Big Sky Infinity
Sony PS VitaAlso available on Sony PlayStation 3
If any genre could find a home on Sony’s plucky little handheld you’d hope it was the twin stick shooter. In fact the device seems almost to have been ergonomically designed around them, the sticks straddling that most vibrant of screens in such a comfortable way. VooFoo Studios and Boss Baddie have picked up the challenged and provided us with Big Sky Infinity, a side-scrolling twin stick shmup that sees you piloting a lone starship into the heart of an alien armada. So far so generic, but Big Sky Infinity brings us one quantum leap to the genre – the game is randomly generated each time you play it, removing any ideas you may have had about memorising bullet hell patterns. Crikey.
So then, with randomness in mind the first port of call you will make within the game is the Classic mode. Here you are given a tiny ship and sent into the eye of the space storm, shooting as many evil aliens as you can before your inevitable destruction. These first tentative steps are a painful learning experience, your ship woefully underpowered to deal with the many threats once the difficulty has had a chance to spike. If you manage to survive long enough then one of the common difficulty events (you’ll recognise them as the gameplay will switch from colour to black and white with lots of nasty things to avoid) will almost certainly knock you out. Hope is not to be abandoned however; dispatched enemies provide you with starbits, a currency that can be used to purchase upgrades for your ship. These upgrades persist through your Classic mode plays which, along with the randomised gameplay, lend the piece a certain roguelike quality. Once you’ve managed to grind some starbits and upgrade your various weapons and defences your starship will begin to resemble a more powerful avatar of destruction, but this is tempered by the game ramping up the difficulty accordingly. If you manage to fully upgrade one of your weapons or shields then you will have an option to spend a whole bunch of starbits on an ‘ultra’ version; unlike the normal upgrades this will disappear after one game and an increased chance of success isn’t even guaranteed as utilising one will further ramp up the difficulty. Still, at least your ship will look cooler when you have both shields upgraded.
Mechanics wise Big Star Infinity does manage to offer more than just the random gameplay. Hitting X or R1 will put you into drill mode; while you can’t shoot in drill mode you can, obviously enough, drill through various objects such as an asteroid, a rocky planet or even parts of some of the bosses. The drill functionality never really becomes a major part of the game, instead being utilised only when you are forced to by circumstance. Drilling into something does replenish your back pressure lasers (the uber-powerful explosive shots that you have at the very start of a game) but it’s far more likely that you will be ducking around asteroids rather than trying to drill in and out of them. Two types of planet can appear during your runs – the aforementioned rocky sort contains powerups for you to try to drill towards while the odd gaseous planet that appears contains only the odd gate to fly through that gives you some starbits and an extra multiplier. While the rocky sort are always welcome for the upgrades they contain the gaseous planets seem to provide only boredom, seeing you fly through colourful nothingness as you wait for something else to shoot at. Even worse though are the random black hole events that you can experience – the first time you hit a strange zone with laser shooting dinosaur skulls is weirdly fun, every time after that is painful as you crawl through the event easily dodging the comically slow lasers. It’s one of the universal laws that dinosaurs shooting lasers should never not be fun and yet every time you have to fly through the event you will wish you were anywhere else.
Moving on from the gripes about dinosaur skulls in space you can, through play, unlock a whopping ten additional modes. These are unlocked in a fairly speedy fashion as you meet certain criteria, and it should take you no longer than a couple of hours to have access to them all. All of them add some value to the title, but you will find yourself returning far more often to some than to others – Pacifism mode for example removes all of your shooty laser weapons from your ship and sees you dodging a sea of random enemies trying to ever increase your score. On the other hand, Countdown gives you two minutes to do as much damage and achieve the highest score that you can, while the Nightmare and Hell modes offer even more extreme difficulties for you to contend with. In a more old fashioned look at the genre Arcade mode sees you picking up power-ups as you progress through the game and those wanting to practice their boss skills will find Boss Rush to be a useful addition. For those who end up spending a lot of time with Big Sky Infinity the Naked mode offers them a chance to return to their initially weak state and remind themselves just how less chaotic these earlier play throughs were. Many of these modes offer you between one and three additional power-ups that you can take for that specific game.
Across both the main game and all of these various modes score attack is the true name of the game. An impressive array of stats are presented after each game, with the average of all your plays and the percentage difference between those and your most recent game shown. With game sessions short and the emphasis on scores a main focus theoretically Big Sky Infinity should feel like a perfect match for a handheld. Instead there are too many foibles that conspire against it and ensure that it never really hits the addictive levels it tries to reach. For instance, the random nature of the game ensures that while skill will be rewarded there is far too likely a chance that your higher scores will be dictated by simple luck. When replaying other modes for score you will find yourself forced into taking the x40 Multiplier power-up simply to compete on the leaderboards with your friends. Once you have grasped the basics and gained a modicum of skill far too often the game resorts to base unfairness, killing you with unavoidable randomness. It’s an incredibly frustrating trait, and one that will probably stop you from mounting any serious assaults on any of the leaderboards.
With all this in mind then it’s amazing that the developers would exacerbate these issues by choosing to saddle the game with a narrator who very quickly becomes more annoying than quirky. His voice constantly yammers on about random topics and becomes crushingly distracting – until you finally cave in and go looking for the option to turn him off. The inclusion of the narrator cheapens the overall product and doesn’t fit at all with the type of game that Big Sky Infinity looks to be, as well as potentially providing the proverbial straw that could drive undecided gamers away from the game. Even worse though is the fact that the developers offer you the chance to purchase 300,000 starbits from the PSN store as DLC. They acknowledge that the grinding could get boring and that players may want to move on faster, and instead of designing fun ways of achieving this or at the very least ensuring that the grinding is essential for the overall learning experience they instead offer you a way to buy yourself out of it. It’s an extra paygate that rewards people who don’t want to play the game and just screams of laziness.
There are signs of good concepts within Big Sky Infinity – you will be impressed the first time you see one of the four bosses in a more difficult guise, the whole encounter subtly changed to a more challenging variant. The odd piece of fan service such as a TARDIS falling through the sky shows the level of thought that has gone into the overall presentation of the package, but this just makes it all the more annoying that the core concepts of Big Sky Infinity aren’t as polished as they should be. The random nature of the game may lend itself to the odd handheld play but it’s unlikely that you will ever develop any kind of compulsion to return for longer as that very factor is also its downfall. The lack of created playscapes means that all too often you will be faced with an entirely unfair death, an asteroid to the face just as you start a difficulty event and the screen turns black perhaps, and the will to continue will dissipate. With a little more engineering it could have worked but for now you will be better off sticking to more proven twin stick formulas.