SpaceVenture review – Funny but flawed adventure fills a needed gap for Space Quest fans
SpaceVenture has a Star Wars problem. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fun game and if you’re a fan of the developers’ previous work, you’re probably going to like it. But therein lies the Star Wars problem. If you’re a follower of George Lucas’s classic sci-fi franchise, you’ve seen the original enough times to know that 2015’s The Force Awakens is basically a point-for-point remake of that movie. Granted, there’s a whole new cast of characters and it’s set decades after A New Hope, but the basic plot follows the course set by its originator.
The new game from legendary creators Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy does the same thing with its mimicry of their beloved Sierra series, Space Quest.
We have a hero working at his blue-collar job who is thrust into a world-spanning adventure, which is pretty much the story of Sierra’s 1989 Space Quest III. All the major plot points, and a large number of the puns, are directly lifted from that game, although they’ve been given a modern facelift. Instead of space janitor Roger Wilco on an empty junk freighter, the star here is space plumber Ace Hardaway on an empty space station. Instead of visiting fast-food chain Monolith Burgers (a McDonalds parody), Ace instead visits Taco Nova, a Taco Bell parody. One of the early quests in both games is to repair your spaceship.
The similarities don’t end there. There is an arcade game that you are able to play within the larger game, Cluck Yegger as opposed to Astro Chicken, while Arnoid the Annihilator’s role of “annoying baddie but not the big bad” is now taken by Officer Quicksilver, another riff on the Terminator movies. And most importantly, the main plot revolves around the Two Guys from Andromeda, game developers whose work is hijacked by an evil corporation.
There are plenty more examples of the way SpaceVenture copies Space Quest III, but the reality is that, like Star Wars fans, if you’re a Space Quest fan, you’re so starved for new material that you’ll gladly accept it. Especially if it’s from the original creators, and it’s well done. And that’s the real question that must be answered here, because while there’s so much that does work in this game, there’s also a lot that is just downright disappointing even after may protracted years in development.
SpaceVenture tells the story of a day in the life of Ace, a plumber making a service call to a space station. Along for the ride is Rooter, Ace’s mechanical dog companion. Rooter acts primarily as an all-in-one plumber’s tool, but with the ability to think for itself and carry out tasks. Ace isn’t a hero, but through events that he just wanders into through the course of his work, he ends up needing to save the galaxy. It would be fair to say that while the story is good and comes to a satisfying conclusion, its pacing is off, with the balance of establishing the character of Ace and his occupation outweighing the main narrative at times.
The villains are introduced early but any link to Ace or what he is doing is unclear until late in the game. Milo is a computer developer baby genius with a giant head, intent on releasing his new system to the universe, while iMom, one of the better characters here, is a sentient app who mothers and controls Milo. Veronica is another character who emerges a number of times throughout SpaceVenture, leaning into the trope of the viewer knowing she is the same person each time she appears while the other characters do not, merely that she seems familiar to them.
All of the characters are well-voiced and help to immerse you in the experience, with the exception of the Two Guys themselves, but that is an issue of audio quality rather than performance and is forgivable because it’s actually the Two Guys (Crowe and Murphy) themselves doing their own voices. There are some nice touches, like adding an echo to voices when characters are in a large cavernous room, and Ed Kelly, the actor voicing the narrator, does a very good impersonation of the late Gary Owens from the Space Quest games.
Musically the game delivers a great space-faring theme song, again reminiscent of Space Quest, and there is an excellent nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a great “Bad to the Bone” parody when you first meet Officer Quicksilver, and an intentionally annoying over-the-top song by the staff at Taco Nova. The score always nicely serves the atmosphere and doesn’t become too obtrusive. In the opening space station scenes, a nice drum beat builds the mood to indicate that something mysterious is going on. Ace dropping a heavy item on the floor with a resounding thud, or him noisily eating a burger represent the sorts of sound effects used effectively throughout.
The biggest drawcard of SpaceVenture is the stylish background art. Every area you explore is an event, from the sparse grey space station to the scrapyard where you spend a good portion of your adventure. The scrapyard is full of, well, scrap, but every detail adds to the visual experience and contributes a sense of scope and size to the place. Another location is the biodome where The Two Guys live. Within the floating biodome is a tropical jungle complete with their own beach, which is where you initially find the pair relaxing when you arrive to fix their plumbing problems. There are also some nice uses of the camera pulling back to reveal more of the current environment at times.
Nurbs, the local bar where you regularly hang out with Ace’s two alien pals Nurb and Url, is where the puns and parody really come alive. The walls are decorated with advertising for all sorts of futuristic alcohols like Imperial Stout, Keronian Ale, and Beam Me Up Jim. You’ll also spot a Wookie and Buzz Lightyear sitting at the bar, and with a click of the eye cursor on Buzz you’ll get the response, “Look! A Space Ranger!”
If you want a game that holds your hand through all these pretty backgrounds, you’re not going to find that here. SpaceVenture is as unforgiving as any Sierra game ever was. It’s not quite moon logic, having to guess what the designer thought to solve a puzzle rather than what would be logical within the in-game universe, but at times you don’t really know why you would do something other than because nothing else seems to be advancing the story. For example, you need to place Rooter on an elevated surface for one puzzle but there’s really no reason given for doing so, other than Rooter has the ability to walk.
There are quite a number of puzzles in SpaceVenture that aren’t standard inventory obstacles. There are plenty of those too, but there are others like flying your spaceship through stargates and navigating the intergalactic expressway that veer towards being minigames. Some of these puzzles are skippable by clicking on a fast-forward button in the bottom right corner of the screen, but they aren’t generally so onerous that I ever needed to use it.
What sets SpaceVenture apart in the puzzle department is Rooter, Ace’s mechanical dog. As a gameplay mechanic, it’s great to be able to switch to Rooter and control him as a solution to a obstacle. Early on, Rooter is used extensively as a drill (you’re able to change the drill heads to different sizes and shapes). It is also able to shoot a wire from itself to take or hold things, and to use its tongue to press buttons or move things. All these functions come in handy when Ace gets into dangerous situations and Rooter needs to save him. Sometimes, anyway. Ace is still very capable of dying, and in gruesome ways like being eaten by a sand worm, although these deaths will only result in him respawning at the beginning of the scene – a nice way of being able to enjoy death scenes without the need to restore a saved game.
Unfortunately, one of the major disappointments with SpaceVenture is in some of its design choices. Player frustration is not a gameplay mechanic, yet it seems to be the most used. One of the puzzles is timed, and although there is a way to increase your time, it’s not immediately evident and caused me a lot of aggravation. Two puzzles involve getting Ace to align things, the first being quite fun as it involves positioning pipes to allow water to flow freely, while the other requires aligning three colours within a short timeframe before it resets. Once you have aligned the colour, you repeat this process another five times.
In two places, a similar closeup of a cluttered table demands dragging the scattered mess around to see what is underneath. Repetition is also the name of the game when you have to locate the three parts you require to build and then repair your spaceship. Those parts are hidden in junk piles, and you have to use a giant magnet to move junk around until you see them, then once you find them you have to load them onto a transport and take them back to the repair bay one at a time before returning. It’s not an enjoyable experience and these needlessly tedious gameplay mechanics just spoil the fun.
Frustrations can abound even from basic activities. You may need to exit a scene and come back for no in-game reason for the story to progress, or leave a character to go and look at a specific detail before you can return and interact with them. Another frustrating design choice come from a code you find on an easily transported object, but the game doesn’t allow you to pick up the item so you’ll need to literally write it down yourself. These and other similar situations really pull you out of the experience when they so easily could have been avoided.
Very occasionally, if you don’t do anything “correctly” for a while, Ace will give you a hint as to what you’re supposed to do, which is welcome for some of the more obscure puzzles, as is the list of quests available when you open your phone. The latter is accessed through a button on the icon menu and has your standard settings and save/load buttons, as well as some gameplay apps such as text messages used to chat with potential plumbing clients, an app that allows you to control Rooter, and an online store where you can download more apps like “Booty Sniffer” and “Fuber” that will be useful in your adventures. Other apps like “Spacebook,” are there just for comedic effect.
It’s worth noting that the “Settings” button on the opening screen doesn’t work, which leads us to the other great disappointment with SpaceVenture: the interface. In a word, it’s garbage.
The point-and-click interface is a Sierra-style icon wheel with the options to walk, look, touch, talk, open your phone, and open your inventory, yet even for a tried-and-true system used in many games over the years, it is very poorly implemented. What you’d expect to happen is that right-clicking over a hotspot would open the icon wheel to choose from, and then the interaction based on your selection would occur automatically on the spot you clicked. In SpaceVenture, however, when the icon wheel is open, selecting the icon you want merely changes the mouse cursor to the selected icon, which you then have to click a second time on whatever you want to interact with. It’s double the work and pointless in a 6-7 hour long game.
What’s worse is that when you have selected the “look” icon and click on something, hoping for that witty Two Guys humour, chances are nothing at all will happen. The lack of hotspots is very noticeable because the mouse cursor glows yellow over something interactive, although this in itself seems broken as sometimes it will glow and no interaction will occur while other times it glows but the interaction is not where it’s glowing. It’s worth mentioning that even basic issues such as typos and capitalisations have been missed, which would take virtually no effort to fix.
The interface honestly feels like it’s not finished. It appears to be random what can or can’t be clicked on, and although there are some funny lines of non-essential dialog, they’re so scarce that for the most part only the things that progress the story are playable. Another issue with the “look” function is that while clicking the mouse will dismiss a line of dialogue you may have already heard, it treats the new click as if you’ve engaged the hotspot and will start the reading all over again. This also happens with other controls: you’re able to sometimes click, thinking it’s only the interface, when in fact the game is registering your click on what is underneath.
The biggest flaw with the interface, however, is the save system. What a hot mess. Having been a backer of this game since it was announced in 2012, the updates have consistently referenced problems with the save system, so I was disappointed to see the “solution” after a whole decade was to show a warning when you open the save menu saying, “Due to the complexity of this area, saving and restoring here will start you at the beginning of this scene.” So a game that is no more complex than any Sierra adventure game released in the 1990s barely has a save system at all, just a checkpoint system in which you have to manually record your progress.
For years the release of SpaceVenture was delayed because it simply wasn’t finished. Unfortunately, even after its long-awaited release to backers and a promise to launch publicly soon after, it appears it still isn’t. It feels like the producers just pushed it out the door because ten years of production was long enough, and no other fixes were forthcoming. The good news is that there’s the core of a great game underneath, which does exactly what any fan of the Two Guys from Andromeda want. It’s a new Space Quest game in everything but name, just with a lot of messy bugs and loose ends to clean up. Where’s a space janitor when you need one?
It’s a shame that the lack of polish really lets it down in its current state, as at its core SpaceVenture is a funny, good-looking game with an interesting story that will surely be enough to satisfy Space Quest fans.
- Background art is beautiful and exceptionally detailed
- Voice work is great
- Humour and story are both satisfying
- Repetitive and frustrating puzzles with some near-moon-logic solutions
- Interface is poorly designed
- Absolute dumpster fire of a save system
Shawn played SpaceVenture on PC using his own Kickstarter backer copy of the game.
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