Date: May 4, 2023
Space travel: it’s stupider than you think.
That might as well be the tagline for AstroNaut The Best, an upcoming “occult management roguelite adventure” from Universal Happymaker. In this game, you take on the role of the leader of a space academy in the dysfunctional nation of Flaustria. Your mission: whip a series of procedurally-generated incompetent recruits into becoming the spacefaring heroes the nation needs, instead of the heroes it deserves. The nation’s High Priests are watching you, and if you fail, they won’t rest until you’re dead in a ditch.
The first thing you’ll notice about this game is its pitch-perfect presentation. The art, music, and UX design were all crafted to evoke a very specific aesthetic — the ’60s Space Race. The art draws a lot from UPA cartoons of the ’50s and ’60s, Googie architecture, and retrofuture art like the works of El Gato Gomez. It’s continued on through the menus, which use asymmetrical shapes, loose squiggly outlines, and lots of TV-inspired imagery, while the music switches seamlessly from Heroic Propaganda Film Score to smooth jazz and back again.
The story is just as delightfully offbeat and well-crafted as the visuals. This isn’t a straight-up 60s Space Race Simulator. Flaustria’s a theocracy, run by a council of mad high priests, and your spaceship runs on The Nation’s Belief. Witchcraft is real– and you can use it to improve your astronauts. The Spirit of Flaustria — a five-legged lion who shows up on the nation’s flag — is real, appears to you in hallucinogenic visions, and takes you to a parallel universe at the end of every run. The game’s darkly comic and satirical, poking fun at celebrity culture, TV news, and government corruption. If you like the wry, surrealist comedy of Portal, or the TTRPG Paranoia, you’ll love this game’s sense of humour — though it’s raunchier than either of those games. There’s a lot of sex jokes, a lot of drug jokes, and a lot of jokes about poorly behaved astronauts.
Oh, right, the astronauts.
This game’s mechanically focused on managing your astronauts’ training. It’s a more streamlined version of Long Live the Queen, except that instead of one princess, you have five procedurally generated goobers to keep alive. Your astronauts have five stats: Piloting, Procedure, Fitness, Beauty, and Charm. Despite how useless some of these stats seem, you will need to get all of them as high as possible — or suffer the consequences. Astronauts also have zodiac signs and personality traits, which can raise or lower these stats. The traits are mostly hidden at first, so you have to work to discover them. These traits include “Makes Airplane Noises”, “Writes Astronaut Smut”, and “Looks Like An A$$hole” — not your mama’s video game personality traits.
One thing I really liked about this preview is the way you train your astronauts. You don’t just assign the astronauts to tasks and have them carry them out. That big red button in the middle of the screen? It’s not for show. Every time you train an astronaut, you have to press and hold the button. The longer you press the button, the more the room shakes, the more your astronaut’s skills go up, and the higher the Stress gauge goes up. At high stress, your astronaut may suffer a breakdown — losing skill points, getting injured, or developing negative traits.
I love this mechanic, because it serves both the gameplay and the story. It adds an interesting element of risk vs. reward to what could be a pretty paint-by-numbers management game, and it evokes messed-up 60s psychological experiments like the Milgram experiments. It’s perfect — tonally and mechanically — and it gives you a lot more investment in what could otherwise be a pretty bloodless experience.
Over the course of a run, you’ll have to balance public appearances, training your astronauts’ skills, and story challenges that come along with each chapter. Is your astronaut’s time better spent in the classroom, getting ready for their close-up, or schmoozing with TV stars? Do you hire a nepotism baby who can’t do anything in exchange for help, and if so, do they get to take their place on the spacecraft? Is it better to train an astronaut with good traits and bad stats, or bad traits and good stats? You’re constantly asked to make interesting choices.
The end of every run is the same: you send your astronauts to SPACE. This is the ultimate test of everything they’ve learnt — and everything you taught them. Succeed, and you win the space race, bringing Glory to Flaustria! Your astronauts will be paraded through the streets, and you’ll continue to run a very prestigious space program. Fail, and your astronauts will be paraded through the streets… in cages, with tomatoes thrown at them. If you’ve managed to befriend the high priests, you may be demoted or fired. If you’ve failed badly enough… well, let’s just say it’s a roguelike.
No matter whether you succeed or fail, you then hop to another parallel universe. You carry over any Glory you earned from a successful space flight. You can spend that Glory on metagame upgrades or useful items (though in the demo I played, the Spirit of Flaustria just gives you some things for free). Then you start the whole mess over. Do well enough — get to space, train your astronauts well, or beat a story objective — and you unlock a new chapter, giving you even more objectives to play with.
I sunk twice as much time into this demo as the developers recommended spending, just to experiment and play around. What effects do different choices have? What are the optimum strategies to get through this mess in one piece? How do I befriend the cute goth priestess?
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m beyond excited for the retail version of this game. It’s easily become the indie title I’m excited for, and I can’t wait to play the full release. If you like visual novels, management sims, Portal-style dysfunctional bureaucracy, or raunchy humour, keep an all-seeing eye on AstroNaut the Best.
That 60s Little Golden Book(C) heraldic zealot figurehead lion is Something Friggin’ Else. Magnificently eerie religious order mascot.