By Alec Meer on February 6th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
An RTS? Relaxing? Next you’ll be telling me to try wrong-way driving to chill out, or read comments on one of John’s editorials to soothe away my troubles. Real-time strategy games are about getting the blood up, grinding your molars into paste, sleeplessly twitching with a frenzied need to conquer, existing in a hyper-alert borderland between focus and fury. RTSes. Are. Not. For. Relaxation.
Rymdkapsel is relaxing. Until it isn’t, anyway. Then it really isn’t.
If you’re squinting at the abstract art style and thinking it looks too opaque and arch to have a good time with, here’s the elevator pitch: Dungeon Keeper meets Darwinia meets Tetris. But while it is true that strands of all those games – and more – can fairly easily be identified in rymdkapsel’s colourful yet minimalist DNA, none of them define it. None of them even usefully describe it, if I’m honest.
More useful are RTS mainstays – harvesting resources and establishing a series of buildings to both tech up and support a larger ‘army.’ There are three major elements which stop it from feeling familiar, however.
First of those is that that units are controlled indirectly; you can assign them to broad tasks and prioritise one construction at a time, but other than that they’ll perform their duties under their own steam, or have a nice lie down if there’s nothing that can be done in their currently-assigned role.
Then there’s the enemy, which attacks in waves on an ever-shortening timer. You can’t take the fight to them, and you can’t even kill their invaders if you haven’t assigned your units to the defence role. So rymdkapsel, in its standard mode, is about trying to get as much built and harvested and researched as possible between each wave, at which point you ask everyone to head to a weapons room and grab a gun/shield thing. Unless you’re a better player than me, in which case you build weapons rooms around key construction/gathering/research areas in such a way that half you guys can carry on with their day jobs while a perimeter guard keeps them safe. Initially, defending yourself is a nonchalant activity – you wait for the angry buzz that denotes the between-waves timer is almost up, then use the role-switching tabs at the bottom of the screen to stick a defence hat on everyone. There’s some lazy laser-zapping, the ethereal red snakes that mean to do you harm are dispatched, and hi ho, hi ho, it’s back off to work we go. It’s relaxing combat, more like doing the hoovering than going off to war.
Then, some twenty minutes later (which feels like a calm and generous age when you’re playing), that timer runs out so much quicker, and there’s barely a chance to build a single corridor or carry a handful of farm crops off to the kitchens before the enemy’s at the gate once again, in increasing numbers, and if you haven’t sent your chaps to the war room long before that buzzer went, they’ll be picked off while still en route. Relaxing? Hah. Not anymore. Extreme stress, I promise you. Rymdkapsel’s a gateway drug to itself, promising to be a soothing warm bath of a game only to wind up sending you to the trenches.
The third element that makes this RTS not an RTS as we know it is the aesthetic, that cold, simple, geometrical look and sparse, tranquil soundtrack to match. Initially this makes the game seem unapproachable, as though it’s going to be a great effort to divine logic and purpose from it, but once I’d chalked up a half-hour with it I became convinced it was a lesson in effective minimalism. Everything that needs to be conveyed is conveyed almost purely by colour, with the major exception, of your workers whose movements increasingly require tracking if you’re to achieve as much as possible before the next invasion begins. I play, and I see, in terms of colours rather than buildings, and somehow more life and variance spawns from this reliance on the purely sensory. Again, in its earliest moments this really is a game of blissful zoning out, swaddling yourself in sound and colour in the (rather more inert) manner of drunk crusties dancing around the candles at Glastonbury at 4am.
It’s also a game of fairly acute strategy, at least if you strive to ‘beat’ its major mode rather that treat it as a ‘how long can you survive?’ affair. Room placement is key, and an initially superficial-seeming Tetris element wherein each new construction is in the shape of whatever the next ‘piece’ is (from the familiar Tetris roster of square, line, t-shape, l-shape and zig-ziggy thing) soon blossoms into something more vital. You’re necessarily building outwards all the time, both because you’re adding new rooms and because your ultimate goal is to research a set of obelisks on the outskirts of the map, and that entails your wee chaps having to traverse increasing distances as they ferry resources from generation to construction site, or scarper to a weapons’ room when things get hot.
If you’ve built your base/assembled your pieces in such a way that it’s full of long twisting corridors and lacks junctions at key points, your lads will take bloody forever to get anywhere, and more than likely will get themselves killed while between destinations. This is true both on a broader level (e.g. if your units have to traverse a vast ringroad rather than nip across the centre of the base) and a smaller one (e.g. you’ve placed the co-dependent garden and kitchen rooms adjacent, but with their doors connected to corridors in such a way that there’s still a fair old hike between them).
It’s not complex strategy, perhaps, and the certainly some of the Tetris aspect is simply to create an angular, asymmetrical aesthetic, but it makes rmydkapsel a very canny wolf in a daydreaming sheep’s clothing. Those early, laidback moments? Those are when you’ll likely make the most awful mistakes. While rooms can be deleted, corridors can not – so you’re stuck with whatever you initially place, unless you gamble on bulldozing half your stuff to create a central plaza late in the day. Not so relaxing any more – you go in with a strategy from the first moment, or you will die.
It’s smart, and it’s impressively lean – nothing is superfluous, everything is achieved with a minimum of action and, once you’re over the initial hump, its causes and effects are perfectly clear. My only real complaint is that initial setup feels like it takes too long once you’ve already played a couple of times, and I wanted to get into the thick of it much more quickly rather than spend an eternity waiting for my little rectangle-men to meander about at the pace of an indecisive granny browsing the soup aisle.
Nonetheless- lovely and clever, and a real pleasure simply to have running on your screen and through your speakers. And if I do want pure relaxation from it, there’s an enemy-free Zen mode which allows uninterrupted, pleasantly glacial construction. It’s a bit like watching Defrag run to ease away a hangover.
rymdkapsel is out on Steam and Humble now, for £6/$8.