When the developers of the excellent BIT.TRIP games announce that they're releasing a rhythm action adventure, that's enough of a reason for people to stop and take notice. When that very game looks to be shaping up to be a cross between Rez and Child of Eden, you throw out your work for the week of release because you're relatively sure that you'll be absolutely in love with what they come up with and will need all of that time to fully appreciate it.
Laserlife unfortunately stands as testament to the fact that "relatively sure" isn't the same as "absolutely sure."
The game is pitched as "an interactive biography about a dead astronaut floating through deep space who is discovered by future intelligences who have no concept of humankind" which is intriguing enough. These explorers of deep space have technology available that can extract the physical elements of memories so you, playing as them, set about doing just that.
The memories are collected and reformed by floating through the astronaut's now defunct consciousness on rails, controlling a pair of streams of light that jut out in front of you. Each analogue stick corresponds with one of the streams and each stage is split up into three distinct sections. To begin with, you're pointing the streams at geometric shapes as they come toward you, pressing the right or left trigger to "collect" them in time with the beat of the ambient music. Right off the bat, the Xbox One controller's triggers – as fantastic as they are – aren't the ideal tools to use when trying to hit something with perfect timing. There's too much range there for you to reliably fire a command on the very millisecond that you need to. There also isn't enough audio feedback, given that every memory portion you pick up plays out as a tremendously weak hi-hat strike that feels somewhat at odds with the soundtrack, rather than being something that enhances it.
Still, when you complete that section, you're on to the strongest portion, guiding the streams of light through panels that appear in front of you. Finally, you're thrust into a tube where barricades appear in front of you, and you must guide the streams of light as one, so they don't collide with anything. As a final hurrah, you randomly move the sticks for a spell to draw the memories out of the dead spaceman once and for all and turn them into a representation of a physical object. A toy train to represent his childhood or a spacecraft to represent his work, and so on and so on.
The developers say that the game is an exploration of what it means to be human and that you should feel as if you know the astronaut by the time you're done playing, since "your knowing holds value in the knowing itself."
Pretentious? Absolument! Entertaining? Not so much.
Laserlife's main problem is that the gameplay isn't strong enough to draw you back in time and again, yet the whole thing is intensely repetitive as if the developers believe that it is. The stages on offer are absolutely identical in terms of how they play - although later levels bring two new moves to the initial "memory collection" section of each - and no matter how badly you do, you always seem to progress, even on the toughest difficulty setting. That means that the game is accessible to pretty much anyone of course, but it also means that boredom sets in relatively quickly. The scoring system is bottom-heavy and reliant on a chain multiplier that can boost things by up to a factor of forty. This means that you can hit every one of a few hundred targets perfectly in the first two sections of a level, crash into a single barricade in the final section, and find that you're not going to get a score that's even remotely competitive because that single mistake has reset your multiplier and you now can't reap the benefits of the stacks of points that are on offer during the stick-waggling end-of-level sequence.
Not only that, but some will find that holding both thumbsticks outwards for the duration of most levels is actually quite uncomfortable to do. Is the developer trying to teach us that the human experience is pain and that we're all just floating around on this spherical rock aimlessly and that our desires are meaningless? Or are they just trying to take our focus away from the fact that the soundtrack, which lacks the urgency and flair of similar titles?
The story doesn't save things either, we're sad to say. You know the ending before you start – the astronaut is dead – so there's not even any intrigue to be had as to what the conclusion is. Throw that into the mix with the fact that the memories you do uncover are so very sparse that they don't fill in any of the blanks about his life, and the whole thing starts to feel like a bit of an experiment in futility. One later level does touch upon the events that caused him to end up floating helplessly in space via recordings of radio communications between him and earth, and is the standout simply because it provides something other than heavy-handed symbolism set on a canvas of lacklustre gameplay.
While Laserlife's concept is actually quite interesting to begin with, the way things are presented across the game's two hours is so limited that there's not enough there for it to be memorable. Outside of the game, you're not actually an alien lifeform with no knowledge of humankind, so finding out that the dead astronaut once owned a teddy bear or lived in a house is not the remotest bit surprising or interesting. Some will take solace in the somewhat simplistic gameplay and be hooked on its psychedelic charms as there is the occasional high point to be found, but repetition and poor choices in terms of the control scheme will undoubtedly get in the way of that for most.