Astronaut: The Best Review
Astronaut: The Best is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be. That confidence is extremely fortunate, because there are times when I have no idea what Astronaut: The Best is even about. It is a game truly hard to categorize. Steam tags are settling on “Interactive Fiction,” which is undeniably right. So, let’s imagine that you’re a weird gamer looking for a weird game. Is Astronaut: The Best the right weird for you?
Steam tags aside, I would probably call Astronaut: The Best a management game. (But with an upward inflection: “a management game?) You play as the director of a space program on an alien planet. Your purview is a combination of all the support characters from The Martian. That means seeing to astronaut training, but it also means dealing with the press. Oh yeah, and you have to appease eccentric five high priests of your planet.
Each high priest has a specific portfolio and your choices will doubtlessly please some of them and anger the rest. That’s where the management comes in. You have to conduct your agency in a contradictory manner to keep each approval meter in the green. Every day you are greeted by a different high priest who gives you a different mission. At first, they come pretty slow. Later, you’ll be hit with more demands which makes it more likely that you’ll get your wires crossed.
Similarly, you also need to keep your astronauts in peak condition. You do this by scheduling training without exhausting them. Much like you the director, astronauts must balance their actual duties, but also public perception. Each of them had s handful of traits, stuff like ‘secret smoker’ or ‘likes weird sex stuff.’ The priests are all messy morons who have power over you. The astronauts are messy morons who you have power over, and thus you become their bully.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Laugh
Now, here’s the million dollar question. Is Astronaut: The Best a “comedy game?” It’s difficult to say. It’s definitely not serious. It seems to be aiming for Orwellian satire and stylistically, that idea comes across. But I don’t know that there was any writing in this mostly-taking game that made me laugh out loud. Perhaps it’s less ha-ha funny and more… irreverent. That’s the perfect word actually; the game is irreverent.
That tone might have worked better if the jokes were mostly about the characters. Instead, Astronaut: The Best puts its irreverence right into the gameplay. It’s baked right into the worldbuilding. But unfortunately, this makes the game sort of hard to commit to. The procedurally generated astronaut traits aren’t in a context where you can meaningfully manage them. Like, what do you do with an astronaut who likes “weird sex stuff?” The word ‘weird’ kind of implies deviance. But the whole world is so deliberately weird, maybe liking weird sex is the only normal way to be?
If the setting had one foot more in reality, I think Astronaut: The Best could better get its ideas across. The surveillance state that you serve is so alien, maybe they all like it? Producer propaganda in our world is sort of disturbing. But a Looney Tunes episode about Bugs Bunny distributing propaganda is funny, or in the very least, irreverent.
Space Age Design
Take a good look at the art style in Astronaut: The Best. The characters are all misshapen blob people. The furniture and the architecture bends at weird angles. Some items are in silhouette like a 70s underground comic book. It’s an art style that doesn’t care about your reality. It’s a perfect style to match the game. That’s why Astronaut: The Best feels so confident. The tone of the writing, the style of the graphics, the silliness of the setting, they all match to each other perfectly. So maybe Astronaut: The Best is a huge success?
It’s hard to find a point of comparison for Astronaut: The Best, but I will try. Learning about the world reminded me of Paradise Killer, a mystery game taking place in a totally gonzo tropical city. To solve the mystery, you will have to learn the rules of this weird place to understand how they were broken. It also brings to mind the Monster Prom series, which shares Astronaut: The Best’s irreverent sensibility. Astronaut: The Best lands weirdly in between them.
You have enough feedback through numbers and stats to keep the management game chugging along, so you never really have to internalize the rules of the world. And because your choices concern the greater good of an organization, you’ll never make a decision from pure emotion. I mean you can. But I doubt you’ll be so compelled by a particular astronaut’s weirdness that you’d choose to keep her around because you like her. If your astronaut’s numbers aren’t high enough to do what you want to do, fire them and hire a new rando with better numbers.
I am reminded of Sid Meier’s often repeated quote: “games are a series of interesting decisions.” I never really felt that my decisions were all that interesting in Astronaut: The Best. Either the course of action is fairly obvious, or it’s totally opaque. Click a button, find out what happens next. But then I keep looking at images from the game, which reminds me how consistent the whole experience is. I appreciate the wild swing, but ultimately, I don’t think Astronaut: The Best, is (the best.)
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- You won’t find another world like this
- Weird sense of humor
- Management game fails to grab
- Story feels scattered
- Jarring art style