Where do we draw the line between a tech demo and a game? Well, going strictly by technicalities, I suppose the deciding factor is whether there’s a victory condition. As long as there are “obstacles” to overcome and as long as you can “win,” it technically crosses the line and becomes a game. In that sense, sure, Space Pirate Trainer is a game—but it feels more like a tech demo.
Disclaimer: My copy of Space Pirate Trainer was provided by I-Illusions. However, my opinions in this review are solely my own and have not been influenced by I-Illusions in any way.
The core gameplay of Space Pirate Trainer is simple enough: you have three lives and your goal is to shoot down the enemies before they kill you. They spawn in waves, where each wave has a specific pattern of enemy types and enemy counts, and they zip around while you dodge their incoming laser-bullets. That’s pretty much the gist of it.
The default weapon setup is dual automatic blasters. That’s fun enough, but each blaster can switch between six firing modes on demand:
- Pulse Laser (automatic single-shot)
- Quark Cannon (semi-automatic single-shot)
- Shot Works (semi-automatic scatter-shot)
- Rail Gun (charged single-shot laser beam)
- Ray Gun (laser beam that overheats)
- Ion Grenade (trigger detonation)
You can also switch out one of your weapons for a shield, which you can grab by reaching over your shoulder. The shield is indispensible because it blocks attacks, and also has a force field push when you pull the trigger. You can switch the shield to bat mode, which links with targeted enemies and pulls them toward you like a magnet. The bat can also link with turrets around the platform, each one with a unique ability to support your fight against the oncoming droids but only usable for about 15 seconds before needing to cool down and recharge.
The different weapons are fun to use and they offer just enough variety to stay interesting, and I’m personally drawn to the Ion Grenade because it’s so satisfying to launch an orb into a pack of drones and watch them all disintengrate. And it does get your heart racing when you’re surrounded by a swarm of quick-flying drones and trying to dodge every last shot like you’re Neo in The Matrix.
Enemies occasionally drop powerups that you can break. These powerups offer temporary boosts like homing rockets, uber-powered laser beams, or even a one-way dome shield that protects you from incoming enemy fire while still letting you attack from the inside out. Don’t want to play with these? You can disable powerups in the options.
I also enjoy the bullet time mechanic, where time slows down when enemy bullets come near you. Not only does it help you stay alive during intense waves, but you can actually use it to your advantage: risk your life by allowing yourself to be shot, then use bullet time to wipe out as many enemies as you can while they’re slowed down.
I’m sure you can feel the arcade-ness of Space Pirate Trainer just from the screenshots thus far. It’s pretty ruthless toward the latter waves and you’re going to die a lot, as often as you’d expect from a real arcade game—but unlike arcade games, you can restart as many times as you want without feeding extra quarters, and you can choose to start at a later wave once you’ve reached them for the first time (every 5th wave acts as a checkpoint).
Note: I’m reviewing Space Pirate Trainer from the perspective of someone who has a modestly sized play area of about 8-feet by 6-feet. Supposedly the game is more fun if you have access to a much larger space so you can walk around the entire platform and dodge attacks by running around, but most home users won’t have this kind of space.
My biggest issue with Space Pirate Trainer is that it doesn’t have enough gameplay variety to keep me interested. There’s a skill-based component to the game, I won’t deny that, but there are too many chaotic elements that drown out the skillful parts. In a game like Gun Club VR or Racket Fury, all of your focus is concentrated on the element of skill, whether that’s aiming at a target or striking a ping pong ball. In Space Pirate Trainer, there’s just too much going on to focus on any one thing.
One could argue that the main skill in Space Pirate Trainer is chaos management, and I won’t argue against that. However, for me, the execution of it isn’t very fun—unless you’re a score-chaser by nature. Space Pirate Trainer truly is an arcade game as it takes a page from the arcade playbooks of old, namely in using high scores as chief motivation to come back and try again after you die. But if you aren’t a score-chaser, I don’t see much reason to keep playing after the first 30 minutes.
To be fair, Space Pirate Trainer tried to mix things up a bit by offering four different game modes, but calling them “different” is extremely generous. You have the default Arcade mode where you start with 3 lives, and the Old School mode which is the same thing but with a different wave progression. Hardcore mode is the same as Arcade but without bullet time, and Explorer is the same as Arcade but your health regenerates at the cost of reduced score. To all of this I say, “Meh.” I would’ve loved game modes with more variability, like a unique set of waves for each weapon type.
Lack of replayability isn’t a huge problem most of the time. I mean, if you check out my review of Moss, you’ll see that I gave it a glowing review despite its zero replayability. But when a game is built completely on the promise of repetitive arcade action, as in the case of Space Pirate Trainer, then the lack of replayability is a fundamental deal-breaker. Once you’ve tried all of the weapons, there isn’t anything new to experience. Yes, of course there are players who love this game; I’m just saying that it requires a very particular kind of personality to enjoy what this game offers.
Last but minor complaint: the music is terribly grating. It’s one of the few games where I felt compelled to turn the music off before even playing the first round. The options menu is also sparse, although I give props to I-Illusions for allowing players to change the angle of the blaster barrel. That’s pretty nifty!
Space Pirate Trainer is one of the few games that comes with a pre-loaded demo on the Oculus Quest, so give it a try before you decide to buy. It gives a pretty good taste of what the game is about—just don’t expect much else because the demo is pretty much the whole game.
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