There’s a lot that goes into a name. It’s often the first chance a content creator has to hook an audience. Most AAA, blockbuster games can be sold on a name alone: not just the branding itself, but the name conveys a great deal of information about the game and its contents. For an indie developer, things are a little different. They rarely have the opportunity to let their IP’s name carry it into immediate popularity. What to do, then?
The name has to fit the game, but it has to stand out amongst myriad other titles – often in the same genre. In this regard, Catastronauts is already impressing me by scoring pun points: it’s a game about astronauts embroiled in catastrophe. Disappointingly, though, it doesn’t really feature cats.
Here’s a game that knows what its players want and wastes no time in giving it to them. There’s a swift and simple tutorial to introduce you to the mechanics, followed by a brief and charmingly designed cutscene that introduces the catastrophe part of the deal. Everything’s going nicely at your little astronaut graduation ceremony before – oh no! – aliens attack. It’s a minimalist and to-the-point introduction, setting the scene but getting you into the action quickly.
The chaos of each level forces you to manage several different tasks, from keeping your spaceship well-repaired and functional to using its weaponry to destroy hostile ships. It’s playable and perfectly manageable solo, but to play it alone forsakes the frantic cooperative fun for micromanagement that is a little too hectic to really enjoy.
If you’ve played Overcooked, you’ll be familiar with the motions Catastronauts puts you through. Success hinges as much on coordination as cooperation; if you’re all operating the guns, who’s stopping the fires from spreading through your ship? Dedicate too many people to repairs and, sure, you’ll keep your craft healthy, but without anyone on the guns you’ll never make a dent in your foes’ assault.
Both you and your opponent have an overall health meter, displayed prominently at the top of the screen, that you need to keep an eye on. The overall goal is simple: beyond your many ship-care responsibilities, you’ve got to reduce your enemy’s health to zero.
Of course, the simple routines don’t stay simple for long. In the early stages, weapons can be approached and fired with a single button press, with only a few seconds of downtime before they automatically recharge. Later, weaponry will need to be manually powered-up with charge packs, and stronger missile launchers have a multi-stage preparation process before they can be fired.
On paper, it sounds easy. Pick up that, go there, fire this. In-game, however, with your ship exploding around you, your teammates half dead from walking through fire and your guns damaged, any semblance of order and routine disappears immediately.
Catastronauts nails one of the most crucial aspects of making a game fun: a sensible difficulty curve. To begin with, you have three things to manage: shooting your lasers, putting out fires and repairing structural damage. These are all simple, go-here-press-that mechanics – at first. The aforementioned changes to firing your guns draw out that endeavor immensely, and the later inclusion of taking cover from solar flares and managing massive fires using your airlocks ramps up the tension tremendously.
It’s this swift breakdown of order – you and your friends all yelling at each other, no one sure who’s supposed to be doing what – that sees the game at its best.
The constant carnage, crucially, is nice to look at, but the line is drawn sensibly enough that all the flames and explosions are never distracting. The visual style exists somewhere between LittleBigPlanet, with its goofy-looking characters and their huge grins, and Overcooked’s own brand of vibrant, colorful chaos. Everything plays out in a relentless stream of catastrophes, but the subtleties of the art style mean that, while it’s easy to enjoy how it looks, you’ll never be distracted by the innumerable flames and explosions peppering the screen.
It’s a refreshing example of all the pieces fitting together nicely. Catastronauts proves that gameplay doesn’t need to be hugely complex to be challenging, and the comedic art style is a perfect fit for an experience whose hilarity is at least partly based on failing with your friends. The game can certainly be difficult enough to ensure enough of that, but that’s all part of the fun.
Getting together with friends for some cooperative multiplayer loses its appeal if the game is too easy. It’s in overcoming every hurdle, and the disasters that occur along the way, where the best team-based experiences are found.
If you’re looking for fun and frantic cooperative multiplayer, Catastronauts has you covered. With an elegantly implemented difficulty curve, intuitive mechanics and some serious potential for comedic disaster, there’s plenty of appeal packed into a small package. The only real letdown is that attempting a solo run is a fool’s errand; each increase in difficulty will only make the experience more stressful, not more fun. If you’ve got friends to play with, though, Catastronauts has enough explosive fun to keep everyone coming back for more.