Discussion Review: Big Sky Infinity

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

BigSkyInfinity

Tim: The thing I’ve discovered over the last two years or so is that shmups can be strangely beautiful and challenging yet remain fun even when the odds would appear to be completely stacked against you. Big Sky Infinity, a collaboration between Boss Baddie, Ripstone and VooFoo Studios, continues that trend on the PS3 and Vita with tons of modes, snarky commentary and a visual feast of bullets, lasers, deadly gas clouds and twirling T-Rex skulls. There isn’t much more to the game other than to simply survive endless procedurally generated waves of enemies and bosses and score as many points as possible. Each enemy that is killed leaves behind starbits, a form of currency which can be used to upgrade a whole bunch of ship components.

Replay is key to this game naturally. I’ve had some runs last upwards of ten minutes (not playing the Peaceful mode–which has infinite lives) while other runs were as short as 30 seconds. The length of the run is all dependent upon how each wave is randomly generated, but after putting six hours on the PS3 version and at least as many if not more on the Vita, I’ve gotten my ship upgrades to a point where I can survive for a while yet not enough changes occur to feel like I’ve seen it all. The game tracks a laundry list of statistics and for all that I’ve played through I’m still stuck on 88% completion. Only seeing 88% is frustrating because I’m not sure what I need to do in order to see that lingering 12%.

In addition to replay, collecting the starbits is key. Starbits allow ship components to upgrade, yet this leads to one of my other frustrations with the game. For all of the components that upgrade, I can only decipher about 1/3 of their actual functions so I have no idea if putting starbits into one component is more helpful than another. Upgrades increase in cost the more that they are upgraded which in turn requires more starbits, which of course are earned through more gameplay. (There’s always the option to buy more starbits through in-game purchase for folks who want to get a jump on upgrading a particular component, but that’s just a sly way to get additional money out of customers who already purchased the game.) This is a perfect way to entice replay, yet there are some points in a run where there is so much chaos going on you’ll sometimes wonder what ultimately caused your doom. The game spits out so many things at any one time that the screen is a visual nightmare of shapes and colors to the point that it is almost impossible to tell what is an enemy and what isn’t. To magnify that problem the game randomly inverts the color scheme as if you are playing on a film negative.

As a round is played there is a navigational AI voice that doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience yet at the same time offers some levity to what can be a stressful encounter. I liken the voice to that of the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith in the BBC’s Doctor Who), or rather the voice (and the game) is almost something like what the 11th Doctor would create as his idea of what a perfect video game is. Random pop culture quips spew forth, from The Tick to Star Wars to Jurassic Park (I’m sure others that I either didn’t get or haven’t heard yet) that at times feel perfectly in line with what is going on during the game, but more often than not repeat to the point of annoyance.

I’ll let you jump in here, Matt. What are your thoughts on Big Sky Infinity?

Matt: If the name Big Sky Infinity sounds familiar, you may have already played a version of the game on PC, where it carries the alias of Really Big Sky. I actually bought the game last year when it appeared on IndieGameStand, and like a lot of indies that go on sale, I played it out of immediate curiosity, and then put it on my “games I’ll get back to list” as I got sidetracked on other work. Then shortly before Christmas, along came this cool-looking new PSN game called Big Sky Infinity that I swore I’d heard of before but couldn’t connect the dots in my frazzled mind, consumed by the holiday bum rush of games, until scrolling through my Steam library one day and remembering I’d already downloaded and played the game months before.

I’ve spent way more time with the PSN version and don’t have extensive experience with the PC version (it begins to chug on my aging system when the screen fills up, which is basically all the time in a game like this), but from what I can tell the two are basically the same.

Big Sky is a twin-stick shmup at its core, but I actually liken it more to an endless runner than a traditional bullet hell shooter like the equally excellent Sine Mora. Instead of going through a series of pre-defined levels with a certain number of lives and a set objective, the game dumps you into a randomly generated spacescape and your only goal is to keep your ship alive and travel the treacherous skies for as long as possible amidst swarms of enemies, asteroids, planets, black holes and a few repeating bosses. Once you die, you immediately feel the urge to dive right back in to improve your score and travel distance, a similar mentality to playing a game like Jetpack Joyride (though the tone and presentation are completely different).

There are also some other elements to the gameplay that you didn’t mention, Tim. Unlike a lot of side-scrolling shooters, you’re almost discouraged from spamming the screen with bullets. When the ship first begins to fire, its bullets are much larger and do more damage, but if you keep a firm tilt on the right analog stick to fire nonstop eventually the bullets shrink and lose energy until you pause to recharge. Smaller bullets can blanket the screen better, though, and can be more precisely aimed, so there is some strategy to mastering when to pulse fire versus unleashing a rapid spray.

At times, you’ll also encounter full-sized planets that’ll smash your ship to bits if you aren’t paying attention. When the warning indicator appears, you must switch on the ship’s drill shield to plow through the mass of space rock. Power-up pads are scattered throughout these planets too, allowing you to increase the ship’s rate of speed, bullet spread, rate of fire, and the score multiplier. By holding down the drill button (Cross or R), the ship can also activate a limited-use spin attack that slaughters all enemies in its path for a short time. This is essentially a replacement for the screen-clearing bomb power-up traditionally found in shmups, along with the chargebeam attack which gradually powers up as starbits are harvested and automatically unleashes a huge laser that wipes out anything in its path.

I have to agree with many of the minor concerns you raised, Tim. With so much shit going on, at times it is very difficult to see what the hell you’re doing, especially when the color scheme suddenly changes to black and white and there isn’t enough contrast to distinguish your own bullets from smaller enemies. I also found the upgrade system a bit confusing. The game does provide a detailed library with explanations and descriptions for every mode, enemy, upgrade, power-up and feature, so with some light reading I understood each upgrade’s capability. However, the problem I have is that I simply can’t see any noticeable improvement in performance after I pump starbits into many of the ship’s components.

I have mixed feelings about the commentator as well. His constant, cockney-accented quips are funny at first – I particularly approve of the “Snaaaaake!” death cry yanked from Metal Gear Solid – but begin to repeat to the point of nausea before long. Thankfully, the game provides an option to make the narrator shut the hell up already, if you grow tired of his one-liners.

Tim: Another great part of the game that we haven’t touched on yet is the cross-play functionality. Any progress that is made on the PS3 automatically applies to the Vita version (and vice versa) as long as the Vita has a connection to the PSN to transfer the data. This data cross-play is perfect for this type of game.

There are some other differences between the Vita and PS3 versions, though, that I almost wish could be applied to both. The PS3 version allows 4 player local co-op which is fun (as long as the other people playing have an inkling of what they need to do to survive). What is cool about the local co-op is how all players share the same powered-up ship as the first player so there is a good chance that a game can go for quite a while once everyone is on the same page about what to do.

The Vita version’s multiplayer focuses on an asynchronous mode of HORSE (similar to the old school basketball game) where one player picks a game mode and earns a score, and then the challenge is sent off to another player to see if they can best the score. Matt kicked my ass more than I would care to admit, but it was fun to see this type of asynchronous challenge offered for gaming on the go. I almost wish that the Vita version would also offer a local cross play co-op, but I can only imagine that the net code to make that work would be more of headache than simply having four inputs being processed on the PS3 locally.

Regardless of minor differences, Big Sky Infinity is a fun game on both platforms, with visuals that reach into the back of your eyeballs and pull them inside out. Enemies and bullets come flying at a rate that requires deft response and a level of patience that will test any gamer’s mettle. Fans of shmups should not miss this game.

Tim-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Tons of replay
+ Progress transfers between Vita and PS3
+ Local co-op for PS3
+ Asynchronous score battles on Vita

Cons:
– Over stimulized visuals can make it difficult to see what is an enemy and what’s not
– Upgrade system isn’t as clear as it could be
– Voice work can be annoying after a few hours of hearing the same thing

Matt: Back to a point you made earlier, Big Sky Infinity is absolutely stacked with content, including a whopping 12 different mode types. True, each mode only puts a small twist on the same objective, but there is still enough variety to make each one distinct and replayable in its own right. Classic mode is where you’ll likely spend most of your time since it’s tied in with the ship upgrade shop and has the most classic shmup feel, but other modes like Countdown (unlimited lives to pile up a high score with a two minute timer), Pacifism (no guns, just survive as long as possible by dodging), and the self-explanatory Boss Rush offer unique challenges.

Then there is the Horse mode, a clever form of multiplayer in which two players take turns setting a high score for the other to try to beat. Like the popular playground basketball game, whomever loses each round gains a letter in the chosen word (it doesn’t have to be H.O.R.S.E.), and the first player to complete the word loses the competition. It’s almost like a modern take on how people used to play long-distance chess, one player making a move and then sending a quick message to their opponent to let them know it’s their turn. We had a blast testing this mode. Or at least I did, scoring a perfect sweep of all rounds (sorry to rub it in, Tim!).

Cross-play is indeed a great option to have too, as the game is tailor made for quick sessions on the go as well as longer sessions spent zoning out to the transforming spacescapes displayed on an HD TV. Big Sky Infinity’s hook is very simple, but it usually is the simplest of games that end up being the most addictive. In this game’s case, the combination of thumping synth tunes and the constant shifting of color schemes and the rate at which the screen scrolls sucks you into a zen-like trance that is hard to break free from. Sometimes this barrage of sporadic moving parts can overload the senses, but even when frustration strikes at the hands of an unfair demise, you’re immediately eager to jump right back into the ship for another flight across the infinite skies. One more game. No really, after this, just one more game…

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Hypnotic shoot ’em up mix of beats, bullets and baddies
+ Leaderboards, stat tracking, and a wealth of modes
+ Great for quick play yet addictive enough to hook you for hours on end
+ Intuitive cross-play between PS3 and Vita
+ Horse mode is a perfect way to do asynchronous multiplayer on Vita

Cons:
– Nonstop screen activity can make it difficult to see what the hell you’re doing
– Tough to discern the benefits of certain upgrades

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 and Vita via PSN
Publisher: Ripstone Publishing
Developer: Boss Baddie and VooFoo Studios
Release Date: 12/11/2012
Genre: Side-scrolling shooter
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (2-4 local co-op on PS3, asynchronous multiplayer on Vita)
Source: Review codes provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!