In the perpetual deluge of Steam indies, Lost Orbit is a rare, pleasant little anomaly. Tucked within the self-proclaimed “dodge-em-up” is an unexpected story with a surprising amount of heart; a real shock for a game where you fling a space dude with reckless abandon around deadly asteroids and planetoids at increasingly dangerous speeds.
What makes Lost Orbit an anomaly is its unlikely focus on pacing, story and atmosphere. Concerns like these are rare in games to begin with but Lost Orbit makes the relationship of Harrison, our space dude, and N.U.L.L., his lone robot companion, a priority. Many levels open with N.U.L.L.’s eloquent, earnest narration, providing the character and personality where the game’s animation cannot – you spend essentially the entire game looking at Harrison’s tiny little backside. Some stages have no narration at all, while others are chronicled completely, with nothing to dodge in sight.
“The dichotomy of story versus quick reflex arcade gameplay is pretty jarring at first”This unique dichotomy of story versus quick reflex arcade gameplay is pretty jarring at first. One second you’re listening to N.U.L.L.’s tranquil narration as you zip Harrison seamlessly through wormholes with subtle d-pad movements, and the next you’re staring at Harrison’s limp, mangled and bloodied remains, on account of the unexpected trajectory of a rogue asteroid breaking up. It’s an interesting combination that provides context in a genre largely devoid of it, providing some real impetus beyond simple score chasing.
Lost Orbit wants you to care, deeply, for its protagonists, despite it being an affair where you instantly respawn from repeated, brutal deaths. It wants you to understand Harrison’s evolving motivations as you zone in on the colors of its wormholes, pulsars and all the other cosmic targets that form the kaleidoscope of its visual language. The moment-to-moment objectives create an almost Sonic the Hedgehog-like loop of quickly identifying the objects that propel you fastest, and more importantly on the optimum path, and then hitting them.
“Improving times and scores aren’t quite the addictive sources of replayability they could be”There’s a rhythm to sustaining Harrison’s health at life-threatening speeds, one which Lost Orbit repeatedly flirts with but just can’t seem to nail down. Levels require no more than a few minutes to complete, encouraging players to perfect runs, earn better ratings and acquire more Obtainium, which unlocks new/better abilities for Harrison. But improving times and scores aren’t quite the addictive sources of replayability in Lost Orbit that they could be.
When I played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater I never thought about what was next for Bucky Lasek; I had two minutes and an infinite number of tries to break a million points, so that’s what I did. But Lost Orbit‘s story creates an actual reason to look forward rather than backward, so much so that a few of the stages I did replay were simply to hear N.U.L.L.’s narration. Lost Orbit just misses that balance, the point where you’ve mucked up your run and you immediately restart the level, rather than simply restarting a checkpoint to find your way to the end.
Even so, Lost Orbit should be celebrated and enjoyed for what it is, not what it nearly is. It’s a fun, introspective and occasionally exhilarating ride from one end of the solar system to the other. It’s worth the trip, even if you only want to make it just the once.