Impressions: Inside a Star-filled Sky

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Jason Rohrer, he of Passage and Sleep Is Death, has released a new game – Inside a Star-Filled Sky. Rather surprisingly, given his heritage of slow-paced, narrative-heavy games, it’s a shmup.

Rather unsurprisingly, it is far from a conventional shmup. I’ve given it a couple of hours so far, not yet enough to offer a verdict as such, but as there’s quite a buzz around it a few early thoughts seem more than sensible. Here they are.

A 2D, not-quite-psychedelic affair, it perhaps characteristically involves an element of metaphor. Is key mechanic (outside of shooting lots and lots of things) is to improve ‘what’s inside yourself’ – by which it means collecting power-ups. Tricksily, you can’t actually use these power-ups. Only the next You can do that

You become the next you by exiting the level, which is achieved not by murdering everything but by exploring/surviving a procedurally-generated maze full of shooty stuff. Make it to the exit and you’ll go to the next map, and start as a new, random pixel-art creature with whatever abilities you assigned to it on the prior level.

If you die, you go backwards. Back to the last level and the last creature. If you died because the trio of abilities you’d given your beast weren’t terribly effective against the enemies and situations you’d encountered, this rewind is not so much a punishment as a chance to choose more wisely. Is the little beggar that killed you lurking behind a bit of wall, spamming bullets wildly? Pick up a Corner Shot or two upgrade. Or was it a back of baddies hurtling towards you in a terrifying wave? Grab a spread shot or the like – less accurate, but grand for crowd control. Or maybe the problem level contains a long corridor with no room to dodge the lone enemy within. In which case, fill your three ability slots with power ups featuring the heart icon, with each one allowing you to stomach one more hit before you meet your end. It a recursive game, and that means mistakes can always be corrected and death is never final.

The point is, as well as the metaphorical element of exploring and bettering yourself, it’s also remarkably tactical. The shump element of reflex and pattern-spotting is in there, but it’s also about equipping the right tools for the right job. As someone who gets exasperated with the hardcore shmups because that particular vein of high speed perfection makes demands that I’m too lazy to meet, the idea of puzzling it out rather than grinding it out is a whole lot more fulfilling.

The random element works well too, as much because of the never-the-same-twice element as because Rohrer seems aware that randomness can lead to no-win situations. If that happens, you can elect to ‘enter’ (snigger) your current character or any enemy and from this visualised introspection a new branch essentially spawns. I’m a little vague on what it’s doing and why, but as far as I’ve gathered to date it’s an opportunity to bring up new levels if you’ve faced a roadblock in another one. There’s also an element of in theory spawning legions of new possible realities with every level switch. I think I’m going to have to sit down and draw some diagrams to get a proper handle on that.

More on this soon, once I’ve played a whole lot more. I’m quite taken with it, however, and I suspect those who have found Rohrer’s previous efforts on the obtuse and sleepy side are in for a very pleasant surprise too. This is much more directly a videogame in the traditional sense, but it retains the exploratory, thoughtful touch of the developer’s earlier titles nonetheless. If you’re interested – and you should be – it’s currently available for pay-what-want.


  1. Daniel Rivas says:

    I think going into an enemy lets you change what weapons that enemy has— so if there’s something firing down a long corridor you can go inside it and pick up three corner shots, leaving it easy to kill when you exit.

  2. HardClumping says:

    I think you can enter enemies to change them around if they’re too difficult, but yeah it’s kind of vague exactly where you’re going half the time. One of the feature bulletpoints is that you have reached the scale of the universe by level like 14, but I’m not sure why this is important.

    • Tei says:

      The universe is actually very small. You can have about 40 in a bag.

  3. SquareWheel says:

    I still have no idea how to play Sleep is Death. How’s the learning curve on this guy?

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      Shallow-ish. You’ll have no problems playing it, but you’ll spend half an hour or so saying “oh, okay, so that’s what that does”.

  4. HermitUK says:

    You can also enter a power up and improve them. So collect two or three of the same power up within it and it’ll become a level 2 or level 3 token.

    Especially handy if you’ve got a level with a lot of enemies – you can condense your health boost into one token, leaving two others for weapons.

  5. esbates7 says:

    glad that you are reviewing this. saw it and thought, well i’m low on my LSD supply so i’ll pass, but it sounds more interesting than it looks.

  6. Damien Neil says:

    I want to like this game, but it’s terribly directionless. There’s a giant, fractal world to explore, and no reason to do so. No score to beat, no objectives to accomplish, no new sights to see other than more fractal.

    • zaphos says:

      The number in the upper right (your level) is pretty close to a score. To rise up you’ll have to pass through a series of increasingly challenging levels.

  7. Mr_Hands says:

    After reading PC Gamer’s feature on it, I picked this up immediately once I got Rohrer’s email over the weekend saying it was out. Haven’t spent copious amount of time with it yet but so far there’s some serious mind-warping going on. Spent a solid half hour just jumping into people, places and things.

  8. Hoaxfish says:

    So, turtles all the way down

  9. RyePunk says:

    Reminds me of Disgaea’s concept of entering your items to power them up, but without the story. Not that Disgaea had much of a story, but it did make wonderful use of Prinnies.

    • wu wei says:

      Disgaea is cited as one of the influences on Inside… :)

      Was it King’s Bounty that also allowed you to fight within items to upgrade them?

    • Dominic White says:

      Yep. I always considered King’s Bounty (the new one) to be a Russian take on the Disgaea concept. Light-hearted SRPG with crazy elements and tongue-in-cheek story.

      On that note, Disgaea 4 out.. about now in Japan, English version on the way.

      From what I’ve seen/heard, it’s set to be the best in the series by a fairly large margin. Proper high-res sprites this time, too.

  10. stillwater says:

    [edit]-posted in wrong section

  11. Chucrute says:

    I want to try it out first. But i also don’t want to rip-off the developer.
    What to do? How much are you guys paying?

    • Sunjumper says:

      I felt pretty much like you did. I stared at the box for some time trying to decide the right ammount.
      In the end I settled for 5$ plus the 1.75$. I felt that it was a decent amount of money, certainly much more than he would have gotten from me if I had decided to be ‘noble’ and not ripping him off i.e. not buying the game at all with a sad sigh.

      In the end I feel like that was a good deal. Less would be feel ‘not right’ to me and more I can’t afford and also despite quite liking the game I can’t see me playing it for all that long.
      Also if I misjudged the game I can make it up by buying a friend a copy at a higher price point.

  12. Baines says:

    I don’t know that I’d quite call it “pay-what-you-want”, as there is a $1.75 processing fee added to what you choose to pay. So it is really “pay-what-you-want-plus-$1.75”

    • Sunjumper says:

      Well you only start paying for the game after those initial 1.75$.
      So it is pay what you want for the game (but be aware that you will have to pay for the hosting and bandwidth too.)

  13. msarge says:

    Did anyone else buy it for $11.62 so that after the required $1.75 the total came out to $13.37? Get it? LEET? Oh wait most of you guys probably use euros or pounds or something.

  14. Lightbulb says:

    Games – even if they cost $1.75 minimum still need demo’s. I would have played the demo and could well have paid £10+ for it but instead I shall ignore it…

  15. ghost4 says:

    The idea of playing something by Rohrer fills me with suicidal despair.

  16. obd2 says:

    I’m a little vague on what it’s doing and why, but as far as I’ve gathered to date it’s an opportunity to bring up new levels if you’ve faced a roadblock in another one.
    GM MDI