In today’s triple-A gaming world, developers are asking themselves the same question over and over again: is it better to do one thing extremely well, or to offer a mixed buffet of gameplay styles and options? Both approaches have worked for different games in the past; Dark Souls has one central gameplay loop that it builds upon to great success, while Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto have offered their players many and varied genres within each instalment. There’s no right answer here, and developers should simply pick the approach that works best for their game.
It’s a question we find ourselves pondering when we turn to Genesis Alpha One, a roguelike shooter and base-building hybrid. The game comes to us from German developer Radiation Blue, and it’s their first title, so nobody could ever accuse them of a lack of ambition when entering the gaming space. Publishing duties are being handled by British studio Team17, who are enjoying a solid run of publishing form with games like hectic multiplayer cook-off Overcooked and sedate Metroidvania platformer Yoku’s Island Express.
Genesis Alpha One is an entirely different proposition to both of those games in many ways, as it eschews the cartoony visual style for which Team17 is largely known in favour of a more realistic and gritty aesthetic. Players control the captain of one of the titular Genesis starships, cruisers sent out into space to find new planets to colonise after Earth is ravaged by overexploitation. Visually, we’re more in the region of 2017’s Prey reboot or Bethesda’s 2016 DOOM re-imagining, dingy space corridors juxtaposed with lush verdant life.
In many ways, the visual mish-mash of Genesis Alpha One extends to the gameplay as well. At first glance, the game seems like an unruly hybrid of roguelikes, first-person shooters, base-building management games and survival titles. From roguelikes, it takes its randomly-generated universe and crew members, while its customisable ships and crafting elements are lifted straight from games like Subnautica. It’s not an immediately welcoming mixture, and it will take most players a while to get acquainted with Genesis Alpha One’s more unforgiving quirks (it’s possible, for example, to blow a hole in one’s own spaceship hull, leading to a cascade of disasters that will almost inevitably result in death).
Like the best survival games, though, Genesis Alpha One is also a learning experience. Each time another clone is generated, you’ll learn more about the world around you and how to navigate it, so every life is (theoretically) better and more successful than the one before. Of course, this being a roguelike, there is a certain amount of RNG (random number generation) involved in things like alien invasions and the hostility levels of the planets around you, but if you’re familiar with this genre at all then you’ll be au fait with the risks you take on when you start playing.
If you’re looking for something that feels more ambitious than your standard roguelike or survival game, Genesis Alpha One will scratch that itch more than amply. There’s a tech tree which offers the ability to research new ship technologies, weapon upgrades and gadgets. The tech tree is a little basic for our liking, and we’d have liked to see more ambition in terms of the types of gadgets on offer – they’re very standard sci-fi toys like forcefields, pulse rifles and other such staples. Of course, in a game so wildly ambitious, it’s nice to have a few anchor points to remind you of familiar territory.
Perhaps the most surprising – and endearing – thing about Genesis Alpha One is the way in which it mixes its po-faced aesthetic with an organic and engaging sense of fun. The game doesn’t expect you to survive the ridiculous smorgasbord of enemies and hazards it throws at you – not at first, anyway – and some of the ways in which you can die (see aforementioned spaceship hull disaster) are outright hilarious. The game never draws attention to its humour in the way that, say, Sunset Overdrive or Saints Row do – instead, it allows players to absorb its lessons in their own way, learning and growing along with their character.
The best way to describe Genesis Alpha One for an elevator pitch would be to throw Alien Isolation, No Man’s Sky, Don’t Starve and FTL: Faster Than Light into a huge mixing bowl and then slap the result on a canvas. What comes out of that process isn’t necessarily as satisfying or fully-featured as any of its inspirations, but as a game that looks towards the stars, it’s surprising and commendable just how few times Genesis Alpha One falls flat. For every wonky animation, there’s a watercooler moment you can share with your friends; for every unfair death, there’s a narrow victory against an alien species that brings out the best in gaming. Don’t expect a transcendent experience with this one and you’ll have barrels of fun.