Indie Platformer Marathon: Capsized

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The Indie Platformer Marathon was delayed by some non-game-related things, but now it’s back! Capsized is one of the oldest platformers in my backlog, purchased nearly two years ago. I had tried the demo, liked it, and decided to buy the full game, but then I got distracted by something else. Probably Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Anyway, the marathon seemed like the perfect time to finally play it.

The most important thing to know about Capsized is that it is not an exploration platformer. When it was released, many people saw the beautiful hand-drawn graphics depicting a lush, alien world, and hoped the game would feature a vast planet to explore. But that is not the case; Capsized is split into discrete levels, and while there is some exploration within these levels, the primary focus is on fast-paced action. Fortunately, that action is very, very good.

Capsized has mouse aiming, so your little spaceman can shoot in any direction, independent of his movement (a design innovation that I believe can be traced back to Abuse, which would be a worthy subject for a History Lesson post). The little spaceman can find a lot of guns to do his shooting with. He has a jetpack and a grappling hook (“gravity hook”), which can also be used to grab and throw objects through the physics system. And he sure has a lot of nasty critters to fend off. These things combine to form some really satisfying combat, with careful maneuvering and the proper application of the appropriate weapons necessary for survival. Sometimes enemies will ambush you, and you’ll panic, wasting all your ammo as you fire blindly while trying to get away. Other times you’ll set up an ambush of your own, using the gravity hook to pick up a boulder and hurl it at an enemy before opening up with some heavy ordinance. Or maybe you’ll latch onto the ceiling with gravity hook, using your momentum to leap high in the air and rain destruction on your foes below. Any of these possibilities is great fun.

It’s only once you’ve gotten the hang of the combat that the other arcade-style design elements make sense. The glowing powerups, the fact that finding ammo for a weapon is equivalent to finding the weapon itself, the limited number of lives, the fact that your spaceman begins each level with just his pistol (although it bears the impressive name “Blast Carbine”) no matter what he’d found the level before — these things feel incongruous at first, at odds with the gorgeous alien landscape that’s teeming with flora and fauna, both friendly and hostile. The hand-drawn graphics really are beautiful, reminiscent of the excellent Aquaria, which is perhaps what gave many people the idea that Capsized would be a slower, exploration-focused affair. But once you’ve gotten into a few scraps, it all makes sense. Capsized is an action game at heart, albeit one that happens in a much prettier, more atmospheric locale than most. The alien world is there so you can jetpack and grapple through it, blasting enemies and feeling awesome. There’s even a separate Arcade mode, with various challenges taking place in some of the campaign levels, complete with high score lists.

But that doesn’t mean that the world is unimportant; far from it. In fact, in many ways it’s the star of the show. Not only is it beautiful, it’s very well thought-out, forming a believable ecosystem from its array of enemies. The nature of this planet and its denizens is told entirely through the game itself, as the levels take you farther afield and introduce you to new locales. The intelligent species that you soon run afoul of manages to feel both familiar and alien at the same time, and by battling its members I found myself ruminating on the possibility of a caste system in their society, possibly based on sub-species, or different stages of growth. Capsized is the kind of game where, if you weren’t fighting for your life, you’d want to stop and study these lifeforms and the planet on which they live. But the constant danger will soon have you focused on your fight for survival once again.

Capsized really comes into its own in the later levels. The early ones are small and often feel more like combat arenas than anything else, but later on things open up, with enough space to really hammer home the feeling of one heavily-armed spaceman against an entire, hostile world. They also provide space for some of the fancier maneuvers, encouraging you to stay airborne, dancing around your foes through use of the gravity hook and jetpack. I also loved how, even as I was getting acquainted with the various creatures that might try to kill me and learning how to fend them off, the world itself was steadily becoming creepier and more alien with each level, culminating in the memorable final encounter. You’ve probably surmised by now that the story in Capsized is very simple, but I loved how it was told, wordlessly, never encroaching too much on your fun but providing just enough framing for the action. A few graphic novel style panels is all that’s needed to introduce a level about rescuing a fellow crewmate, or repairing a transmitter. It also leaves enough mystery, about both your protagonist and his crewmates and the planet they’ve crash-landed on, to keep things intriguing even after you’ve finished the game.

I know I’ve been complimenting the music in every entry in the marathon so far, but the music in Capsized really stood out. The ambient electronic soundscape fits the alien surroundings perfectly, and sets exactly the right mood. After a little research I was surprised to discover that the music was not composed for the game, but is actually the full album Movements by electronic artist Solar Fields (for those interested, Solar Fields also composed the original soundtrack for the game Mirror’s Edge, which is yet another game in my huge backlog, waiting to be played). Given how well the music works in the game, I wouldn’t be surprised if the developers had it in heavy rotation when they were designing Capsized. It also makes me wonder how many other albums out there could be turned into excellent game soundtracks.

According to Steam (which is, unfortunately, the only place to buy the game, as the rumored XBLA release doesn’t seem to have panned out), Capsized took me 4 hours to complete, but it felt longer than that. I’d guess it’s somewhere in the 4-6 hour range, depending on how quickly you finish the levels and how much time you spend searching for secrets (amusingly, even the secrets are glowing pickups, but usually they’re accompanied by more useful powerups and ammo). And that’s not counting the arcade modes, multiplayer bouts, or coop play. And it really is a top-notch production, with excellent visual and audio design coupled with some very stylish action. I definitely recommend checking it out. There’s a free demo available on the Steam page, which will introduce you to the hostile world of Capsized, and should give you a sense of whether you’ll enjoy your stay. I think you will.

EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.

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