Coming from Funktronic Labs, Nova-111 is a turn-based/real-time strategy/side-scrolling/exploration/puzzle game that you can see doesn’t really fit a concise description. It’s got pedigree behind it though, the developers are ex-Q Games staff who worked on the Pixel Junk series, and it’s been picking up indie game awards since it was revealed. The release on the 3 PlayStation platforms, Xbox One and Steam is imminent and might just fill the gap leading up to some of the AAA titles arriving in autumn.
Nova-111 is about exploring the aftermath of the universe’s greatest scientific experiment to rescue missing scientists from an uncertain fate. Obstacles need to be overcome, enemies thwarted, and secrets revealed in what initially seems to be a by-the-numbers 2D action/adventure romp. I don’t always stay invested with games from this genre, but fortunately there’s something unique here. Each movement of your ship around the environment is 1 turn, and these clock up in a little counter in the bottom right corner. Because you have turns, so do the enemies, and this means you can use the controlled pacing to deal with them (well, most of them, there are a few exceptions). You advance the turn by moving, or by hitting a button to “skip” a turn, and employ specific strategies for the dangers that are trying to destroy you.
Combat is initially by bumping your opponents, as is destroying some of the obstacles in the environment; and the harder the enemy, the more times you’ll need to bump into it. Dealing with one enemy is usually easy enough, tackling several at once is where the strategy really kicks in, and the turn-based pace helps figure out which move to make next. There’s a lot of focus on guerilla tactics to keep your ship in top condition because going all out to destroy everything on screen will result in mission failure pretty quickly. Numerous enemy types mix things up nicely – from creatures that just need dodging and hitting, through exploding things that don’t follow the turn system, and even Half-Life barnacle style monsters that tether you. Each has its own unique pattern adding a puzzle element to the mix, as if there wasn’t enough going on already.
To help defeat these enemies, and get around the navigation puzzles put in your way, there are various tools to be found that beef up the ship’s capabilities. A mining laser that shoots further than one space (the limit of your bump attack) also removes pesky rocks from your path; bombs can be formed that stun enemies; a shield; a phase facility allows jumping obstacles and enemies to avoid attacks; and a time manipulation device is handy for freezing all the action in place. Access to these are metered out over several areas so that you’re not overloaded at once, and you’ll spot early on that another visit to a finished zone will be needed in the future to grab all the secrets and scientists hiding there. It’s not like you’re able to use the abilities ad infinitum though, each has some form of recharge. With bombs it’s collecting Polygel (sticky yellow goo), and with the others it’s using Science (honestly, that’s what it’s called). Science has a cooldown that reduces with each turn, so stringing a phase shift, laser and time stop together needs to be managed tactically otherwise you’ll get caught short.
Getting through an area and to the warp point – well, a swirling black and white portal at least – signals the end of that section, and after three of those it’s zone complete. There are several zones in each environment, and boss battles to mark your transition to the next area. Each has a distinctive art style and introduces new enemies, hazards and more complex puzzles, yet maintains the fun tone that’s set out from the beginning. Your instructions come from a forgetful, jumpy and slightly sarcastic mission control, and each scientist you rescue is a random character with a random phrase. It’s not often enough that hamsters pop up reciting Bohemian Rhapsody in a game… Nova-111 corrects that imbalance. Audio is soothing and sound effects not at all bad, though the bumping sound can get a little grating when you’re hitting the walls often looking for hidden passages. The controls can be a little loose given that the ship only moves one square at a time, and I found switching from the analogue sticks to digital pad to be more precise.
From a difficulty perspective there’s nothing here that will trouble you as long as you remember the turn-based mechanic. When it hits the times with several things going on at once, it pays to slow down and patiently work out what needs to be done. There are no checkpoints in the levels so getting your ship destroyed means starting from scratch, and when that happens right near the exit it’s quite frustrating. That said, it’s not like hours have been spent getting there, each section is a decent size and doesn’t take long to navigate when you know where you’re going (which makes it ideal for Vita players). Having a relatively short level and loading time also promotes retracing your steps and working back through earlier levels to find those elusive lost scientists, there are 111 in total to sweep up.
What Nova-111 gives is a novel spin on a game type that could be argued has hit its peak, and Funktronic have taken their experience in producing some of the best genre titles we’ve seen and applied it here. It’s a solid game with interesting mechanics that favours the more cerebral gamer over the twitch shooter, which makes a welcome change from simply firing at monsters and dodging projectiles. Whilst it won’t last a very long time, it’s worth a look at this quirky adventure.
A review copy of Nova-111 for PS4 was provided by the Curve Studios PR team, and the game is available from 25th August 2015 on PSN and Steam/28th August on Xbox One at £11.99/€14.99/$14.99 with a 20% launch discount offer.