So far, I have completed every game that I've ever reviewed. I may not have completed them all 100% (although typically I do), but I have at least finished the main campaign and any relevant side-content. But Space Pioneer is another story.
It's relevant, I promise.
For a while now, I've been sifting through mobile games looking for something that isn't awful. It's been a pretty difficult search. For starters, I don't like any game with an "energy" or "stamina" system—the system that only allows you to play a certain amount per day (unless you spend real money, of course). I think that players should be able to play a game as much as they want to; stamina systems are meant to level the playing field between casuals and hardcores, and I dislike that. I think that if you want to sink 23 hours a day into a game, then yes, you should be allowed to excel beyond players that only put in 30 minutes a day. That's life: you work harder, you get better, you earn more. I understand that mobile games have quickly devolved into "milk as much cash as possible from suckers and keep your Monthly/Daily Active User counts high", but I'm one of the few weirdos out there actually searching for a quality, entertaining game for a mobile device. I like what the mobile platform provides: quick, concentrated play sessions for on-the-go (or on-the-toilet), but unfortunately the overlap between this style of gameplay and the casual market is very apparent. Over the years I've run into a few diamonds in the rough, but even those are not flawless. I've always wondered: just how perfect would this game be if it eliminated microtransactions? How much would I get into this game if I could actually play when and where I wanted without artificial limitations? How would it feel to play a mobile game without being acutely aware that the publisher refers to me as a type of fish? So I wished...
Space Pioneer gave me what I wanted. Unfortunately, it didn't do a very good job of it. When I first saw this game on the Nintendo store, it was on sale for pretty cheap. I wasn't aware that it was a mobile port, somehow. I looked up some gameplay videos and it looked like a decent enough twin-stick shooter, so I picked it up. When playing it, there were moments where I was "entertained". There were also moments where I was so criminally bored that I almost fell asleep behind the controller. For some reason I had a hard time putting it down, but I wasn't really having fun. It's scary. It's kind of like a drug—which is exactly what mobile games are.
Space Pioneer is a twin-stick shooter. You have three classes to choose from: One is fast and weak, one is slow and strong, and one is in the middle. You have a small array of passive skills that vary per class, a pool of weapons from which you can select one per mission, and a pool of sub-weapons from which you can select three. Most of the weapons and sub-weapons suck. Most of the classes also suck at everything except the one thing they are made for. You collect cards throughout the game which can be used in ever-increasing amounts to upgrade your passives, weapons and sub-weapons.
Most of the sub/weapons are unlocked through leveling up. A handful of them are unlocked through achievements (dubbed "trophies" in this game). I am assuming that in the original game, the "trophy" weapons were unlocked via some sort of secondary currency—another plague on mobile games. There is no secondary currency in the Switch port, which is nice. There are also no microtransactions. However, after playing the game for a pretty lengthy amount of time, I still had never found a single upgrade card for the weapons unlocked via trophies. I have assumed at this point that they do not exist. These are also more or less the only decent weapons aside from maybe two others, so it stings even more.
The big selling point of this game is that it is "infinite". I don't know why I didn't avoid it based on that alone, but I suppose we all make mistakes. It's infinite in the same way many other games are "infinite": it uses some breed of procedural generation. There are only four planet types (jungle, desert, lava and snow) and only four or five types of enemies per type that all basically act the same: a tiny grunt enemy; a medium, somewhat mobile enemy; a large and strong enemy. The fire maps also have a "totally un-fun and ruins your experience" enemy, which is the dragon. Sometimes I would just randomly die even as the heavy character, and I'm not sure why. But it was only when a dragon was present. Still haven't figured that one out.
Anyway, the "main campaign" is 11 chapters long. Each chapter consists of several planets, and each planet has three objectives. The first one is usually just to finish the level; the second and third ones are pulled from a small pool. One of these objectives is to finish a level with a certain weapon—most of which suck. Sometimes you must defeat a large number of enemies with a specific weapon type; the number you must defeat always expands far beyond the number of enemies spawned normally in the level, which requires you to wander around aimlessly and wait for enemies to spawn, killing three at a time. Sometimes you have to finish a level in a certain amount of time, or without letting your health drop below a certain percentage. Each chapter has one or more "boss levels", which are all basically the same exact thing: run around in circles, drop your sub-weapons on cooldown, hold down the fire button and wait for it to die. The last two boss levels have goals that I assume are basically impossible unless you grind forever and ever; I would assume these were paywalls in the original game where you basically had to pay money to progress. Also, since I never once found a card for any of the trophy weapons, I was not able to complete any objectives requiring those weapons' upgraded versions (e.g. Machine Gun Level 2+). In short, most of the objectives are either completely trivial or so mind-numbingly boring/frustratingly difficult that they aren't worth doing.
After you complete the main campaign, you unlock "endless mode"...which is just the campaign, forever. There are an infinite number of chapters with an infinite number of vacuous goals. Several trophies have incredibly frustrating requirements meant to further this design: for example, there are 3 separate goal trophies that require you to "Kill Next Bosses" with certain weapons. What this means is that you have to use that weapon to kill a boss that you haven't killed before. I understand that simply killing the first chapter's boss over and over would be silly, but what this really means is that if you want to unlock all the trophies, you have to play through 27 bosses without using your weapon of choice. Nine of those 27 involve the Ray Gun, which is great (although again, I've never seen an upgrade drop for it), but the other 18 require weapons that are so piss-weak that aren't worth using and they make the bosses a headache for no reason. Stupid.
In addition to upgrading your gear with cards, you must pay a fee which doubles with each level. This means that after just a few upgrades, each level will require 8,000+ gold (then 16,000; 32,000; and so on...). You earn (very small) amounts of gold via leveling up past level 30 or so and by completing missions and killing monsters. There are also "tasks" which are basically quests. These are all pretty much the same thing as the per-level missions, so there's no new fun there. The amount of gold that you earn from all of this is so abysmal that you will basically never be able to upgrade anything to a respectable level. I found a bug that allows you to force the game to vomit out probably 100 times more gold that it normally does, and the upgrade process is still pitifully boring—in addition, the final two boss objectives are still impossible, and one random level objective is also impossible because I've never been able to upgrade the Machine Gun one time.
The core gameplay loop is not bad, even though it's repetitive. It would be fine as a game to just space out and play, but the fact that progression is so stunted and you feel like you're never really accomplishing anything past the campaign makes the whole thing feel utterly pointless. You have to use arbitrary weapons constantly to accomplish missions and tasks, but the trophies require you to kill obscene amounts of enemies with other weapons. The "Kill 1,000 enemies with x" trophies aren't so bad, but why on earth do I have to kill ten thousand enemies with the Tesla gun? Why do I have to upgrade the Frag Grenade to level nine?! Why do I have to get all the way to planet 250 when I've already seen everything there is to see in the first ten levels? I feel like the team was looking to make a quick, greedy buck on this one: the original price point is $9.99, which is just totally not worth it. It's clear to me that this was hardly tested at all and nobody actually played the "infinite" portion of the game as long as they advertised you should, because they would have realized you can't actually accomplish half of what the game asks you to without completely sucking all the fun out of it.
Space Pioneer did do one thing excellently, though: It showed me that my wish was stupid. If you take away the micro-transactions and energy systems, a mobile game is nothing more than a drug designed to suck you in every day and leech you of your money.