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SummaryThe fact that it's indie and retro alone isn't enough
The GoodThe main selling point of Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is that you can complete a game in 20 minutes or less-- admittedly a rather unusual time frame for a space sim. You just jump into a game, click one of the 15 or so planets in a space quadrant until you have visited them all (or reached the tough time limit). And that's pretty much it. There is a turn-based view for interstellar travel and a real-time mode for very simple tactical ship fights. Ship and weapon upgrades among other special items and artifacts can be found on planets or traded in money-less item-for-item trades. There are also 7 different alien races you can encounter, some join you as allies, some attack you. Other obstacles include black holes (deadly) and a purple nebular that slows travel.
There are no resources, no money, no research, no statistics or base-building. It's really just the most basic essence of space exploration sims, even on higher difficulties. All presented in rather charming retro graphics and sound.
The BadThe problem with SAIS is that it is a small game. No, not just small in round-times or complexity... small in gameplay. I felt like I had seen literally everything the game has to offer after the much-advertised "20 minutes" (in which I finished not 1 but almost 5 games). And there simply isn't anything more.
You could argue that it is not about complex tactical thinking but solely about short bursts of adventurous space opera drama. But for that the "adventures" (which consist of a handful of one-sentence text-based descriptions of artifacts, life-forms and other events) repeat too quickly. You could mention the "infinite" variety of tactical items, enemies and randomly generated levels or the hunt for "high scores" in higher difficulties. But even that ends up in you learning the usefulness of certain items or procedures, while you eventually end up just restarting games until the randomness works in your favor. Exploring all the variety this game can offer doesn't take hours or days, but mere minutes. It's getting old before you even start feeling that sense of exploration that games like this are all about. And since the game is basically a walking cliché, it surely cannot compete at the "originality" level either.
The attempt at bringing out the "essence" of space sim gameplay resulted in quite the opposite. This is a space sim without all the reasons you play games of the genre. There is no strategy beyond the most basic "should-I-fight-or-should-I-run" decisions. Not much to explore (just slapping a txt file with 1000 random one-sentence "space events" onto the missions could have added some replayability, but even those start to repeat after 2 or 3 games). The ship-to-ship fights are boring and mostly consist of flying towards the enemy fleet and hoping your guns are better. I don't see "purity", I see mere superficiality.
The game also trusts the play cycle of a few minutes per round so much that there is no saving feature or way to access the main menu without ending a running game.
There is a lot of hype about the (admittedly interesting) role of "procedurally generated content" in games. SAIS showed me the limits of this method of game design quite drastically. No matter how well the items were rearranged, with any new game I thought "Man, I have already seen this a dozen times!".
The Bottom LineI became aware of this game through a surprising amount of extremely positive reviews and the cheers of quirky indie-games blogs. It has become a game you must not hate. Maybe that is why I can't stand it. Look, the emperor just has no clothes! It is the kind of game that stands for all the things I dislike about this decade's approach to game design. The stealing of old ideas, following severe simplifications that are sold as innovations. The iPhone versions of classics that are just a little worse than the originals. There is not one thing SAIS invented, just things it removed.
I played the demo, ages ago. I was even close to purchasing the full version for a mere $15 or so, convinced the demo was just a short proof-of-concept teaser. But now the full version was released for free I am glad I didn't (and I feel slightly bad about writing a rather negative review about a free game-- but it wasn't always free, so...). The "infinite replayability" just isn't there. It's just as short and superficial as it looks. What a disappointment.
SAIS is, at best, a parody of proper 4X space exploration games such as "Master of Orion" or "Galactic Civilizations". More so, however, it is an uninspired clone for people who really dislike save buttons.