Welcome to Lieutenant Olivia Bergen’s personal hell. Getting herself separated from the rest of the fleet, her nimble little space ship gets perpetually stuck in an endless cycle of space combat against impossible odds. But death is hardly the end in this intergalactic Groundhog Day simulator, and there is far more than meets the eye when you look beyond the game’s minimalist aesthetics.
Fans of the classic Asteroids will feel immediately at home here, with Olivia’s ship controlling in very much the same fashion: rotate left or right and apply thrust to gain momentum in whatever direction your ship’s nose is pointing. You begin the game with little more than your regular forward-firing laser weapon (which incidentally creates counter-momentum when fired, so you can use it to propel yourself backwards while still attacking pursuing foes) and an infinite supply of automatically deployed drones. These tiny little chunks of pixels may not look like much, but having a swarm of them flying around you and acting as both extra attack ships and sacrificial shields might just be enough to ensure you live long enough to reach the next ‘split’.
There are ten different power-ups to unlock and you can use two of them at the same time. These usually give you better firepower and increase your odds of survival. You unlock these by achieving personal best scores in a ‘split’, the timed interval in which you have to try to engage and destroy the largest number of baddies possible. Online leaderboards are included so expect to get quite a lot of mileage out of this one if you enjoy competing with fellow players around the world.
You are far from alone in this minimalist star field. Enemies come in in several different sizes and shapes and all will attack in different ways. Dealing with each of them is something you will have to learn from every first-time encounter. You can take a few hits before your ship starts trailing smoke, and when you’re about to explode, an alarm will sound. This is your cue to stop fighting and get to a safe distance so the ship can self-repair. There are no lives either, so when you ship explodes. it’s back to the start of the cycle.
As you might have concluded so far, for a very small entry fee you are getting a really great arcade high score chaser. However, it would be criminal of us to conclude this review without telling you a secret: not everything is as it seems! At the start of every cycle, Olivia records a log of her progress, a small text message you can read every time you begin a new run. Mostly, these sound like ramblings from a person on the brink of insanity, but as you keep playing the messages start giving you hints of strange events on some of the cycles. For instance, are you truly sure there are no boundaries to where you are? Who are the ships attacking you? Is the cycle breakable somehow? That is the mystery hidden behind this apparently bread-and-butter single-player shooter, one which we dare not spoil in this review.
The game’s simple graphics mean you could almost trick someone into believing you’re playing the latest Commodore 64 or Atari 2600 homebrew sensation. Despite the muted colours, the amount of on-screen action would be way too much for their humble CPUs to handle – but as one might expect, everything runs smoothly on the Switch, regardless of playing it docked or in portable mode. One would assume a game looking like this would be rocking a chiptune soundtrack, but instead, we were pleasantly surprised with the incredibly dynamic orchestral soundtrack by Jordan Rees; it’s honestly worth the admission price alone.
Cycle 28 disguises itself as a solid arcade shooter with minimalist aesthetics but slowly reveals itself to be something far beyond that. It successfully manages to engulf the player in the mystery that led to the player character’s current predicament and entices you to seek the truth, find answers to questions you didn’t know existed and attempt to break the cycle and… who knows, maybe freedom and a happy conclusion? We rarely get to play video games where each ‘Game Over’ offers the possibility to solve a mystery, so we kept coming back to it again and again – and so will you.