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Playing Forma.8 Is Like Exploring A Painted Planet

Philae your boots

Forma.8 [official site] was one of the highlights of my Gamescom this year. There's usually at least one game that I knew very little about walking in to an appointment that wins me over almost instantly for one reason or another. This year's most pleasant surprise was Forma.8.

You may have heard the line about No Man's Sky creating scenes reminiscent of sci-fi book covers – Forma.8 looks like the prestige, limited edition reprints of those books.

Forma.8 is a Metroidvania game in which a probe becomes stranded during a surveillance mission on a distant planet. The thing that struck me immediately is that the alien world looks like it has layers, as if it's a model, a diorama viewed side-on that you could reach into. That's despite all of the movement taking place on a 2d plane with no 2.5d trickery, as in Shadow Complex or other similar games.

It's reminiscent of Another World and also of one of my favourite eighties games, Exile, which still has one of the most convincing alien planets I've ever explored. In the movement and sharpness of the visual, there's something of Pixeljunk Shooter as well. It's gorgeous in stills and awesome in motion. I could have played but I was happier to let the developer take the controls so that I could stand back and watch.

I expected the probe to control like Thruster's landing prod, a booster nudging it across the screen in hesitant bursts, but it's far more stable, responding to movement of the stick (the demonstration was on a Wii U) without the need to push buttons for fine control. Although I only saw the opening, and things will get trickier later on, Forma.8 is a gentle game, with abilities used to open up areas in a way that promotes exploration of those areas over the possibility of killing everything on the other side of a doorway.

There is combat, but what I've seen of it feels quite sedate, like destroying obstacles rather than engaging in life or death struggles. That's not to say that enemies won't fight back, but don't expect huge laser light shows.

Remember the Philae lander? It underwent a ten year journey that ended in a soft (though bumpy) landing on a comet, sent back all manner of scientific data, and then went to sleep. Forever. Sporadic communications were still being transmitted almost a year after the landing, but in July of this year, the Electrical Support System Processor Unit on board Philae's companion spacecraft Rosetta was shut down, effectively silencing Philae for good.

Today, Rosetta's cameras managed to take a shot of Philae, the first since it landed, showing it trapped in a crack on the comet. When I saw the news that it had been found, I half-expected everything to come back online, and for Rosetta to swoop down and pluck Philae out of the comet's crack so that they could go back to chattering away, deep in space. In my brain, that's sort of how science works. Probes and spaceships and satellites and all the rest of that space-machinery, high-fiving one another and generally having a grand old time.

Maybe this comes from growing up with R2-D2 and watching too many adverts for Minis, but I tend to impose personality on machines. Anthropmorphism, but with spaceships, cars and robots. Forma.8 stars the kind of probe that I would definitely be friends with.

It's not a cutesy little Wall-E thing that beeps, boops and emotes in order to earn sympathy, but it seems somehow determined. Watching or playing the game, I might be a happy tourist in a beautiful setting, but the probe is trying to get to the bottom of things, uncovering the planet's mysteries as it goes. As well as new skills that are unlocked as you play, there are collectibles secured away from the obvious route, and these will reveal...something. The developers didn't spoil what that might be.

The environment itself has stories to tell though and while there's no evidence of the botanical playgrounds of Waking Mars, there are elements of that game in here as well. There's a genuine sense of being in an alien place and I attribute that mainly to that art style. Even if Forma.8 is showing me the kind of scenes and obstacles that I've seen before, the way that those things are shown makes them seem new.

I'd love to have prints of all of the artwork on this page and Forma.8 in motion isn't quite like anything else I've ever seen. That might seem a strong claim considering that it easily falls within an established genre and setting, but I've never seen a screen look so textured.

If you want to play a game that really does look like a sci-fi book cover, I think this is the one. It has that exciting sense of the unknown and looks good enough that I wanted to touch it. I didn't, obviously, because stroking a screen in the middle of a convention centre hall would be extremely strange (although less so when there are so many VR peripherals around, being controlled with full bodies in harnesses or on treadmills, or with every individual limb and extremity you can think of). Forma.8 looks like it'd make your screen feel like paper though, or card. It's like flying through a painting.

Forma.8 will be out later this year.

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