I bloody love roguelites. They’re a genre that I never think about when compiling lists of my favourite games because you play them completely differently to most other games: playing in relatively short sittings and taking a lot of runs at the same but randomised section and never really thinking about a story or ‘completion’ – which is remarkably similar to my opinion on my time at university. However, now that I think about it, there are so many roguelites (and rogue-likes, for the pedants) that I adore: The Binding of Isaac, FTL, Hades and, now, Orbital Bullet.
Roguelites are perfect for someone like me, with a short attention span and not a lot of spare time. You can sit down and play a complete experience, picking up from nothing and quickly being back in the swing of the game. This feature of the genre means that they have to be tight. They have to be perfect. They have to be well designed – they can’t have anything extraneous or pointless. They have to give you a reasonable cross-section of the whole game in a half-hour sitting, like an episode of Rick and Morty compared to one of Game of Thrones. All of this design comes together to provide a brilliant player experience and Orbital Bullet is no exception to this rule.
One key feature of a roguelite is the difficulty. They’re hard. You’ll fail time and time again so you’re forced to level up and face tougher challenges – in a harrowingly accurate representation of the real world. I used to think that I didn’t like difficult games but my love of roguelites and my recent time playing, loving and completing Bloodborne suggest that I might secretly be some kind of masochist. As a faithful example of the genre, Orbital Bullet is hard. You won’t get much further than the first level on your first few playthroughs and that’s all part of the charm. The enemies hit hard, you hit soft and you can’t heal at all until you’ve levelled up, meaning your health bar is all you’ve got. Any damage you take is permanent so you’re always on the path to a gruesome death (again, some hard-hitting parallels to real-life here).
The difficulty is compounded by some wonderful enemy design. It is highly varied so you need to learn the trick for tackling every single one of them. Some need you to double jump before attacking because they’re floating on the ceiling. Some need you to jump on them to remove armour before attacking them with weapons. Some have massive face-armour so can only be attacked from behind. It’s this wonderful collection of unique and detailed enemy types that makes every play-through different, with each combination offering a new challenge.
The way Orbital Bullet offsets some of this difficulty is through its progression system. There are two parts to this; the in-game upgrades that only apply to a particular run through, and the between-game upgrades that are permanent and affect every future run. Like the difference between trying to impress at a party by either wearing a fancy suit or getting a comprehensive sleeve of tattoos.
In the first category, there are in-game pickups that apply random effects to your character and weapons, such as a health boost on certain criteria or stun ammunition. That ammunition is remarkably ineffectual when thrown by hand so there weapon pickups throughout the game, allowing you to pick a pair of weapons that you like. The weapons also have types (bullet, explosion, etc.) which tie into the upgrade system. There are shops that allow you to buy weapons and other paraphernalia, along with unlocking weapon blueprints which we’ll get on to later.
Then, there’s the level up system which is 50% generic, 50% innovative, and exceptional. The generic part is a very standard tech tree, with 4 randomised options along the bottom to get you started. Upgrades are things like increased weapon damage, explosion radii, etc. However, the next tier of the tree is where things get innovative. Not only can you choose upgrade options from the tech tree, but you can also define the tech tree itself. At certain points of the game, you’ll find modules of the tech tree that you can slot into the next level. You’ll have a choice of two and then unlocks proceed as normal. It gives you a bit more choice to completely customise your character to your play style. The upgrade system also follows the normal upgrade rules, where you can only unlock things from higher tiers when you’ve unlocked the lower tier, meaning choosing a module with the upgrades you want in the correct positions, to buy them quickly, is also important.
All of the upgrading we’ve covered so far is just what happens within the game, with a new run starting you from scratch with all of those systems. However, like any good roguelite, Orbital Bullet also has permanent upgrades you can buy between games. These are more overarching level-ups – things like the ability to heal (thank the gods). Beyond this holistic system, there are also 4 classes to choose between, each of which has a specialist thrown weapon and class-specific level-ups. As mentioned earlier, there is a weapon unlock system. Once you’ve bought a blueprint for a weapon from a shop you can use it between games to add it to your arsenal of weapons that are possible to pick up in the game.
The thing that sets Orbital Bullet apart from other roguelites is right there in the name: the ‘orbital’ feature. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s 2D but not. You spend the whole game on a series of columns, swapping between new columns for new levels, like an ancient Greek parkour enthusiast. Each column is divided into several floors and you’ll work your way up to the top of the column. On each floor, you play on a circular track around the column, like a 2D plane rolled up into a circle. Each floor has a couple of these tracks in concentric circles which you can swap between. This makes every floor feel like a distinctive combat experience which you need to complete before moving on to the next. The concentric tracks also add an interesting element to the combat. Generally, you’re safe from the enemies on the other track as their attacks follow the 2D plane. So you can wipe out one track without worrying about the other. However, in later levels there are enemy types that can attack between planes, adding a new dimension (quite literally) to the combat and whipping you out of your complacency quickly enough to give you whiplash.
All in all, I’m very impressed by Orbital Bullet. It’s one of those games that I went into with zero expectations and was completely blown away by. It’s a true roguelite and feels fantastic, with some great features to make it stand out from the rest of the genre. I don’t have anything negative to say about Orbital Bullet. It’s a rare 10/10 from me and its definitely joining my roguelite rotation.