Have you ever found a game hard going before realising that you only had yourself to blame? That was my experience with Orbital Bullet for the first hour or so, finding myself in an early grave due to a penchant for power weapons. The likes of the grenade launcher pack a punch, but if you get caught in the blast radius, you’ll take damage too. A good reminder that the biggest gun isn’t necessarily the best.
Indeed, Orbital Bullet has all the trapping of a run ‘n gunner but plays vastly differently, requiring a change of tactics. This is down to its wrap-around level design – randomly generated circular cylinders, recalling the early PS4 release Resogun. Here, you’re tasked with destroying all enemies before jetting to floors either above or below. Occasionally cylinders adjacent too, via a swift transition by an elevator, zipline, or rocket. After beating several levels, a boss battle commences – with the goal being to take down a hierarchy of twisted interplanetary councillors.
It’s an experience that isn’t quite as gimmicky as it may sound, making good use of the types of hazards and challenges that could only exist within circular stages.
This includes an arsenal of searing lasers and sniper rifles with shots that wrap around the entire battlefield. Thankfully, it isn’t possible to headshot yourself – although I was initially wary. Enemies that can only be attacked from behind are common, and some foes will linger within an inner circle and throw projectiles into your path. A few set-pieces also form part of the algorithm for stage generation, with the jungle planet featuring a platforming section filled with buzzsaws. The opening cave biome occasionally features pulsating waves that must be rhythmically leaped over every few seconds too.
Auto-generation goes far beyond level layouts as most of Orbital Bullet’s elements are randomised in some way. Each run begins with a random weapon drop – which includes shotguns, rifles, lasers, cannonball launchers, and even bola shots – and ranges can wildly vary. Perks, such as life steal and credit boosters, are found haphazardly while chests dole bonuses for beating times or achieving set kill counts. Shops feature too, again with a couple of random items to choose from – including health packs and single-use key cards that open chests. Even the skill tree is formed dynamically, allowing you to add rows throughout a run.
When a run comes to an end a skill tree appears that gradually unlocks permanent upgrades – everything from health and shield boosts to randomly appearing portals and a new combo system. These permanent unlocks are your key to eventual success, as you’re going to need all the help you can get to beat the bosses – all of which have sizeable health bars and deceptive attack patterns.
There’s quite a bit to experiment with here, right down to a choice of four-character classes. But at the same time, there’s also a little too much. Just before I sat down to pen this review, I discovered a menu where a unique currency could be spent on weapon unlocks, blueprint permitting. The character class swap facility is quite easy to overlook too; I feel most players will forget about trying new types.
The amount of screens and menus to wade through during a single playthrough does slow the pacing a tad. Occasionally finding a level exit also calls for some backtracking, merely instructing you to teleport to a ring with an exit.
Visually it’s appealing enough but lacking in pizzaz – the main character is rather nondescript, and the enemy design isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. If you’re expecting luscious screen-melting effects then you may be disappointed – it focuses purely on tidy pixel art. Loading times between stages are a little long, while the trance music soundtrack reminded me of the first WipEout on PlayStation. Which included tracks from Orbital, funnily enough.
Orbital Bullet is a slow burner that sporadically burns bright. To make decent headway you’ll need to put the hours in and knuckle down on unlocking as much of the permanent upgrade skill tree as possible. I had runs where I was delightfully overpowered from the outset and runs where I felt like all the odds were stacked against me…before entering a boss battle while on death’s door. Not a game for instant gratification, then, but certainly one you can chip away at.
SmokeStab’s Orbital Bullet is out now on Switch. It first launched on PC.