It was called Dyson at the Independent Games Festival, and now it's called Eufloria. That should have been Euphloria, I reckon, but no matter: it's a minimalistic "ambient" space strategy game, and it's out already on Steam or, better still, from the creator's site. I've been playing it for the past couple of days, and my flowery words follow beneath the click.
While it's purportedly set in space, the actual battlefield of Eufloria is a 2D pastel plane filled with circular "asteroids". It's gallery-space abstract, but that doesn't mean Eufloria doesn't exhibit extraordinary beauty and complexity. The fundamental process in the game is found within "Dyson Trees", which grow from the asteroid surface. These come in two varieties: one that defends, and one that grows seedlings. It's these seedlings that are the heart of your strategies and your actions: they swirl around like insects and can be directed to move between various asteroids. Sometimes you'll send out just a couple of scouts, other times a vast, seething, conquering mass. Later there are deadly blossoms too: slow moving mega-weapons of the Eufloria universe.
The other asteroids on any given level are populated by enemy swarms, who are growing their own trees, and going about their own business. As you move about your seedlings do battle with the enemy swarms, destroy enemy trees, and capture the asteroids for their own. More often than not your tactic becomes about growing as many seedlings as possible and simply over-whelming your enemy. It's a kind of formalised tank-rush, only with pastel-seed podlet things... which is a little disappointing. But then there are also times when the game really does hit its stride, and sees you figuring out how to take down an aggressive or heavily-entrenched enemy with some inventive or exploratory play.
Through all this runs a vague story of exploration and redemption: corrupted Dyson tree tribes that must be expunged from the universe have been discovered, while lost outposts of your species need to be rescued. Yes, it's strangely cute and at the same time austere, but with aesthetic sparsity masks a surprising amount of sophistication. There are several distinct variables to consider, such as the properties of each asteroid. Energy, strength and speed will define the kind of seedlings that are produced, and each type is good for a rather different task. Strong seedlings are good at taking down the defence trees of well-defended asteroids, while high energy seedlings make the task of laying claim to an asteroid much easier. Where the game really demands your tactical attention is often in the layouts of the asteroids themselves: the large the asteroid the more places you can get to. Likewise, when the enemy seedlings have hold of a large asteroid, the range of their attacks is much greater. You have to take such things into account as you begin to manage your swarms in tougher battles. In all honesty though, I only found myself using these subtleties on rare occasions. Perhaps the game's greatest flaw is that the AI isn't aggressive enough until the end of the game, and you're given such an easy ride up that stage that you don't necessary exploit the tactical possibilities that the game design has set up.
And what of this claim to be "ambient?" Well, it does feature incredibly spacey music, and has a gentle visual style that seems almost unprecedented. As a game experience, however it's less ambient more like "background", at least for the first two thirds of the game. The slow pace of things - combined with my own general hyper-activity - meant I was regularly clicking away to read chat windows, or type up some thoughts on another game. Not necessarily a bad thing, as it's not been the first time I've been engrossed in a game I could play while working. The slow pace I speak of is down to the seedlings taking time to grow. Having enough of them is vital to get through the game, as they're lost in battles, in capturing asteroids, and in planting new trees for the generation of additional seedlings. You only seem to ever have enough as a critical mass is broken and you over-whelm the level you are playing. A time speed up function would definitely have been welcome, or even a option to set your own pace for the rate at which the game grows, and moves. As it is, the pacing is problematic. Maybe this will be addressed in a later version of the game.
Can I recommend it? Yes, in parts. This finished game is a huge leap onward from the free release - move levels, a fleshed out campaign, skirmish modes, and more. There's a certain small crowd of gamers I know that will love it unreservedly. The game is as stylish and as soothing as a this kind of game has ever been, and it has a distinctly clean, modern charm, like an Ikea of space strategy. But like the furniture, it's not going to appeal to everyone. The peculiar pacing will frustrate some, while the abstract presentation will deflect others - it doesn't always even distinguish well between you and an enemy, giving you similar colours - an added frustration.. I can see why all these things would be problems - hence mentioning them - but my tastes do warm to this odd kind of strategic puzzle-solving. It almost feels healthy, like it's a good meal of a game, rather than simply another sugary treat. The best litmus test, of course, would be to play the demo, which you should go and do right now.
The best litmus test, of course, would be to play the demo, which you should go and do right now.