Ice Caves of Europa

I’m afraid I can play this, Dave.

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents - DAVID HOLLING­WORTH

De­vel­oper Io Nor­mal • P ub­lisher Io Nor­mal • P rice $ US9.99 • A vAilAble At Steam ionor­mal.com

Some­time

in the near fu­ture, a hail of as­ter­oids smashes into the sur­face of one of the most mys­te­ri­ous bod­ies in the so­lar sys­tem – Jupiter’s icy, yet pos­si­bly watery moon, Europa. On Earth, our best and bright­est de­cide this is a great op­por­tu­nity for ex­plo­ration, so a probe is sent to in­ves­ti­gate. It’s a pretty hard sci-fi premise, but Ice Caves of Europa man­ages to marry that sense of cut­ting edge, but plau­si­ble tech­nol­ogy with a touch­ing and at times chal­leng­ing nar­ra­tive.

I’ve got to be hon­est – the thing I love most about the game is just how much I got at­tached to the game’s pro­tag­o­nist, an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence called Verne. Ice Caves dives straight into some of the deeper ques­tions that sci­ence fic­tion can ask, while also walk­ing the new player through the game’s tu­to­rial. While the probe car­ry­ing Vernes’ drone body – the Dragon­fly – to Europa is in tran­sit, Verne’s in a sim­u­la­tion learn­ing to pi­lot the hard­ware. Once the train­ing is com­plete, it will be beamed through space to its icy des­ti­na­tion.

And the train­ing is… well it starts off sim­ple, but as the game progress, and you’re tasked with new flight modes and new equip­ment, the dif­fi­culty ramps up ap­pre­cia­bly. You con­trol the Dragon­fly’s thrust in a cou­ple of modes to be­gin with, ma­neu­ver­ing the drone through 2D en­vi­ron­ment to hover in way­points for a set time to trig­ger them – this later be­comes the me­chanic for scan­ning the en­vi­ron­ment and a lot more, and is an el­e­gant way to make sim­ple con­trols feel like a much more di­verse set of skills are be­ing de­ployed.

Once on Europa, you’ll be fly­ing between a recharg­ing base sta­tion and di­rected from point to point by an or­bit­ing satel­lite – each with their own con­trol­ling AIs. And ev­ery now and then, you’ll also be down­loaded back to Earth for new train­ing – each time, Verne seems more than a lit­tle con­fused, quite aware that his free will re­ally isn’t all that free. At the start of the game, even his mem­o­ries are be­ing with­held, with the in­ten­tion that they can sim­ply be re-up­loaded later.

Oh, and huge re­spect to Io Nor­mal for the names these AIs have been given. Along­side Verne, are Wells and Banks, named after two other lu­mi­nar­ies of sci­ence fic­tion. Bravo. By com­par­i­son the hu­man char­ac­ters you en­counter seem dis­tant and at times al­most an­tag­o­nis­tic. Verne might ex­claim that some­thing sounds dan­ger­ous, but the tech­ni­cians train­ing them don’t re­ally care.

But you cer­tainly will, and as you get deeper into Europa’s sub­sur­face, things get down­right sin­is­ter.

In a lot of ways the nar­ra­tive of the game trumps the ac­tual game­play. Europa’s en­vi­ron­ments are evoca­tive, but can be a lit­tle repet­i­tive, and some of the flight modes are down­right pun­ish­ing, es­pe­cially if you’re play­ing the game in short bursts and lose the feel of fly­ing the Dragon­fly. But Verne’s charm and the deeper mys­tery be­neath Europa’s sur­face make this in­die gem more than worth­while.

In a lot of ways the nar­ra­tive of the game trumps the ac­tual game­play.

“It’s the gar­den spot of... *checks notes* Europa!”

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