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Talking Space Dogs: A Look At Laika Believes

“It’s like a 2D BioShock.” That’s all Shelley Smith, marketing director of Minicore Studios, had to say to get my attention.

It’s nearly three o’clock in the afternoon and the SXSW Gaming Expo has already been going for a while, but the walkways between booths is still just as packed as when the floodgates first opened. Smith and I had just spent the past ten minutes or so talking—or yelling, more likely, given the environment—about their iOS word game Tumblewords. It’s got great art and seems to actually make some interesting changes to the letter tile game landscape, but it’s already out. Noticing the other banner hanging behind the small, Austin-based team, I ask about Laika Believes.

“So how much do you know about Laika?” I offer her mostly a blank stare in response. “Laika was the dog the Russians shot into space,” Smith says, my mind making connections to documentaries I’d long forgotten and my head nodding in agreeance. “It’s actually a very sad story. But Laika Believes is about an alternate history where Laika crash lands back on Earth and has to fight the Soviets.”

Quite the alternate history, though it seems more perverse than slightly anachronistic in a purely academic kind of way. Laika, for instance, talks, wears shiny metal armor, and wields a bevy of armaments that likely did not exist back in the 1950s, like a sizable laser that would more accurately be described as an orbital beam.

It’s all necessary, though, as the Soviets have become a superpower in the world. Stalin has died, but not before he managed to turn America, Great Britain, and most of the rest of the world into the smoking, ashy remnants of former civilizations thanks to a newfound energy source. Laika crash-lands somewhere in the ambiguous Middle East and joins up with a resistance movement.

The gameplay is most clearly described as a 2D platformer but with a dual-joystick combat scheme. Left stick moves Laika, right stick aims, and right bumper shoots while the D-pad changes between your four weapons, which include a spray-tastic machine gun and a Mega Man Buster-esque charge shot. On the left trigger is a shield that can absorb incoming fire. The more you take in, the more you can release in a massive explosion of energy.

The bit of the game I played starts out with Laika emerging from her spacecraft only to be greeted by an enemy helicopter dropping little robot hounds/hogs/ambiguous quadrupeds. It’s a fast-paced affair with a lot of running and jumping back and forth to dodge attacks while trying to line up ground and air shots to eliminate close quarters enemies while finishing off the source. Laika moves fast and handles adeptly, but the battle is over almost just as quick. I kind of wish I’d had more time to fight.

This feeling holds especially true because the rest of the demo takes place on a rebel base. In it, you meet several people including resistance leader Abram Krupin and chat them up. This gives the game a chance to flex its pacifistic muscles with some storytelling flourish. Some of the characters may be lighthearted, but the game itself comes across as fairly serious. Case in point: no one seems particularly troubled by this armored talking dog.

On the base, I collect an upgrade node that allows me to bump up an ability. Technical director Patrick Cunningham suggests I choose the double jump, so I do. It’s down one of three branches in the tech tree, and doing so allows me to more easily help someone shut down a dangerously broken and sparking generator. Electricity is shooting out of some hanging wires in a basement, but with the double jump, I can just leap over the damaged stuff and shut it all down for good. Cunningham points out I could also use my shield ability to eat up the electricity and get by that way, too.

When asked about inspirations, Smith said, “We originally billed this as a Metroidvania sort of game, but it kind of changed along the way.” The Metroidvania foundation sticks out like a sore thumb. The ability gates such as the double jump/generator puzzle are classic to the genre, and the map seems to induce a heavy Metroidvania high. It’s presented in a neat little 3D presentation of 2D planes all intersecting. It’s as if someone extruded a lightning bolt upwards from a flat image. It also feels a bit like Shadow Complex.

“That’s one of my favorite parts. It still confuses me sometimes. You’ll turn down parts of the game and you’ll be in a different view of the same section,” Smith says. It certainly sounds like Shadow Complex‘s locked 2D perspective in a 3D world, but make no mistake: it’s all discrete parallax. These are purely 2D scenes tied together at certain junction points, but it works just as well. Navigating the world is easy enough since everything looks pretty distinct in each scene.

This base section, however, takes up the majority of the demo. The only combat I saw took up about 20 to 30 seconds. I’ve been wandering the base and talking to people for the past seven minutes. When I asked about the ratio of fighting to exploration, Cunningham said there would be a lot more combat. “This is the beginning, so there’s a bit more story,” he said.

The story stuff seems pretty interesting, though. Laika Believes will be in three parts, and each episode will have you making decisions. From what I saw and was told, it will come through in actions you do like turning off the generator and decisions you make like picking a dialogue option. They will also persist through all three episodes so as to shape your experience into a more personal one.

A concern, though, that I bring up is the one of player choice and authorial power. For instance, backlash hit Mass Effect 3 because the entire sprawling space epic seemed to dovetail into a handful of outcomes rather than a barrel full of possibilities. People praise The Walking Dead, however, because it smartly hid its personalization in the details and not the huge overarching plot points. Where, then, would Laika Believes fall?

“Closer to The Walking Dead, definitely,” said Smith. “We’re aware of how player choice affects the narrative, and we’re trying to make a narrative push.” And that is where the BioShock influence comes through. There is a ton of ambient storytelling. You can investigate the scenery around you like posters on the walls and the vehicles in the hangar to get a better idea of the world you are in without anyone explicitly telling you an entire history of everything ever. Your investigations will also yield more dialogue options which may in turn yield more arcs.

While I only saw a very small chunk of the game (Smith estimates the whole package will eventually total to somewhere around 25 hours), Laika Believes seems to have some potential. I’d love to have had more combat, but the bit of it I tried was fast and satisfying in a scarf-down-some-Cheetos sort of way. And the story stuff actually does seem interesting. With just the small bit I played, some choices already played out differently, albeit in largely inconsequential ways, so hopefully that means the bigger stuff is even more varied.

Like I said, though; I don’t know. But I do know that given the option to take a look at a game about a talking space dog with Metroidvania and BioShock influences, I will take it every time.

Expect the first chapter of Laika Believes to hit PC and XBLA sometime this spring.

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