You’re an astronaut who’s been sent into space on a shuttle mission. You put on your suit, secure your booster jetpack, and stand before the vast, cold, zero-G emptiness. You’ve been dreaming about this day since you were a child, and your heart is pumping like mad under all your heavy gear. You take a breath and kick off into the void, completely untethered and terrifyingly, thrillingly free. It’s only then, as you fuss with your jetpack’s controls and start to spin and twirl faster and faster away from the shuttle, that you realize you have no idea how to work your jetpack. You really should have read the instructions.
That’s a public service announcement for astronauts thinking about going on a spacewalk unprepared. The first time you play–take our word for it–you’ll be unprepared.
Your job in Astronaut Spacewalk is to drift around the shuttle or satellite you’re tasked with maintaining, snatching up floating debris and making vital fixes to the hull. The idea is to use precise jetpack boosts to carefully maneuver from one waypoint to another in each level. Navigate to them all, and you’ll unlock the next level, which sends you to a different space structure, be it a satellite, Skylab, or the Russian MIR space station.
It’s just like parking a boat… except with an extra dimension.
But back to those controls. Even if you’re a NASA employee yourself, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed when you first boot up Astronaut Spacewalk. The screen is divided into a brain-busting grid of buttons with tiny, abbreviated labels. It’s confusing enough that it could crush the spirit of any aspiring astronaut before trying the game. There’s an operation manual you can page through from the main menu, but it’s 12 pages long, with tiny print and intimidatingly detailed diagrams. However, we urge you to spend some time at least studying the button layout, because that’s the biggest barrier of entry to this game.
Maybe the button layout is imposing on purpose–to weed out the unworthy?–but it really is needlessly complicated. The left side of the screen has buttons to move you forward, backward, up, down, left, and right. Each tap of a button makes your backpack release a puff of propulsion that pushes you in the corresponding direction. The right side of the screen has buttons to turn or rotate your astronaut on all axes, complete with pitch, yaw, and roll. The middle of the screen is dedicated to the camera controls, which make your view pan around your character or re-center on his back.
We were able to grasp what was going on in about five minutes, after sending our astronaut off into the hopeless black void a couple of times. One thing that helped us was to commit the location of the “null” button to muscle memory. The earlier you discover this button the better, because no matter how fast or out of control you wind up spinning, null stops it. Be warned, though, that pressing null uses electricity, which you have in limited supply.
Oh, is that all?
That’s all there is to the game–propelling yourself around real manmade structures in outer space–but it’s really pretty awesome. Unlike most iOS games, you won’t find any aliens or sci-fi action here, but the game doesn’t need it. All the intensity comes from the threat of losing control of your astronaut, or of running out of fuel or oxygen and being stranded in space. It’s actually pretty thrilling, especially when you factor in how much progress you could lose in a level if you mess up. In addition, the crazy-good graphics and background radio chatter create a highly engrossing environment.
But we can’t help wishing they’d done something to simplify the controls a little. At the very least they could’ve bound the camera controls to swipes instead of buttons. And there’s no excuse for this game not having a walkthrough-style tutorial. With controls this complex, the game’s static manual is both off-putting and insufficient. Lastly, any time you come bump into a physical object in space, be it your shuttle or the Hubble telescope, the physics get a little awkward.
Astronaut Spacewalk is not for everyone. It was designed for gamers with patience, focus, and dedication. Don’t come to this game looking for action, because you won’t find any. Don’t come to it thinking you’ll be able to blast through the levels on the first try either, because you won’t. Good lord, you won’t. But if you like a game that asks a lot of you and gives a great deal of satisfaction in return, you’ll find a unique, wonderful gaming experience here.