What is it? A cute, minimalist puzzle shooter without vertical aim.
Price: $6 / £4.79
Publisher: tinyBuild Games
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i7-6700K, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 980 Ti
Link: Steam (opens in new tab)
I have never been so angry at a pile of shapes. The greenman is two spheres on top of one another wearing a silly red triangle hat. His empty white eyes stare out at nothing, but I know he wants me dead. Raising a cannon, he fires a red sphere my way. I waddle-juke left. He fires another. Waddle-juke right. Knee-high red blobs block my way, so I reach terminal waddle and heave myself over them, flying a foot above the ground with the grace of a kicked pig. I feel like I should be out of breath, but I picture greenman’s Joan’s Fabrics clearance bin shade of hell and with an exasperated cough from my shotgun (I call it my cloudstick), I send him on his way.
That was my 15th or so attempt to take down this particular greenman, because before I could get to him, I had to collect some coins, shoot a couple bombs out of the air, and jump-shoot over the shields of a few cowardly greenies before they shot me. One bad swing of my mouse, one poorly timed misfire meant death by greenie—they’re quick—or that I wouldn’t make it to the bombs before they hit the ground. Nothing waits for you in Lovely Planet Arcade, a time attack first-person shooter that ditches y-axis aim to focus on puzzling and precision. Failure is inherent and frustrating, so shore up some patience, because Lovely Planet Arcade just wants to teach you sick tricks and make you feel nice.
Don’t look down (or up)
The basic goal in Lovely Planet Arcade is to eliminate all the greenmen in a level as quickly as possible. Up to three stars are awarded for fast runs, which require near perfect execution to achieve. You can jump (barely), shooting is hitscan based and limited to the x-axis, and movement is slow. Arcade is nothing like its predecessor, Lovely Planet, where you could leap through the air with ease and the y-axis was a canvas on which I left-clicked works of art with slowly sailing projectiles—our editor-in-chief calls it “Cup-Quake.”
Arcade is a restrained experience where the thrill of acceleration is sacrificed for the thrill of executing prescriptive shooting challenges with nearly zero room for error and as quickly as possible. The toolset is much more limited, but stretched and tested in ways I couldn’t have expected. If Lovely Planet was jazz, Lovely Planet Arcade is a classical composition. Mistakes can’t be corrected, and shooter virtuoso is determined by adherence to an specific line of tricks rather than reactive creativity. Discovering and using those shooter-tricks is the challenge.
The learning process reminds me of how I used to feel trying to kickflip down a small set of stairs on a skateboard. It’s a clearly segmented process: learn to skateboard, learn to kickflip, learn to jump stairs, and combine.
Lovely Planet Arcade starts off with just the skateboard: shoot the greenmen before they shoot you, and do it fast. Later stages add the kickflip: shoot the greenmen, fast, but every other one has a shield you need to jump to hit. And later on, the stairs: shoot the greenmen, jump for shields, but now do it while flying across the map by shooting the men with spirals on their belly—pop one and time freezes for a second before they pull you in like magnet. Tricks continue to layer: jump before you pop a spiral man so when you fly over you’ll still be elevated, and while flying, turn 90 degrees to the right and get ready to fire. There’s a shielded greenman waiting, so if you’re not elevated and second late on the trigger, he’ll shoot first.
New concepts feel impenetrable at first—discovering Act 4’s ‘twist’ was disheartening—but Lovely Planet Arcade is as caring as it is cruel. I didn’t mind repeating levels over and over because they’re so short and restarting is instant, which makes cheap shots somewhat endearing. A sneaky greenman tucked away in a corner that pegs me from behind isn’t a slap to the face, but a playful elbow nudge. Gotcha!
You sure did, damn you.
Levels employ the same tricks you’ve learned, but in new ways throughout. It can be a matter of poking at every corner of a stage with every tool in the bag until inspiration hits, but once I figure out what I’m supposed to do, the challenge becomes execution. Any window of opportunity or time wasted will mean a greenman shoots or a bomb hits the ground, so the short buffer between shots and jumps means actions have to be 100-percent intentional. Each level has a rhythm, and a single mistake means starting again, but after innumerable attempts, nailing a particularly difficult sequence makes me feel like the most talented person alive—until the next level, and so on.
Some left me stumped and excessively frustrated through poor signposting, but I haven’t lost sleep over a few stinkers out of over 100. So long as you complete a certain amount of each Act’s levels, you can move on to the next, and it’s easy to linger in Lovely Planet Arcade’s joyful construction paper world.
The entire look breaks its back to curb any frustration. Sure, the greenmen are a bit sinister, but they’re dopey bulbous snowmen, and the levels are colorful domestic playsets floating in a sunny-skied void. It looks like a five-year-old dictated the art direction to a design professional, resulting in a clean and colorful embodiment of joy, all backed by a bubbly soundtrack that wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern Nintendo game. It’s nice to play a shooter that tries so hard to lighten the mood.
Arcade’s grimmer inspirations, Doom and Wolfenstein, are mostly static, unchanging worlds, whose reward comes from trial and error, the rote memorization of mazelike arenas, and the satisfaction of using the right tool at the right time, quickly. They're about getting to know a space and its rules well enough to make it non-threatening and fun. Lovely Planet Arcade consists of similar design boiled down to a candy-coated snackable version, problems and elations included, albeit in tinier, richer doses. It lacks the acceleration and vertical thrills of other shooters, and I’m not dying to go back and beat my times, but Lovely Planet Arcade cleans up and contorts FPS design in a pure, playful package.