Laughing Jackal is the master of carrot dangling. Its previous PlayStation Mini — the gloriously stylish OMG-Z — hooked you into its underlying "one more go" philosophy by rewarding you with new upgrades at every opportunity. The British based studio's latest outing, Orbit, follows a similar formula, and while it's ultimately not quite as refined as its predecessor, it's still mightily difficult to put down.
In Orbit you are guided by two bumbling scientific buffoons, who topically explain that, due to the credit crunch and cut-backs, the National Space Program has been thrown into disarray. The duo's solution? Fashion a couple of low-budget wing attachments and fly through space, scooping up any gold coins that are inexplicably floating above land.
The dialogue is lighthearted and fun, though the back-and-forth nitwittery between the scientific double-act can grate at times — particularly in the game's opening moments where it takes a while to get going. That said there's some good self-referential dialogue here, with Laughing Jackal confident enough in its own execution to take a jab or two at its own design contrivances.
Like OMG-Z, the gameplay in Orbit is deceptively simple. But it's the behind the scenes upgrade mechanics that make the experience so exploitatively addictive. Tossed from an Angry Birds inspired catapult, you must sparingly apply gas to your space-craft — which changes as you unlock new levels — in order to fly as far possible. Along the way you'll encounter coins — which need to be collected in order to purchase vehicle upgrades — as well as debris and foes, which clutter your screen or steal your fuel if you come into contact with them.
The real genius of Orbit is its upgrade mechanic. It's perfectly balanced to encourage insidious replayability. On each level you can upgrade your craft's engine power, boost duration, launch accuracy and coin vacuum, as well as apply other one-shot benefits such as window wipers (which clean the screen should you come into contact with a particular foe) and an on-screen HUD. Each of these upgrade routes have multiple tiers, so you'll be capable of flying much further with each unlock. Of course, flying further means you'll also have opportunity to collect more coins, and subsequently upgrade your craft once again — and so the time-sapping cycle begins.
The game's impossible to put down. If all this sounds familiar, it's because the formula is lifted almost identically from Laughing Jackal's OMG-Z. But even though the mechanic is not as original this time around, it's no less addictive. Orbit's actual gameplay amounts to little more than tapping a button, but the sense of gradual progression never gets old. Laughing Jackal really has mastered the art of making a simple idea feel massively rewarding.
For as brilliant as Orbit is though, it never quite reaches the heights of Laughing Jackal's previous release. In OMG-Z you constantly levelled up your character, unlocking more challenging levels as you progressed. But in Orbit, you must restart the upgrade procedure on each new level. Laughing Jackal would probably argue that the fact that you earn a new ship on each stage — you start with wings and gradually unlock even more wacky contraptions — makes up for the fact that there's no persistent ties between the levels, but we felt it led to repetition. At a point you're simply going through the motions, and while the core formula remains moreish, it doesn't quite work to the same degree as OMG-Z did.
The issue is accentuated by the fact that there's really no need to return to the stages once you've fully completed them. There are optional blueprints and ship parts to collect, but little else. OMG-Z's tiered score system did a much better job of demonstrating your progression as you advanced through the game.
Orbit's visually pleasant, with bright and varied backdrops driving your acceleration through the campaign. The game's fanciful presentation is emphasised by catchy audio motifs, which appropriately fit the silly nature of the gameplay itself.
As with so many other PlayStation Minis these days, Orbit also boasts a custom set of trophies which add longevity to the experience if you're already hooked. An additional statistics screen keeps track of your progress, allowing you to analyse every facet of your intergalactic campaign.
Orbit never quite manages to better Laughing Jackal's previous release, but OMG-Z was always going to be a difficult act to follow. The game's understanding of balanced upgrade mechanics remain the draw here, and even though the title's lack of consistency between levels leads to repetition, we still challenge you to put it down once you've got started. It's a light-hearted experience defined by its witty, self-referential humour and whimsical visuals. In short: a fun little game.