Vostok Inc Review
Show me the Money!
One of my favorite aspects of the indie scene is the ambitious, unique approach developers often take with their projects. Many have experimented with innovative gameplay elements, thought-provoking themes, and genre-bending hybrids. Take for instance, an open-world space shooting sim game hybrid which satirises the excesses of capitalism.
Nosebleed Interactive's Vostok Inc. is a game that invokes your greedy side to the enth degree; as the entire premise involves obtaining tons and tons of cash, or “Moolah”, as it’s referred to. You begin by traversing the solar system in a tiny ship, and your task is to colonize each of the 9 planets - yes Pluto’s included, as it’s apparently reverted back to planetary status. 90’s kids like myself will no doubt appreciate that. From there, you venture further across the final frontier through wormholes and expand your corporate empire, colonizing the dozens of planets housed within a handful of other systems. You must do this all while firing away at endless hordes of alien spacecraft, which don’t take too kindly to you barging in and habitating their colonies with your Earth-based consumerism.
This all sounds far more epic and intricate than the actual implementation, however. The game basically boils down to a repetitious formula of flying around shooting randomly generated baddies, upgrading your ship, and constructing buildings on planets (which merely take the form of a basic menu screen) with the press of a button. Sure, the space-shooting components of the game prove somewhat competent and enjoyable, and the satire - despite laying it on pretty thick - is amusing at times. Yet, the “construction” aspects are about as simplified as you can imagine, reminiscent of a basic click-heavy mobile or flash title rather than a nuanced and elaborate sim. Vostok inc. is a game that seems to rely far more on its edgy and innovative concepts than its actual gameplay. The result is an experience that leaves a definite impression at first but fails to really hold up.
The name of the game is essentially to use acquired Moolah to invest in various structures on each planet, which in turn increases your rate of earnings until you can afford pricier buildings, which net you more money, and so on. Every planet comes with the same 20 building types to choose from, each containing 5 upgrades to further speed the output of cash generation. You’ll basically spend a great deal of time partaking in a click spam-fest, as you’ll need to build up an absurd amount of these structures to extract significant earnings. Things eventually snowball to the point where you’re raking in comically large amounts of money, going from mere hundreds at the start to quintillions after a couple dozen hours of play; no I’m not exaggerating. And believe it or not, that’s pretty much all there is to it - when it comes to the “god game” aspect anyway.
The process is no doubt a dry one, and takes some time to nudge momentum to the point where you’re able to reach the sky-high costs needed to notch significant investments like the Casino and the Video Game Developer. Even then, the actual gameplay doesn’t pick up or change much: it basically boils down to garnering larger ticks on that money counter and clashing with higher level enemies that don’t evolve in any respect outside of strength. It’s somewhat fun at first to see your money ratchet up to insane levels, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really mean much. For as mundane as the prospect of venturing through open-world space environments can be, mashing buttons on menu screens over and over takes the blandness to a new level.
Besides reeling as much cash as you can to unlock new solar systems and bosses to fight, your main means of progression consists of beefing up your ship through experience and upgrades. You can use Moolah to purchase additional health and energy (the latter of which acts as an extra layer of health that recharges), stronger weapons, and radar that reveals points of interest, among other enhancements. Upgrades are one of the game’s few strong points, as they’re plentiful, and because they’re rather fun to play around with, incentivize you at least a bit to keep trucking.
You’re constantly directed and yammered at over the radio by Jimmy; a stereotypical venture capitalist plucked right out of the film Wall Street. He sports a bulky pair of glasses and a wide, sinister grin that looks about as trustworthy as Henry Hill. He’s not only drunk with greed, but apparently absent of good memory, as he often spouts the same lines of mostly pointless dialogue containing random pop-culture references and basic tips. Despite his talkative nature, he ironically either briefly glosses over or fails to mention many key features. I had multiple instances of stumbling upon major elements when flipping through the menu, including an entire option to play several mini games to boost efficiency. I even missed the ability to upgrade my ship in various ways until several hours in. Where were you on that one, Jimmy?
It’s not all bad news though: the backbone of the gameplay itself holds up alright. The mechanics, while a bit janky, are sufficient enough not to bog things down, and using the twin stick shooting is a breeze. Everything has a tendency to feel a bit floaty, and could perhaps have been tighter and faster paced, but its works well enough.
There are moments of excitement to be had in various cases - incinerating several enemies at once with a massive laser beam for instance, or trying to scramble back to base clinging to life as a menacing ship tails you. Each solar system contains its own set of distinct baddies with unique weaponry, weaknesses, and behaviors, which helps to keep things somewhat exciting.
The game often locks you into a grid and takes on a Geometry Wars feel as you’re forced to take on multiple waves before being set loose. This attribute can verge on annoying when you’re trying to get something else done, though it does a fine job of amping up the intensity while reeling things back to arcade-style simplicity. It’s also presents opportunities to gain significant chunks of cash, rather than painstakingly hopping from planet to planet clicking away to construct countless buildings. You can even engage in quick time trials, which spawn gates at random spots that you must scurry through within a short stint of time. While there’s probably more downtime that there should be throughout the campaign, the game sprinkles in a decent amount of tasks and events to keep you fairly occupied.
There are also some amusing elements that are fun to play around with, provided you’re willing to stick it out and gain access to them. The weapon customization is a notable feature on this front, as you’re granted three slots to mix and match three types of firepower. You’ve got short-burst cannons, lasers, and missiles providing the foundation. Each combination births a distinct weapon containing its own behaviors and strengths/weaknesses depending on the enemy they’re used on. You can craft lightning streams, fire-bursts, or even serenading heart shots that briefly turn baddies friendly. Dead Rising combo weapons come to mind here, just on a smaller, simplified scale. You can also double or triple up on the same times of weapons, creating an enhanced and more effective version of your base weapon. You can map up to 4 types of firepower on the directional buttons, allowing for easy access.
Additionally, the aforementioned mini-game feature is an interesting concept, and provides its own source of fun that detaches itself from the main game; at least in short bursts. That’s well and good, but how do these tie into the larger game surrounding them? Well, one odd feature of Vostok Inc. involves picking up stray managers drifting through space, at which point they must be kept satisfied to boost your earnings with food, booze, and gifts. You can go the route of snagging loot dropped by enemies, but another way of earning these forms of sustenance is by playing primitive versions of various mini games that come with newly acquired managers. Most are so simple they invoke memories of those old TI-80 calculator games. They’re essentially a bite-sized representation of Vostok Inc. itself - entertaining in small doses, yet with short-lived enjoyment thanks to their simplicity. I couldn’t help but feel that these were throw-ins, and mere distractions designed to give you something to do while waiting for your money to roll in. Still, with how much Moolah you’ll need to reach the end boss, anything to pass the time can be viewed as a positive, I suppose.
Credit where credit is due: there is a healthy amount of content here for an indie title, it’s just that there’s little variance or substance to it. Vostok could theoretically be tackled somewhere in the realm of 15-20 hours, depending on how resourceful you are with your Moolah and how often you die - as you lose your cash upon death. Yet like most open-world games, you can stretch that quite a bit further if you choose, especially with the random occurrences of managers to rescue, races to engage in, and the slew of mini-games. You’re also tossed a New Game Plus mode that opens up following the end of your initial run, though it doesn’t contain any apparent leaps from the original besides granting you a rotating drone which provides extra firepower. Once you start this mode, everything resets except your achievements anyway, and you can’t even return to your old game once you start, so it feels rather pointless.
While the gameplay comes across as pretty bland in a metaphorical sense, the aesthetics are the visual representation of this. They consist of some flat graphics that look very basic “Adobe Flash”. Considering the majority of the game is played in the mostly vacant, black backdrops of outer space, this lack of detail in the assets stands out. Though I guess the silly, cartoony vibe compliments the tongue-in-cheek nature of the game’s themes; so at least from an artistic view, they serve their purpose. The synthwave tracks similarly mesh with the sci-fi theme prevalent throughout; each solar system coming with a unique track to help add to its individual character. Unfortunately they’re also quite repetitious - composed mainly of tracks that run in the range of 5-10 second loops. Considering how much time can be spent playing Vostok, this can quickly become an annoyance.
Essentially, only those looking for a space shooter that tries something a little different are likely to really get anything out of Vostok Inc. The open world elements and breadth of content is admirable for a relatively cheap indie, and a few concepts here or there - like customizable weapons - make for a more interesting experience. Yet the sim qualities are mostly mundane and tedious, which is a shame considering how much the game revolves around them; and even the space shooting side of things can be dull at times. The idea of melding these two genres in theory is a neat idea, though in practice it falls a bit flat here. Ultimately, Vostok Inc proves to be more of a bust than a boom.