Written by Sean Colleli on 2/11/2019 for SWI  
More On: UTOPIA 9

Have you ever played a game that, objectively, you know you should enjoy, but subjectively you don’t? A game where every element, from the gameplay style to the visuals, should be working for you, but you just aren’t having a good time? That’s been my experience with developer Whalegun’s Utopia 9: a Volatile Vacation. It’s a twin-stick roguelite with a quirky art style, clever premise and loads of sarcasm. So why didn’t I like it? Well…

The setup sounds funny. You’re an office worker in a dead-end data entry job who sees a commercial on late night TV for the ultimate vacation. Planet Utopia 9 is an outer space paradise where the pina coladas flow like water and your every need will be catered to…or so it seems. No sooner have you booked your trip and blasted off to the planet of pleasure, do you ditch your rocket pod and realize the awful truth. Utopia 9 is more like Thunderdome; you’re stranded on a long-deserted resort planet with hundreds of surly alien tourists who want to deliver their customer service grievances directly into your brain matter. You must keep your wits about you and scrounge for weapons and supplies if you have any hope of survival.

Utopia 9 is a top-down roguelite action game with a retro-futurist style that borrows heavily from the Fallout series. The whole environment has 1950's era flying saucer, ray gun, fins-on-shoulders aesthetic that sets the mood quite well; you definitely know what you’re in for. The title menu music is also a scratchy, irritatingly ingratiating elevator music jingle that foreshadows the callous, artificially friendly abandoned corporate resort environment. All of this is show, not tell; you crash your drop pod right after you leave the title screen, and the setting and general sense of humor are communicated entirely through the environment, so kudos to Whalegun for their environmental storytelling, even if this particular environment chafes me a bit.

Right out of the gate, you know exactly what kind of game you’re playing too. You stagger from your drop pod with nothing but a suitcase; there are a couple movement and combat tutorial messages on nearby billboards, but it isn’t long before you’re set upon by furious alien tourists. You can beat their heads in with your suitcase but you soon acquire a basic pistol to use in tandem with your makeshift melee weapon. You can use this early area to come to grips with Utopia 9’s somewhat unforgiving combat, which unfortunately feels both a bit too precise and floaty at the same time.

I started out with Utopia 9 in docked mode and using the Pro Controller, which paradoxically felt pretty awkward. You can stay melee focused which is pretty straightforward, but if you have any hope of surviving the brutal early game you’ll need a projectile weapon of some sort. It’s a shame then that, at least on the Pro Controller, aiming and shooting cause some serious hand cramps. For starters, the first gun you usually acquire is a pea-shooter of a plasma pistol. You need to score multiple hits on even weak enemies to kill them. Second, ammo is limited, which is a bit unusual for a twin-stick shooter. Most twin sticks have you moving your character with the left stick and pushing the right stick in the direction you want to fire, and your character shoots in that direction automatically.

Not Utopia 9. Because ammo conservation is at least nominally required and encouraged, there is a separate fire button. So moving, aiming and shooting takes more elaborate coordination that is normal for a game like this, which really started to cramp up my hand. The game is a lot easier on the thumbs in portable mode; I can only conclude this is because the Joy Cons have smaller sticks with shorter travel and looser throw. I tried the game with the Joy Cons slotted into their custom grip, but this was also uncomfortable; Utopia 9’s cumbersome control scheme made the Joy Con Grip feel cramped like no other game I’ve played on Switch. Paradoxically, Utopia 9 might be one of the only Switch games that is best played in portable mode out of sheer comfort and necessity.

The reliance on ammo, and eventually upgrading to better weapons and armor makes Utopia 9 feel a little like a survival game. You can scrounge health from barrels and occasionally special chests, but it comes in tiny dribs and drabs, so Utopia 9 is essentially punishing you for taking damage. Making a mistake and taking a hit can be incredibly costly. You gain a sort of XP from killing enemies and collecting the resultant glowing orbs, which can be spent at DNA upgrade stations. These essentially give you a few randomized stat boots at a time, but they aren’t consistent from one playthrough to the next, so each time your skill sheet can be rather Frankensteinian. The survival and upgrade concept is here, but not particularly pronounced.

 At its core, this is a roguelite through and through. This means procedurally generated levels, but don’t expect a huge amount of variety; you’ll typically get rearranged rooms and the same few kill corridors over and over. More importantly, this means an emphasis on stout difficulty, replaying the game numerous times, and of course permadeth. Utopia 9 is broken up into branching paths of “areas,” each with differing loot (one area might have guns and armor, the other health and XP). You must choose between these paths and you can’t go back to a previously explored area to choose the other fork in the road, so you definitely can’t see everything in one playthrough. You can save between areas, but if you die, you’re headed all the way back to the beginning.

This is all well and good and expected for a roguelite, but if the controls and combat in a self-professed twin-stick roguelite aren’t comfortable or satisfying, then you have a pretty big problem. The aforementioned controls issues make moving and shooting a lot less fluid than I’d like, and while there are cool little details like spare underwear and t-shirts flying out of your suitcase when you bash an alien, it doesn’t make up for the rather hollow feel of landing a hit or scoring a shot. The game does borrow the nemesis mechanic from Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, so if a bigger named enemy kills you, he gets stronger and takes your gear, but if you run into him on a subsequent playthrough, you can take your revenge (and your loot back). It’s honestly a cool feature that I wish was accompanied by more satisfying combat, but with such a generally fragile character, I typically resorted to hiding behind cover and taking potshots, or kiting smaller aliens into mobs and then thinning them out.

Utopia 9 is a variety of elements and battle-tested gameplay concepts that, for me at least, just did not gel together at all. There’s a quality game here and the Steam reviews for the PC version are highly positive—clearly a ton of people enjoy this game—but the experience just didn’t hook me. If the combat was a little more frenetic and carefree, or if there was a heavier emphasis on tense survival, or even a stronger focus on the ironic 50s scifi humor, I might be fully onboard. Ultimately though, it was the floaty controls that just made all these small issues all the more annoying. If you’re a big fan of roguelites and the setting really grabs you, Utopia 9 might be a lot of fun for you. For me personally, it just didn’t come together into the package I really wanted.

Utopia 9 has a lot of good ideas but for me at least they just didn’t come together in the end, and the somewhat clumsy controls just exacerbated the situation.

Rating: 7.4 Above Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.


About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.

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