“Come to Utopia 9, the Galaxy’s Premier Vacation Hotspot (TM)! 24-Hour Sunshine & Every Amenity Known to Spaceman!*”
Well, it’s a good thing you pack heavy because everyone else who failed to cover their asterisk on that brochure is roaming your vacation destination, with murder on what’s left of their minds. If you want to sue your travel agency into oblivion, you’re going to have to blast your way through a mutant horde to do it!
Whalegun’s Utopia 9, inspired by such indie greats as Alien Shooter and FTL, is an interesting addition to the twin stick shooter genre. Besides its amusingly retro-futuristic style and dark-comedy storyline, two things make it stand out. These are procedurally-generated levels and enemies that evolve to deal with you. Most games in this style tend to wear thin after a while, and few have been able to make procedural generation systems work well. Let’s see if Utopia 9 breaks that mold.
This game doesn’t mess around – after a brief cutscene of your planetfall and a visual explanation of the control scheme, you’ll run into some nasties in short order. This isn’t some mere introductory cakewalk – these mutants can dodge when you shoot, retreat to regroup when heavily wounded, and hit pretty hard. On top of which, this game has permadeath – husbanding your health is just as important as knowing when to come out blazing.
By the time you’ve blasted and bludgeoned your way through this initial fight, you’ll probably have collected enough Soylent Pink from dead mutants and drink machines to earn a Mutation of your very own. That’s right: in this galaxy, victory goes to the weird, so guzzle that glop on down and get your DNA wrecked!
My personal recommendation? Though mutations are randomized, pick anything health-related if it comes up. Health boosts are otherwise fairly rare, so increasing their drop rate is going to be key to your ultimate survival. There’s a lot to experiment with, too, as many rules of the game change via mutations. Using Bouncy Bullets with a Hunting Rifle, to pick off mutants from around corners, is a personal fave.
After looting the Baggage Claim – er, ahem, obtaining lost items for ultimate repatriation to their legitimate owners (likely at high velocity) – you’ll need to start making your way towards Customer Service. Which is, naturally, as far from the landing pad as it possibly could be. Boy, it sure seems like whoever designed this vacation resort expected a substantial need for weapons, ammo, armor and medical supplies, doesn’t it?
In FTL-ish fashion, the basic structure of this map is always the same on every run, but the contents (and layout) of each area are subject to change. Plan ahead for Utopia 9‘s fabulous range of shopping opportunities!
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. You’re going to die eventually. When you do, another poor sucker, exactly like you were when you first arrived, is going to land at the same pad with the same overpacked suitcase and pistol you did. They’re also going to find that the areas Old You went through have rearranged somewhat – it’s that good ol’ procedural generation, keeping things fresh for the New You, and the You after that, and the You after that…
But hey, it’s not like they didn’t leave a legacy for the New-New-New You behind! Each mutant which killed a You got all your stuff and became a new miniboss!
Fortunately, when your Newest You goes and whacks that baddie, you get all the stuff Old You wasn’t smart enough or talented enough to hold onto. Yay!
Not that any of what you’ll be shooting will be pushovers. Even rank, entry-level goons require several pistol rounds to put down, and about as many swings of your suitcase. This baggage attack stuns enemies, making it perfect for crowd-control and setting up combo attacks. Since mutants often take a little time to line up their shots before firing, you can flank ’em, smack ’em and shoot ’em. Just be careful one of their buddies isn’t doing the same to you!
It won’t be long before you’re able to upgrade from the pistol-and-suitcase package. But don’t be too hasty to grab just any old thing that comes along: you have only two slots for wielding items and two for holstered backups, with heavy stuff like Hunting Rifles and Ray Guns taking up more inventory space. As you move around with WASD, the Q and E buttons smoothly swap what’s in your hands for what’s in your holster, for unsullied on-the-fly action.
Let’s be honest here: I haven’t really played this kind of game since the days of bopping around my local arcade with a pocketful of quarters. Now I regret not delving into this genre more often… Utopia 9 was challenging, fun, and remarkably glitch-free.
Everything comes across as smooth and seamless. The levels, despite being procedurally-generated, often seem handcrafted. The action goes from sneaky to tight and frenetic very cleanly, and without a hitch. I cannot recall encountering a single hiccup or crash. Plus, there’re all kinds of great touches here, like how lasers punch through multiple enemies if you can line them up, or how you can tailor the shot-groupings of a machinegun with proper maneuvering. The more you play, the more tricks and tactics you’ll develop, just by discovering how everything works.
And if you start to feel like you’ve hit a brick wall, don’t despair… bring in a friend!
Although built for the Windows XP operating system – that’s right, XP! – Utopia 9 feels and plays a classic console title in a lot of ways. One of those is the ability to pull up an extra chair and hand your buddy… the joystick? Yep! Sorry, gamepad folks, but for this one you’ll need to dust off that old Thrustmaster or Saitek you’ve got sitting in the closet. Windows XP did not ship with gamepad drivers, and Whalegun apparently wanted Utopia 9 to be playable by those with even the most hideously-ancient system.
You won’t regret it, though… if anything, it ends up being even smoother with joystick than a keyboard, once muscle-memory catches up. Heck, you can map the Player One controls to joystick for single-player, if you like.
Any twin-stick-style shooter using FTL as a core design philosophy would fail, if it couldn’t be described as “harsh but fair”. Add “and fun” to the end of that, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. On the whole, Utopia 9 is a very flexible, balanced system of weapons, motion, timing and character-building. Despite dying dozens of times during my playthrough, I never felt bored, always wanting to give it “one more try.” Whalegun’s first entry into indie game development is a solid winner.
Utopia 9 was reviewed on a Windows 7 PC via Steam with a code given by the developer.
A flawlessly-executed combination of roguelike design, twin-stick-shooter gameplay and tragicomic backstory.