Review: Fission Superstar X
Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect
These days, most roguelikes offer you the chance to become a veritable deity of destruction if you play your cards right. Following in the grimy, reeking footsteps of The Binding of Isaac, many popular roguelikes gained that popularity through spectacle and absurdity baked into their mechanics. But long ago, roguelikes were a battle for strained resources, with life or death riding on what you did with your last potion or wand charge. Fission Superstar X feels like a return to that struggle, a journey where you’re never going to be more than a bullet or sawblade away from death, and where every credit could determine if you cross that line or not. It can be tough to hang with, given its challenges, so it’s a good thing there’s a lot of fun to be had even when you’re flaming out.
Dr. Leopold of Planet X is a man with a plan. He’s perfected a world-killing bomb, the great and terrible Celine, and has her all strapped and ready for an interstellar tour. But she won’t be blowing up just any old planet. No, Celine’s going to be a star, putting on shows and concerts at every port of call as the doctor’s illicit ship evades authorities and raiders to live the dream. No doubt Celine will explode eventually, maybe if she doesn’t get the warm reception she so richly deserves, but Leopold wants as many of the solar system’s denizens to appreciate her majesty as possible. Yep, he’s a man with a plan. A crazy-ass plan, but that’s why he’s got clones to carry it out for him.
Every run of Fission Superstar X starts with you cloning a new pilot from whatever genes you collected in your last run, hopefully granting her higher base skills. Then you pick your ship from one of the six unlockable vessels, select another crewmate or a better gun, and blast off from Planet X. You’ve got a long haul ahead of you across the solar system, with about 10 steps between each planet. You can choose how many steps to take forward (or backward, sometimes) after each level, which will end you up facing different space horrors and arriving at different shops and services between each encounter. The only constant are the planets you stop at, each with some grotesque figure to gun down for Celine’s glory.
The actual combat is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up, featuring your meaty ship front and center. It’s divided into quadrants with their own health, and if any of your quadrants is blown out your odyssey is over. One of your four possible crew is situated in each quadrant, and they man a turret you control with the mouse. If you want full cannon coverage around your ship (and you do, because foes can approach from anywhere), you’ll need a full crew compliment, and you’ll need to keep them alive because some attacks do more damage to crew than hull. Combat sequences last from one to three minutes, during which time enemy ships will approach and you’ll have to fend them off, pretty much by killing them.
This ain’t the nimble Vic Viper or R-9A Arrowhead, though. Your ship is a giant hunk of junk, and so are the enemies that come to pick it apart. Unless you take a light vessel and upgrade the handling it’s going to lumber drunkenly around the screen, and it takes up so much space that fine maneuvering around foes is impossible. Fortunately, most of your enemies will only have cannons facing certain directions, so you can approach from a blind spot and take them apart. Just make sure you don’t have blind spots yourself, of course. As long as you have a science officer, you also have a shield you can project in a limited cone to protect yourself from bullets. For chainsaws, buzzsaws, and space cows, though, you’d best stay out of the way.
If Leopold and his starlet warhead didn’t give it away, this is a pretty gonzo game. Your foes can appear on space motorcycles with sawblade wheels, or strapped to the front of rocket ships. You might fly through clusters of space cows or whales you can gib for cash, or be chased by a giant vomiting space baby whose head you can explode. You can equip guns and beam cannons, or chainsaws to jam into the hulls of enemies. Your crew might be clones, robots, dogs, space worms, or sock puppets. And you can waste your money on dressing up your bomb. Everything in Fission Superstar X is gross, weird, and hilarious, which helps take the edge off when your ship of misfits gets atomized by a giant mutant baby with a revolver.
That’s going to happen a lot, too. As I alluded to earlier, your survival is balanced on the edge of a knife here, a dull, rusty knife thrown into a washing machine set to high. The money you get from blowing up ships has to go to hiring crew, buying guns and ammo, repairs, ship upgrades, and medical expenses, and letting any one of those slide could mean your doom. Cash isn’t even that easy to come by, because it pours out of exploding hulks and you need to be behind them or right next to them to snap it up. Your crew gets to do something after each level but that’s another tough split between letting the engineer fix the ship or the doctor fix the crew, or having your scientist make everyone hardier or your pilot make all their skills more effective.
Between the chaotic combat, the extreme encounters, and the limited resources, you’re going to die a lot. I’ve made it to Neptune once on the back of a really lucky set of chainsaws I picked up, but until you get good at the combat and lucky with your stops, your runs may be rather short. It’s a long game, too, with one run taking a handful of hours if you go the distance, and the difficulty mounting the whole way. And for real masochists, you can turn off the delicate balancing of enemy ships, weapons, and encounters to make it even more impossible. There’s the potential for frustration here, but it’s diffused by the gonzo presentation, charming pixel art, and raw thrills of grungy space combat. There aren’t many roguelikes out there that can claim the same, so if you’re ready to strap on a bomb and rocket to your doom, you’ll have quite an adventure ahead.