The moments when a soundtrack really works, when it goes beyond mere accompaniment, are those that evoke feelings that can’t be summed up in mere notes – an aura, if you will. That Little Galaxy so perfectly captures the soaring sense of childlike (the protagonist is, appropriately, a youngster) wonder at the openness of space is one its greatest achievements.
“It’s a minimalist game, one which understands the limits of the mobile format and seeks to do something interesting within their confines.”It’s an achievement supplemented by a charming visual style, yet this is not mere spectacle. To play Little Galaxy is to experience that childlike wonder, with an emphasis on the “soaring” part. It’s a minimalist game, one which understands the limits of the mobile format and seeks to do something interesting within their confines. Starting out with the aforementioned youngster standing locked to the surface of a rotating planet, the game requires you to pick the optimal moment to tap the screen and propel him off into space. Time it correctly, and he’ll be caught safely in the gravitational pull of a neighbouring planet; miss, and he’ll be flung off into the ether, a failure accompanied by one of the best abyss-sinking screams since Mario fell off the cliff.
Progress is made by fulfilling a list of conditions presented at the beginning of each level – collect a certain number of X, do a certain number of Y in Z amount of time, and so on. Given that the format could easily lend itself to a cynical, In-app-purchase-laden endurance game, it’s an interesting approach, one which engages the player from multiple angles at once while boosting the overall satisfaction of the experience (what, after all, could be more satisfying than a tick on a checklist?).
This system works well, at first. As the game wears on, though, it contributes to what is, at times, a very difficult experience indeed. The term “difficult” is broad – for the purposes of this review, we can divide it into “pleasantly challenging”, “challenging” and “blood-boilingly challenging.” If the first few levels fall into the former two categories, its later stages fall into the latter. There’s a certain appeal, of course, to playing a game that’s truly hard to beat (especially in a medium which, again, is all too willing to accept bribes), but the mechanics prevent these stages from working as well as they should.
“In the later stages it can become irksome, bordering on infuriating.”Consider some infamously challenging games – Demon’s Souls, Another World, Battletoads. They’re disparate examples, but the basis of their difficulty is essentially the same: an obstacle course. By remaining consistent, the player can rehearse their way through them. Completion of the level is thus the completion of an intricate dance routine, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to take a bow and await your applause.
Little Galaxy has no such consistency. Each time you play a level it changes, yet, crucially, the requirements for completion do not. This isn’t a problem in the early stages (where requirements are fairly easy), but in the later stages it can become irksome, bordering on infuriating. Let’s say that the requirement is to collect a certain number of plasma, one of many collectable elements dotted throughout each level. If the levels were consistent, you’d learn where the plasma was, work out how to get at them and repeat until perfect. Here, you must carry on playing, waiting on the beneficence of the game to spew out plasma, hoping that the time doesn’t run out before it does (you can buy more time by capturing passing comets, but this is a challenge unto itself).
It’s a shame, not necessarily because it makes the game painfully difficult at times, but because there’s no real sense of satisfaction at having overcome the difficulty, no real sense of having mastered the game given by the notorious specimens noted above. You might feel relieved at having completed the task, but it’s closer to the relief of a gambler walking away from the slot machine that’s finally decided to pay out than the relief of a dance well-performed.
There’s much to love and be charmed by in Little Galaxy prior to its difficulty bump. After the bump, though, comes an experience which frustrates more than it charms. Really, the whole experience makes for an apt coming-of-age parable: a childlike wonder of space supplanted by the disappointing realisation of its cruel, unforgiving brutality.