When I was very young, at christmas time, I accidentally knocked a bauble off the christmas tree in my parents house. The round, red glass made a sharp, ringing impact before shattering to pieces. It was a bauble that had adorned the tree every year since I could remember, the solid red sphere was covered in an ornate pattern that always caught my eye. Now, though, shattered on the ground, I saw something I didn’t expect; a small figure, a little grey fox, was fixed to the bottom of the glass, now free from the bauble it was sitting in the red shards scattered about it. Now, thinking back on it, I realise it must have been in there by mistake, its solid grey colour tells me it was an unfinished and unpainted part of a different bauble design, however at the time I remember, in my young mind, thinking something that now seems laughable. The bauble’s pattern covered the entire thing, there’s no way anyone would ever see this figure, so I thought, if only for a few moments, that perhaps I had manifested and created this tiny creature through my own action in breaking the bauble. I picked it up (don’t play with glass, kids) and examined it further. As I was doing so, my mother came in and scolded me, checked me for glass shards, and told me something I now think strange; that someone had taken the time to make that bauble, and in breaking it, I have ruined that person’s hard work. The whole time I thought about the fox, and how this secret creation hid inside this orb, a piece of this mystery person’s creation that never would have been seen if I hadn’t smashed the bauble.
In the pursuit of journalistic integrity I feel it’s pertinent to mention that I haven’t ‘finished’ this game, and that’s for one big reason, I’m a big fan of the survival game genre, but I’ve always said that a survival game must have a hook, some bigger goal to strive for. In Minecraft it’s creativity, gain the resources to build whatever you like and admire your work. In The Forest, my favourite survival game, it’s to get off the island you’ve crash-landed on. In these games you always have a grander objective you’re building toward, an end goal, the light at the end of the tunnel, and I truly believe that’s important for a game to have. Do Spheriums have that? Well, from the first sentence of this review you can likely guess the answer…
Spheriums is a single-player survival game on a beautiful alien world, you must undertake a journey to rescue your people, making and upgrading equipment, fighting numerous foes and travelling to a variety of lands to complete your quest.
Painting the pattern (art and story)
I wanted to start with the art design because I actually think it’s great! There’s a clear creative vision within all of the designs and visuals of the game, the contrast between nature and technology is stark and there’s a real sense of atmosphere. You really feel like you’re traversing an alien place, and each world in the game genuinely feels meaningfully different. It manages to stay consistently cohesive whilst still feeling as different as it needs to in any given place, and I really congratulate the developers for this. The race of the Spheriums have strange technology that truly feels inhuman, and at all times you feel like you’re seeing places you’ve never seen before, the art design is absolutely the highlight of the game.
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As previously mentioned, this story centres around you saving the titular race from annihilation. Most of the story is told through artefacts and logs that you find through the course of the game, these items are crucial to understanding the plot and lore of this universe. I know a lot of people find this method of storytelling to be grating or unsatisfying, but I personally like the freedom it gives you to consume the story at whatever speed or time you like. I don’t have too much more good to say however, as sadly the plot of this game is… light, to say the least. Considering the main objective is to save the Spheriums, it doesn’t really give you much of a reason to care about their existence. In fact, I feel like I had more of a connection to the Drainers than the Elders by the end of my time with the game. Now, in fairness; it could be that story and lore elements are being held back from this early version of the game, and will be added in the full release, and I hope that’s the case. This world is full of atmosphere and I don’t feel like it’d be a big stretch to pull me into the people of it, with just the odd bit of compelling writing and character work.
Threading the String (gameplay)
Now, with the beginnings of a good story/lore and some great art design, first impressions of the game could be positive, sadly here in the gameplay is where things start to fall apart. At first it seemed alright, I felt like I was playing No Man’s Sky for the first time, scanning the environment, and discovering items and objects. As the game progresses, I find myself unlocking abilities, a shield and weapons; and there are a variety of enemies to use them against, all of which have their own methods that need to be used to defeat them. However, something was off, bullets came from the centre of the screen, enemies don’t path right, I was getting stuck when approaching certain walls. I want to be clear, this is a well fleshed out game, but there’s a top-level lack of polish that’s keeping it from really becoming great.
The developers have been doing a good job so far of listening to the community and making many meaningful changes, and the game is in a better state now than it seemed to be at the start of EA, with looting and upgrades being a much more approachable experience. Overall, though, the core of the game is the same, you explore these worlds and discover what you can before moving onto the next. What is it you’re discovering? Well, at the moment it’s not too much, you get the occasional story item but the ones that make a difference to your moment-to-moment are upgrades you get from just exploring, so at any given time I found myself wondering if I’m meant to focus on myself and exploring these worlds or saving my people. Compare this to a game like Breath of the Wild; you have the overarching goal of defeating ganon, and in order to do that you have to beat four dungeons, it’s not too dissimilar to what’s happening here, including the huge focus on exploration. The difference is that when I beat a dungeon I get something from it, an ability or item I can use on my way, and in my playtime I never got that, my progress never felt meaningful because it doesn’t mean anything to me.
Smashing the bauble (Conclusion)
I may be being a bit harsh here, this is a solid start for this project, and it is in early access. I have a feeling the devs may see this review, as they seem pretty active and seem to listen to what people have to say about their game, which is always a great thing to see. I truly think that spheriums has the space to grow into a genuinely great exploration title, but in both the gameplay and the story it needs a hook, and there needs to be an overall veneer of polish added to really bring this game together. Given the chance, the environments, enemy design (both art and gameplay) and story could be one of the most interesting and unique things on steam, and I really hope that the developers can reach that point. A Bauble is something which looks beautiful but has no meaningful purpose, but I truly believe that once this glass sphere has been cracked open, there could really be something beautiful and surprising inside.