ASA: A Space Adventure review
Note: Since time of writing this game has been re-released in a Remastered Edition with high-res graphics and rebuilt in a completely new engine for improved performance and stability. This review is based on the original version.
NASA may have been in a financial slump these last few years, but our fascination with the great unknown that is our universe has never diminished. Are we alone? Are there other life forms out there? Are they watching us? These questions are the focus of ASA: A Space Adventure, a slideshow puzzle-solving game independently developed largely by one man, Simon Mesnard. For those of you who miss the days of Myst and are looking for a challenging puzzle game with a great sci-fi premise, you will be more than satisfied with what ASA has to offer.
In ASA, a nameless astronaut is distracted from his work by a mysterious black cube floating in the middle of space. Entranced by it, he attempts to reach the object, but to do so he must cut off his own oxygen supply (a baffling move to say the least) and is left to drift in the vacuum of space. Instead of dying though, he is transported to an enormous seemingly-abandoned spacecraft. That's where the player takes over, but before you can even get a sense of your surroundings, another spacesuit-clad figure emerges to steal your recently acquired cube. Your task, naturally, is to explore this strange ship (or the Ark as it's called), find the thief, retrieve the cube, and try to discover who built the Ark and for what purpose.
Where ASA shines is its puzzles, which are integrated organically into the story and its environments. There are a few inventory puzzles scattered through the game, but for the most part obstacles range from a somewhat casual nature, like navigating a maze to get across a lake, to the incredibly challenging, such as deciphering an entire alien language. One puzzle that involves knowledge of colour theory should prove particularly challenging for those (like me) who haven't studied it in years. At one point, you'll even find yourself attempting to figure out what can only be described as a DOS-prompt computer system. Having grown up with DOS, I had a lot of fun remembering how to use it, but I can imagine it would be more difficult for those only familiar with modern day operating systems.
Before the game begins, you're advised you to keep a notebook handy. It's advice that you would do best to heed. Every scribbled note or inscription you come across proves important at some point. Right from the first minute of gameplay, it's obvious that you're going to need to take copious amounts of notes to get through the majority of the puzzles. You'll find many number sequences and codes throughout the ship, although it's not always immediately apparent why they might be needed. Despite the complexity of the puzzles, however – or perhaps because of it – they are all enjoyable and the satisfaction of solving them is definitely worth the effort.
As engaging as the puzzles usually are, there may be moments where you will bang your head against the keyboard in frustration, trying to figure out what on earth you could be missing. One such moment for myself was an extremely obscure diary entry that I had missed on my first few sweeps of the ship, which proved to be a vital clue to opening a door. ASA does almost no hand-holding, but persevering through the frustration is even more rewarding because of it. MAID, your invisible virtual AI companion, gives the occasional nudge in the right direction, but for the most part you are left on your own to scour every corner of the ship for clues, then piece them together correctly. For those truly stuck, the game does provide a walkthrough with the download, although I avoided it as much as possible in order to appreciate the challenge more.
Nothing is revealed about the background or motivations of your character. Much like Myst, ASA leaves it to you to imagine yourself in the shoes of the astronaut and there is little to your story other than “follow that cube”. That doesn't mean there is no story at all, however. Very early you discover that you are not the only Earthling to have been drawn in by the cube. An astronaut named Phillipe Forte also found his way onto the ship, leaving diaries and notes lying around for anyone who happened to follow in his footsteps. This helps to justify the presence of English clues scattered about an alien spacecraft, but more importantly it also provides a great narrative device. As you read Forte's journals and see his influence on the ship, you can't help but get drawn into his emotional journey. It's amazing how invested I got in a character that I had never even met.
What doesn't work as well, unfortunately, is the voice acting for Forte. Each diary entry is recited by him, and frankly I wish there had been an option to turn off the voice. Most of the time he sounds either mildly curious or somewhat annoyed and bored. It might not have bothered me so much except that at one point the diary clearly indicates that Forte had started going crazy, but from his voice it sounded more like he'd run out of milk for his cereal. It's a shame, because it detracted from an otherwise intriguing backstory.
The graphics are all photorealistic, but apart from a few small water effects they remain static outside of the cinematics. I'll admit, I was a little afraid upon starting ASA that I would be walking through the same sterile sci-fi environments for the entire game. Thankfully, all the rooms you explore on the ship are as varied as they are beautiful, and eventually you'll venture out to other planets. One room is filled with surprisingly Earth-type technology and alien posters which can all gradually be translated. Another has a photo of Forte's lost loved ones. There's even a greenhouse complete with waves of heat rising from vents. Once you reach the planets, you’ll be met with even more variety: dusty mountainous terrains, vast ocean expanses dotted with rocky islands, mines deep under the earth, and a towering village, to name a few.
Although there are only few large cutscenes in ASA, when they do occur the sight can be pretty spectacular, especially a mine cart ride you take on one of the planets which left my head spinning by the end, or watching yourself teleport from the ship down to a planet's surface. If there's any real graphical drawback in this game, it's that the viewable area is limited to a narrow rectangle in the middle of the screen. Perhaps this is a limitation of its game engine, but it would have been nice to experience ASA on my entire computer screen without all the wasted space.
It's the attention to detail which really helps you lose yourself in the world of the Ark, and the music that accompanies the action only enhances the sense of melancholy and desolation that hangs over the entire craft. It makes the mystery of what happened to the civilization that created the Ark (and what might have happened to Forte) seem all the more tragic. The ambient tones are always present, but the looping never seems repetitive, which is a blessing considering how much time you end up spending in some of the rooms. The effects also help make the extraterrestrial backdrop more believable, from the low hum of machines to the waves of an ocean to the sound of a keyboard as you type on alien computers.
Although the graphics are gorgeous and the environments expansive, they can be difficult to navigate, which sometimes creates more frustration than the puzzles themselves. Movement is controlled with a combination of slideshow clicks and 360-degree mouse panning. On the plus side, there is a “quick turnaround” icon which makes reversing your tracks somewhat less cumbersome. On the downside, it's not always certain whether the directional indicator you click on will take you to the location you desire or the angle you expect. More than once I found myself turned around three or four times in a row before finally finding my destination. The worst culprit is an abandoned village with 10-15 very similar looking huts built on multiple levels. Just when I thought I had figured what each movement icon meant, suddenly one would whisk me somewhere unexpected and I would be lost for another ten minutes, begging my screen to just please let me get across a room.
Hotspots can also be difficult to find. Oftentimes the reason I got stuck on a puzzle was simply because I had missed a tiny object or document while searching, and I would have to pixel hunt every screen to search for anything I might have overlooked. It could be argued that this adds to the challenge of the game, since it's never obvious what objects you might be able to pick up, but sometimes it was difficult to find what I needed even with a walkthrough. This is especially true of the diarie entries, which are small and hidden amongst other objects.
These are nitpicks though, especially compared to the biggest problem I encountered in ASA: the installation of the game itself. When I ran the game for the first time, I simply got an error message and was forced to abort. I read the Readme file and checked my system. I read the forums for help. I attempted to install it on my friend's machine with the same results. I prayed to the computer gods. Finally, after finding a Media Player codec and installing the game for a fifth time I was able to get it up and running. It was very aggravating at the time, but Mesnard has shown a commitment to taking feedback seriously, and has already released a patch that should hopefully deal with this problem for others. Both the patch and the downloadable game itself can be found on the developer's website.
I'm glad I persevered to get ASA: A Space Adventure running. Play time can range anywhere between 10-15 hours depending on how easily you power through the puzzles. It's been a while since I've played a game like this, and it was incredibly fun to delve into its engaging gameplay and backstory. The care and attention to detail is obvious, an effort that's even more admirable in what was essentially a one-man operation. It's hard not to draw comparisons to Myst with its slideshow presentation, photorealistic environments and complex puzzles (even the developer acknowledges this in a delightfully clever Easter Egg), and those who are not fans of solitary puzzle-adventures should probably avoid ASA. For the rest of you though, this is one space adventure you won't want to miss.