Houston, we have a winner. This game's incredible, and if you like roguelites or management sims, pick it up pronto.
Space travel: still stupider than you think.
Back in May, we gave you a sneak preview of a little game called Astronaut: The Best, an “occult management roguelite adventure” from Universal Happymaker. At the time, I gushed about the demo’s pitch-perfect presentation, delightfully off-kilter sense of humour, and profoundly addictive gameplay loop. “Keep an all-seeing eye on [this game],” I said.
Well, the full game is tomorrow, August 15, and it’s as much of a delight as I could have hoped for. Pretty much everything I said about the beta build still holds true. It’s a fantastic experience I’d recommend to anyone who likes management sims or roguelites.
Astronaut: The Best’s presentation is as pitch-perfect as ever. You’ll immediately recognize this one just from the art style. It’s incredibly distinctive and eye-catching. While the game’s art direction was clearly inspired by WPA cartoons of the 50s and 60s, political cartoons, and Googie architecture, it’s got a unique visual style, with pentagons and asymmetric shapes everywhere. It mixes 60s retrofuture whimsy with the occult in a really appealing way.
The music’s also spot-on, going from Heroic Propaganda Score to smooth TV shopping jazz and back. It never feels dissonant with the action, and it never gets stale– pretty impressive for a roguelite.
And have I mentioned that the story is still as funny as ever? Because the story is still as funny as ever.
Each time you start a new run, you have the option to take one of five missions, which slowly unlock over the course of the game. Two of the first three missions were included in the demo– your vanilla “go to space in a week” mission, and a mission where you interfere with the filming of a TV show to make sure it doesn’t stop your astronauts from going to space. The third mission I got to play involved the enemy nation of Vladagar challenging your astronauts to a boxing match.
These stories are wryly funny, taking a cynical look at nationalism, censorship, and propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of crass jokes to go around — the number of crudely-drawn glutes on screen might be a bit much for folks with delicate sensibilities — but the game’s sense of humour isn’t just astronauts getting caught with their pants down. Astronaut: The Best has something to say about why the world is the way it is, and what we can do to fix it. It’s not particularly nuanced, but it’s clear, clever, and pointed.
You’re training astronauts in basically the same way you were in the demo: Press and hold a button to make their stats (and stress) go up. Every time an astronaut’s stress goes up, you’ve got a chance that they’ll get injured and be out of commission for the next few days. Ultimately, you want to get your astronaut’s stats as high as possible, while avoiding stressing them out too much. The button-holding is reminiscent of unethical ’60s psychological experiments — it really fits in with the game’s themes.
Every astronaut has five stats: Piloting, Procedure, Fitness, Beauty, and Charm. Different stats are good in different scenarios. In some missions, you’ll need more Fitness or Procedure, in others, you’ll want more Beauty or Charm. To go to space, however, you’ll want all these stats as high as possible.
Every astronaut also has randomly generated traits, and most of them are hidden from you until they go off. Does this astronaut make airplane noises when they fly? You won’t know until you’ve gotten them in the cockpit a few times. Does this astronaut spend all your money on clothes? Well, you’ll know once they hit your bank account. You’ve got to discover as many of these traits as you can — before your astronaut does something stupid.
And you’re on a pretty nasty time crunch. In the vanilla “go to space” mission, you have ten days to train your astronauts. This is just about time to get a decent astronaut’s skills up to snuff. The other missions give you more time to work with, but they also give you an extra mission-specific hurdle to overcome.
The entire game is a delicate balance of risk versus reward, and the core gameplay loop is both satisfying and stressful. You’ve got the crunch of a good management sim and the “everything can fall apart at any time” of a good roguelite. It took me a good few hours, in the demo, to get the hang of how everything works — but once I did, it was incredibly satisfying to tackle challenges I could never have handled when I was just figuring things out.
You’ve got a handful of other mechanics to play with here: Favour, Magic, and Glory/Challenges.
Favour simulates keeping your bosses happy. The High Priests of Flaustria oversee the space program, and they Do Not Like It one bit. Every single one of these goobers is insane in their own special way, and you have to keep them happy in order to not get sacked at the end of the run. You’ve got to impress them, whether by making your astronauts perform well in surprise tests or by acquiescing to their absurd demands. It really adds to the feeling of being a career bureaucrat in an absurd, insane nation.
Magic helps you upgrade your astronauts. You can get rid of their negative traits, give them new, positive traits, augment their stats, lower their stress, or heal their injuries. Magic costs money — the same money you have to use to train your astronauts– so it’s an added risk versus reward. Overall, you should try to use magic sparingly — but use it, because you probably won’t finish the run if you don’t.
As for Glory… well, here we’ve got to talk about the meta progression.
The thing that makes or breaks a roguelite is the meta progression. An individual run can be fun, but are multiple runs of the same content going to be fun? Does it get repetitive playing through the same content over and over? An otherwise great game can become stale pretty quickly if it gets too monotonous. Thankfully, Astronaut: The Best has a couple systems in place to make meta progression fun.
The first mechanic is a currency called Glory, a measure of how much your space program impressed the people of Flaustria. In this world, spaceships run on belief. The Spirit of Flaustria — a six-legged lion — demands your help to save Flaustria from an interdimensional crisis, by running the space program over and over again and getting the people of Flaustria to Believe In The Space Program.
Earning Glory gets you Lion Coins after each run, which you can spend on upgrades: things like “better training rooms”, “stronger magic”, and “brand new space suit options”.
Meanwhile, a totally-not-suspicious Nice Bird wants you to lose Glory, because gaining Glory has been messing up universes left and right. Losing Glory during a run gives you Nice Bird coins, which you can use to buy even more stuff.
Both the Spirit of Flaustria and the Nice Bird also give you Challenges you can complete. Start out with lowered stats, make less money — you know, usual roguelike nerfs. To unlock the True Ending, you need to play a bunch of Challenge runs. The restrictions are just onerous enough to be fun, without getting in the way of the gameplay… much.
Astronaut: The Best was one of my most anticipated games this year. And by gum, the devs at Universal Happymaker stuck the landing. The devs have perfectly married a roguelite management sim with an offbeat visual novel. If you like either of these genres, if you’ve got a yen for Portal-esque humour about dysfunctional bureaucracy, or if you just want to play one of the best indie games of this year, you’ve got to pick up Astronaut: The Best.
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Malcolm Schmitz is a freelance writer from the United States. He loves life sims, JRPGs, and strategy games, and loves modding games even more than he loves playing them.