‘SPACEPLAN’ iOS Review: Half-Baked Potato

SPACEPLAN
By: Devolver Digital & Jake Hollands

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To be honest, I had no intention of buying and playing Jake Holland’s (published by Devolver Digital) SPACEPLAN. Not much about it really appealed to me — I’m not a fan of clickers or idle games and the screenshots did nothing to sway me. I was perfectly willing to let this one go. But I kept seeing people raving about how great it is, how surprising things happen and how it has such an amazing, hilarious story. So I finally caved and dropped the three dollars to see what all the hype was about.

I spent a half hour playing on my iPad and my first impression was that it’s just a clicker like any other clicker. You’re on a spaceship orbiting some reddish planet, with a snarky AI doing all the talking. The spaceship is low on power, so you need to click the white button to generate more. At first, you only gain one watt per click. But after you invest some watts into items from the Thing Maker and Idea Lister, you can earn more per click and even generate watts automatically without clicking. You do need to make certain upgrades and purchases to push the story along, though, and it’s not always obvious what that is. Everything is powered through solar energy and…um…potatoes. So you have your basic things like solar panels and then odd stuff like probetatoes and spud guns. If you’ve played a clicker game before, it’s pretty standard stuff, aside from the potato thing. It’s usually more common to be using some sort of currency like money, and every time you start feeling wealthy, the prices go up so you’re always waiting or clicking to get more to afford the next upgrade. The few times I did let myself get sucked into a clicker for even a little bit, I just felt hollow and hated myself after. I am glad that SPACEPLAN leans more towards the idle side of clickers so I didn’t have to waste too much time clicking that white button. It also tries to set itself apart by having a story, lots of potatoes, and an ending. And, of course, no in-app purchases (IAP). While those were all reasons I was curious enough to give it a chance, the game still didn’t sell me on the clicker genre.

Even though it still just felt like a clicker, I decided I was going to see it through to the end, since the whole point of buying it was to see what everyone was raving about. It helped to play while recording video, because I could vent my frustration to an audience. You can see my full gameplay video walkthrough here. Most of the videos just show me upgrading some things and waiting, but some of them include story bits and things do get more interesting at times. The problem is, the interesting bits were too far and in between to make the long stretches of waiting feel worthwhile.

One of the biggest roadblocks for me early on was that the text is tiny on my iPad Air 2. The white button you press is also fairly small and in a somewhat awkward location. I’m used to things feeling more spacious and easier to read on an iPad, but oddly enough that wasn’t the case here. The biggest selling point of the game is the story, but it’s stuffed into a tiny area in the upper right corner. You’re likely going to have to squint to read the story bits on there unless you have the bigger iPad Pro. Instead of text being bigger on the iPad, it’s the same size as on iPhone. The main difference is that everything fits on one screen and there’s a lot more blank space than on the iPhone. It doesn’t feel like the iPad’s bigger screen was used to its full advantage. I would have liked to see either options to manually adjust the size and location of things, or to have the Word Outputter bigger and at the bottom, with a bigger button to tap. I don’t think all the empty space is necessary and the planets could have been moved up closer to the top of the screen. Perhaps it was designed like this for symmetry, but it negatively affects the usability.

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Unfortunately, the game does not have iCloud sync, so I decided to restart on my iPhone, since I have that with me everywhere and can check in here and there to collect more resources. It turns out that the button is bigger on there and also easier to press, as it’s right by my thumb. I still prefer waiting instead of tapping, but sometimes I would get impatient and it felt better tapping there than on my iPad. It also feels more interactive on iPhone because you need to swipe back and forth to see the Thing Maker, Idea Lister and Word Outputter. So instead of just watching the same screen and waiting for my numbers to climb, my hands had something to do besides clicking. I found the iPhone a better fit, for the most part, but near the end of the game when the story picks up, it gets a bit harder to juggle everything. More is happening to the planets at the same time as more text is coming in, so you don’t want to miss anything. iCloud sync would have been nice so you could switch devices if one starts to feel more optimal during certain parts of the game. As is, it feels empty on iPad early on but a bit too busy on iPhone later. The message log is saved so you can scroll up to see what you missed, but there is a point (spoiler warning?) where it gets reset, deleting everything from the first half of the game. That only seems to happen the one time, but it left me worried for the rest of the game that it could happen again. So I kept on top of the text just to be safe and not miss any of it.

The main problem I see with SPACEPLAN is also its main selling point — it’s a clicker with an ending. Those who like clickers want them to last forever. And those who don’t like clickers would rather just get straight to the story and could do without all the waiting and clicking. I commend the developer for trying something different, but I don’t think there was enough story here to justify the amount of time I spent just waiting for something to happen. I’m also not so easily amused by endless potato puns. And perhaps the actual story bits could have been separated somehow from the “While you were away I gained us ____ power” messages to make it easier to keep track of the story when you’re getting it drip fed over several days. Maybe the “while you were away” messages could have disappeared once you saw them but the rest could stick around to be more easily re-read? I’m not sure what the exact solution is, but the current design just got in the way of itself. And having half of the story disappear without warning didn’t help, either. I have no interest in playing through the whole game again just to read the story parts again, but I would have liked the option to skim through just the story all at once. Perhaps some of these changes might have made it more enjoyable for me, instead of something to just get through so I could see how it ends.

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In general, I’m not a fan of games that force me to wait to continue the story. I tend to lose interest or just forget about the game and play something that just lets me play on my own schedule. I know games like Lifeline have made this game design popular, but I’ve stuck with very few real-time games that didn’t offer a way to skip past the waiting times. Catch & Release’s narrative space game, Star Billions, had a story a liked very much, but the waiting killed it partially for me. Every time I got immersed in the story, I was forced away from it. SPACEPLAN works similarly, though it has far less story to it. And I found the story harder to keep track of due to its user interface (UI), as I mentioned above. If you like clickers and don’t mind stories drip-fed to you throughout your day, you might enjoy SPACEPLAN. But it’s not a long story and I think those looking for something truly satisfying might want to look elsewhere. For me, it was a silly distraction at the most.

I admit, it also didn’t help that the visuals of the planets and potatoes didn’t appeal to me. They’re mostly simple circles, squares and dots. Things get more interesting at points, but again that’s mostly near the end. It seems like an awful lot of boring waiting and clicking to get through just to see a somewhat interesting ending that doesn’t last very long. The lack of IAPs is definitely a plus for me, but let’s be real here — if it was free and didn’t have half the hype attached to it that it did, I might have downloaded it and played five minutes before deleting. I stuck through with this one because I knew it had an ending and I was curious why everyone was raving about it. But it’s still an idle clicker that mostly plays itself…slowly. The game becomes a little more game-y near the end, where you have to click with a bit more purpose. But it took me a while to realize this, either because I missed text that mentioned it or I just didn’t notice the first time it happened that I had actually done something to cause it. I did welcome the added interaction once I realized what I needed to do, but would have liked the game to give me a little push if it could see I missed that aspect. It’s easy to miss text because of all the issues mentioned previously.

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Overall, SPACEPLAN wasn’t a horrible experience for me, but it wasn’t life-changing either. The music and sound effects are great, and I never felt tempted to shut the sound when I was spending some time clicking away. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the soundtrack on its own without the game. The UI was slick and fun to mess around with on my iPhone, though less so on iPad. You can see some early iPhone gameplay in the video below. The game had its moments — talking about them would ruin the few surprises that make the game even remotely worth playing — and if you want something to just check on throughout your day without investing too much energy into it, it might be the right game for you. But if you’re a fan of endless clickers, you might be disappointed by how quickly it ends. And if you’re not a fan of clickers, you might be disappointed by how little story there is. It is nice to see developers trying something different, but I don’t think it’s innovative enough to be a must-have game. If you do decide to play it, I recommend avoiding reading or watching much about it, because it’s easy to get the more surprising moments spoiled for you. You can also try the free browser version before deciding whether to drop the three bucks on the full game. It’s an earlier prototype, but it should give you at least some idea whether you’d have any interest in the game. It won’t work on an iPhone, but I did get it working on my iPad. If you decide you do want to play SPACEPLAN, you can download the iOS version here.

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