutal, Cosmochoria is filled with strange mysteries.
My favourite thing about Cosmochoria is how it's a space game that actually feels like it may have come from a distant galaxy. This galaxy's been watching our world, certainly, but it hasn't been paying too much attention. As a result, this is an arcade game, a roguelite, and something of an ecological fable - and yet it feels nothing like any of these things when you actually play it.
The set up is so simple that you won't initially trouble yourself with how odd it is. You're a naked astronaut, tubby and clad only in a fish bowl helmet and jetpack, and your job, it appears, is to unleash vegetation throughout a barren 2D galaxy. You do this by jetting across empty space - a tricky business until you learn to steady yourself with short thrusts and trust in inertia to carry you over the really long gaps - and then landing on planets and seeding plants to nurse them back to life. Planets of different sizes have different plant requirements - any day you get to type a sentence like that is a good day - and there's a chicken-and-egg thing going on, since for the most part you'll need to harvest fresh seeds from the plants you've already grown. It's a time-consuming business, too. First you must claim your new planet with a flag - the kind of thinking that probably led to the destruction of all life in the galaxy in the first place - then select the plant from a radial menu. After that you must also stay there, immobile and holding a button, while the plant takes root.
This gets nerve-wracking, and that's because although the planets you visit are initially dead, you are not alone in the universe. It's a pretty busy place, in fact, and most of the stuff out there wants to kill you. As soon as you touch down and start bringing a new world to life, UFOs pop up and begin shooting or dropping off tentacle things that want to do you in, giant crabs sprout from the ground and make for you, and other intergalactic oddities like floating eyeballs or deadly cuttlefish swarm in hot.
To defend yourself, you can blast away with a selection of different guns, or you can build towers - which require bricks to construct - that might throw fireballs at your foes, say, or provide cover. Eventually, when you've grown enough plants, the planet develops an atmosphere and with it a limited ability to heal you of any damage you've accrued. Then you jet off to the next planet and do it all over again.
What makes this exciting is the roguelite stuff. Slight and strange as it is, Cosmochoria may well become my go-to game when I've finally exhausted Spelunky. It's deadly and riddled with secrets, and that makes it perfect for a quick race-to-the-death (my own) every morning before opening Gmail. There's a story here, told by holograms mounted on random planets scattered throughout the cosmos, and there's also a range of bosses to work through, triggered, it appears, as you steadily seed more planets, and taking the forms of UFOs and giant dragons. On top of that, there are weird artifacts you can find that modify the game in interesting ways if you get them identified by a strange old space hermit sat on a lonely ball of rock far out at the edge of space. My favourite so far is a jar of acid that raises the chances that the plants I grow will turn nasty and try to kill me. An odd thing to equip, perhaps, but Cosmochoria is an odd kind of game, and its brutality wears a pleasant grin that encourages you to enjoy everything it throws at you.
Beyond that lies the scavenging game, as you shoot beasties to collect money to spend at the upgrade shop that appears between deaths. You can boost anything from your health meter to your speed of acceleration, and while it's grindy, it allows the game to ramp up in viciousness without leaving you completely helpless.
That's the structure, then, but laying it out like this probably doesn't do Cosmochoria much justice. In truth, the pleasure of this game is found in the wild scramble as you jet through space, bouncing from one planet to the next, planting turrets to keep the enemy at bay while you perform your hectic and heroic tilling of the land. Ideally, you'll be chaining a boss as you do this, and you'll be using portals to scramble between far-flung worlds and delay the arrival of that boss's fireballs or ice blasts or gosh knows what else. This universe is brutal and mean - surrounded on all sides by immense heat that will pop you like a piece of corn if you stray too far while moving too fast - but it's all delivered in a delightful high-colour cartoon style, a cheery haze of colour that takes the sting out of even the bitterest failure.
In other words, Cosmochoria is an exploration game in its purest form. A dozen hours in, many of its deepest mysteries continue to elude me, but it doesn't really matter. "In our hearts, we hope we never discover everything." E.O. Wilson, the great biologist and ant expert said that. I think he would have liked Cosmochoria just as much as I do.