Inside a Star-filled Sky is an infinite, recursive, tactical shooter by award-winning designer Jason Rohrer (Passage, Between). What if you could enter an object in a level and find a level inside of it? What if you could enter an object in that level and find another level inside of that?
What if you could change an enemy or a power-up from the inside? What if you could enter and change yourself? What if these levels inside levels inside levels went all the way down—and all the way up?
Inside a Star-filled Sky is a hard, procedurally-generated shmup built around this core concept.
What We Think
Jason Rohrer (creator of Sleep is Death, our pick for Indie Game of the Year 2010) is back with a brand new take on the shoot-em-up. Simply fighting waves of enemies is old hat. Inside a Star-filled Sky is all about fighting the enemies within an enemy within yourself (and you are inside yet another enemy). Confused yet?
Complexity Through Simplicity
Players start as a basic life form capable of firing single shots. The arrow keys or W,A,S and D keys are used for movement, while a reticule controlled by the mouse aims the trajectory of the player’s projectiles. Levels can be wide open, or maze like in construction, and will house a finite level of enemies to thwart, as well as some useful power-up tokens. Up to 3 power-ups can be collected, and the results of the combined powers will not be seen until the player progresses to a higher level. Generally, higher levels will also yield more potent power-up tokens (indicated by the number appearing in the upper-right corner) though a few beginner tokens may also litter the play field, making a nimbly dodging a bullet-hell barrage riskier, lest your carefully-balanced blend of might and defense be disrupted by a level one projectile range token.
Graphics are music are both in short supply in the game, but neither element is intended to be a driving factor. The clunky feel of the sprites better allows for the ingenious level progression mechanic. In this regard, IaSFS plays a lot like Jenova Chen’s Fl0w. By flying over an up arrow icon, the character takes control of the life-form hosting the current level (a superior life form). Conversely, being defeated by an enemy will force the player to take control of a smaller and often weaker existence within the defeated character.
To clarify that statement, picture it like this: if at the beginning of the game, if the player were controlling a red blood cell in his body, leveling up would result in controlling the player. Leveling down from from being a red blood cell would cause the player to take the form of an atom within the blood cell, followed by a sub-atom, a quark, onwards and so forth. There is no limit to how large or how small a creature the player can control.
The first time paying the game can create the falste impression that this game is slow in pace, but don’t be fooled. IaSFS doesn’t take long to pick up in speed and difficulty. Each level upwards is tracked by the counter on the upper-right corner of the screen, and each will increase the difficulty and skill sets of the enemies that will be faced.
The Enemy Within
Clicking the Shift key while hovering the reticule over an enemy creature will cause the player to descend into its cellular structure. The sprite expands to form a new level, some of which are maze-like, and some with wide open spaces to move around it. Once inside, clear out the enemies within, find out what makes your foe tick, and steal it for your own power-up.
If that isn’t baffling enough, clicking Shift with the reticule over flag tokens and power-ups will send the player inside those as well. Dive down a few levels within a power-up token, stack the tokens within it to create a powerful mix, and emerge again. The token just got more powerful, and can be collected for use in the next level up.
Finding the right mix of tokens takes some trial and error, and a bit of luck. Spread and burst weapons do well in open areas, but falter in close quarters. Heat seeking and rebound shots work better in tight grid levels. Is it worth dropping the level 5 health bonus to pack on a sticky shot? It all depends on the player.
The Sky is the Limit. Now, Become the Sky.
If there is one aspect that some gamers will love, and others will hate, it’s that there is no end point to achieve in the game, and other than reaching higher stages of existence, there is no defined reward. The player will float on through this infinite universe, seeking to control larger, more powerful enemies, and acquiring more amazing power-up tokens. While this may not sit well for gamers looking to “beat” a game, it offers a strangely compelling and highly challenging experience to gamers willing to lose themselves in the never-ending struggle to become more powerful, and flaunt it by stomping stronger enemies.
When enemies are polluting the screen with an unending hailstorm of projectiles of various sizes, IaSFS hits its stride. While there is nothing more frustrating than almost reaching a new high level, only to be busted back ten levels in rapid succession, getting that small taste of greatness will hook even the most hardened of shmup fans.