STAFF REVIEW of Curved Space (Xbox One)

Tuesday, July 6, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Curved Space Box art I’m a bit of a twin-stick shooter aficionado. It’s one of my favorite genres and I’m generally quite skilled at them, so when a new shmup (shoot-em-up) releases, you can bet than I’m intrigued and will to check it out. While many twin-stick shooters all tend to rely on the same mechanics and generally don’t differ all that much, Curved Space, developed by Only By Midnight, tries to switch things up by having it’s play surface set in space mapped to a 3D surface. So while you’re still playing on a 2D plane for shooting, the levels themselves are 3D, allowing you to fly up walls or any surface with your ship, perfectly suited for a space-based adventure.

Curved Space is more than just a cool name, as it’s the core of its gameplay as well. Each level is either an asteroid or space station of some sort with flowing and bended areas, edges and more where your ship will constantly stick to any surface, allowing you to fly from one surface, down a curve to the underside or any other. Given that this is in space, the vistas are quite beautiful to take in as you slowly spin and rotate while trying to focus on avoiding bullets and staying alive.

Most shmups tend to have a very simplistic narrative, usually revolving around saving the world, mankind or the like, and while Curved Space does have some story elements, it’s certainly not going to win any awards or be the reason why you play. The campaign revolves around a story dealing with an energy shortage and a spider invasion in space. While I have arachnophobia, thankfully these space spiders aren’t really your typical eight legged crawlies you find in your home, but instead brightly red colored enemies with a handful of different variants.

You’ll take on this spider invasion in your space ship, eventually choosing one of three versions of yourself while hinting at some major deja-vu. Each choice you make in-between levels will have you playing on a different stage or against a unique enemy. There are a red, green and blue version of yourself, each with their own idea of what the best course of action should be, adding some branching paths and levels, so seeing everything Curved Space has to offer will take a few playthroughs. This deja-vu element plays into the replayability of Curved Space, and while I don’t want to give away its hook, it’s not all that hard to see coming from a mile away either.

Like most twin-stick shmups, the Left Stick is how you’ll move your ship and aim in a direction with the Right while Right Trigger is how you’ll shoot enemy spiders. While many of the typical mechanics are here, there’s a few interesting ones as well, like having weapons drop from enemies that you can freely grab in and swap for others, supercharging your firepower with Overdrive and of course, sticking to any curved surface along with your bullets that stay along the terrain as well. It’s cool to see your bullets curve along the surfaces, and you can use this to your advantage at times if you know there are enemies around the bend, shooting them out of sight.

This curved gameplay is quite novel in the beginning, but that’s about it, as not much else is done with it mechanically. Once you realize that enemies will come to you, usually the best course of action is staying within a small area trying to avoid their bullets. Generally you’ll only need to constantly fly around the levels when you’re fighting a massive boss that’s trying to attack and chase you. Each level though is broken into smaller sections where you’re given a different objective each wave, usually having you defeat a certain amount of specific enemies, survive against endless enemies, draining energy conduits and others. Where monotony starts to set in though is that every level will have you basically doing the same objectives each time, eventually culminating in a boss battle before moving onto a brief narrative choice and starting a new level.

You’re eventually given the ability to have a dash which becomes invaluable. This short little burst in a direction is not simply for avoiding enemy projectiles, but it gives you a brief moment of invulnerability, allowing you to deflect bullets. This of course comes down to proper timing, but will be how you survive when things become chaotic, especially on the harder difficulties and boss battles. There’s a small pause between dashes for it to recharge, so you simply can’t spam it and think you’re invincible either.

You’re also given a leash ability. This is a beam that shoots straight outwards and ties them to your energy beam. You can then fire the beam to chain to other enemies or lash to designate posts to siphon their energy. Unfortunately there is one wave objective that forces you to do this, and it takes quite a long time to drain the required energy from spiders. This means you need to take the time to successfully beam your enemy then lash it to these posts, all while enemies respawn and fire upon you as you simply wait. It’s the most tedious and annoying objective in each stage and I rolled my eyes and sighed each time I had to do so.

A good shmup wouldn’t be worth its weight if it didn’t have difficulty options, online leaderboards and a handful of different modes for longevity. Thankfully Curved Space has these and checks all the boxes. Difficulties range from Casual, Normal, Hard, Extreme and Nightmare, as well as different toggles to make a custom experience and even more challenge should you desire. Each difficulty has its own leaderboard as well, so there’s plenty of reason to keep playing for those bragging rights.

Aside from campaign there’s also a handful of different modes if you’re looking for something a little different, as campaign runs can take well over two hours in a single go. Endless Mode is self-explanatory, seeing how long you’re able to go with randomized challenges. Survival Mode pits you against adapting challenges that become more difficult the longer you go. Arena Mode gives you dozens of different challenges to take on plucked from the campaign and lastly, Daily Run is a different challenge that varies each day trying to get the highest score possible.

There's a handful of different weapons you’ll find along your adventure, starting out with a simple blaster, to flamethrowers, lasers, mowers, rockets, plasma rifles and a bunch of others. Certain weapons are better suited for specific spider types but any weapon can technically get the job done. Some weapons have limited ammo, as they are much more powerful, with basically every weapon having limited ammo on the harder difficulties. To actually get one of these weapons you’ll need to fly over to it in your ship and pick it up. The problem is that the weapons appear as little pucks and can slide around the maps and might be in the middle of a pack of enemies and projectiles. They can also be destroyed if shot enough, so you'll need to watch your fire if you're trying to pick one up.

As you defeat enemies and collect their energy, eventually your Overdrive meter will fill that can be used to unleash some massive firepower for a short period of time. While in Overdrive you’re able to shoot your equipped weapon free of ammo and doing extra damage, so it’s quite useful to utilize when in a pinch. There’s even an upgrade where you can turn a full Overcharge meter into an extra life, depending on how long you want your run to go.

You’ll need to become a master at ‘lash and dash’ if you want any sort of chance at the leaderboards. This is where you leash onto an enemy, tying it to you, then dashing into it, destroying it and causing it to usually drop some health or weapons. Because dashing gives you a moment of invulnerability, it’s a very handy tactic to take out smaller enemies and even damage bosses. And while the boss battles are cool, there’s nothing really all too unique about them other than being huge in size and massive bullet sponges.

While there’s only a handful of different spider types of enemies, they all are unique in the best ways to destroy them. Some avoid your shooting from head-on while others rush right at you, but once you know the best strategy for dealing with each, it’s all about avoiding enemy fire while trying to shoot them down. After you defeat each stage’s boss a number of different upgrades will drop, though you can only choose one as a permanent choice. Some of these increase your score multiplier, allow your ship to carry more weapons, raw firepower increases and more.

The space vistas and backdrops were the most impressive visual aesthetics within Curved Space. Yeah the maps that you rotate around are cool to experience, but seeing the vastness of space or a black hole sucking everything in while your ship is stuck to the surface of an asteroid was simply awesome to watch. The only visual issue I ran into was some extreme slowdown during the final boss fight, even on an Xbox Series X, but aside from that there were no issues. The space theme is coupled with a Synthwave soundtrack from a number of artists that kept my head bumping as I took on endless spiders. That said, the voice over work in the narrative sections weren’t all that great, detracting from the overall audio experience.

Because of the curved nature of the levels, if you suffer from even mild motion sickness, Curved Space is absolutely not for you. There are a few options you can toggle to try and help with it, but constantly flipping sides and rotating around a level can be quite disorientating at times.

I always enjoy when a twin-stick shmup tries to do something different, and while Curved Space is unique in some of its design choices and is a completely competent entry into the genre, the runs can be quite lengthy and monotonous as you’re simply redoing the same objectives on each stage before repeating it all over again. Those that enjoy climbing leaderboards will have near endless replayability while others may simply enjoy staring into the void of Curved Space.

**Curved Space was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.6 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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