Welcome back to the far-off land of 1999 where we join our heroes around a table, ready to roll into action and become the latest saviours of the universe. That is, once everyone is done creating their characters. Galaxy of Pen and Paper is the latest game made and published by Behold Studios, where you roleplay vicariously through digital characters, rather than risking the dangers of the outdoors to play your own physical game of Dungeons & Dragons. With your hastily assembled cast of characters, you are ready to set off on your epic adventure to save the universe!
The main attraction of Galaxy of Pen and Paper is undoubtedly its aesthetic and charm. The writing is quick at first to tunnel its way into your heart through veins of nostalgia, although after the opening hours, those veins are quickly bled dry. The story is front and centre and it’s charming, acting as a manual to parody sci-fi films and games through their tropes. While for the most part the story amusing, at times the humour begins to run dry as its attempts to repeat itself end up running the humour into the ground. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the game subsists merely on parodying popular sci-fi tropes – there’s also a slew of late 90s pop-culture references that will mostly likely cause the player to sigh and say “I see what you did there”.
Having said that, despite occasionally falling flat due to bad parodies and references, the story was incredibly charming and was definitely what drew me into the experience. I played the game while avidly waiting for the next part of the storyline, waiting impatiently to see what the game had in store. The dialogue was golden (despite the terrible forced humour of the story) and all in all, the largest problem that the story suffers from is that Galaxy of Pen and Paper contains too much filler and not enough content to keep the good parts good.
The gameplay of a Galaxy of Pen and Paper can be split quite easily into two different sections, which in turn becomes the biggest issue. The aesthetic of the game is incredibly immersive, with the visuals and the sound working in harmony to make the player believe that they’re actually playing a game in the year 1999. However, the gameplay fractures when it comes to combat, making the experience jarring. The combat is separated into ‘space’ and ‘ground’, and ground combat lacks the same depth as the rest of the game, causing it to feel like an entirely separate experience.
The ground combat is, like many RPGs, customisable to a point. With a selection of classes to choose from, and with each class having an array of abilities, there’s more than enough depth to make you feel like your created character is unique. This comes alongside the visual character creator, which allows the player to customise the appearance of every party member. However, there’s a somewhat serious problem with the way abilities are unlocked. Players can unlock any ability whenever they please so long as they have the required skill points to spend, meaning that while it sounds like the ideal scenario for refining a character’s skillset as you please, the game ends up turning into a session where you simply grind for skill points in order to unlock the best abilities instead of unlocking skills in a more logical order (e.g. by working your way up a skill tree). Playing the game in this way means that you’re not progressing in a natural manner, jumping from level to level instead of slowly working your way through the game. Alternatively, this means that your team can be overly powerful with just an hour of gameplay, making every other choice redundant.
Whilst the ground combat is serviceable enough as a game on its own, it falls apart when it becomes part of the larger game and ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ becomes the phrase of the day as the disparity between the narrative and the gameplay becomes jarring. The main issue driving the different parts of the game apart is the overarching immersive aesthetic which ties the game so neatly together, while also damning it. The use of virtual dice makes perfect sense in a game where you would use real dice to play it physically. However, the only dice rolling that the player actually does is during space ship battles, where at the start of each turn you roll a die to decide how much power you will have for that turn to fire weapons or defend. In these battles, chance and tactics blend together, meaning that regardless of the die outcome you’ll always be able to act in some way. Furthering this as progression new, more sided, dice are unlocked throughout play, creating a meaningful reward which increases player power rather than having them chase a meaningless McGuffin. When returning to the ground however all sense of chance is lost, as there is no visible element of chance, detracting you from the experience.
Galaxy of Pen and Paper gives you the ability to create your own missions in a refreshing take on a typical quest system. The game’s mission system consists of the player being able to choose between a selection of mission types, each handed out from different people, and the planet they want the mission to occur on. Each new mission variation awards you with more reputation, giving the player motivation to mix up their missions as much as possible. However, to maximise reputation, you need to complete every different mission available to you, meaning that even though you can plan your missions yourself you’ll eventually wind up following a set pattern anyway. Despite this, I still felt like I had control when I made each new mission. I didn’t care that I was just cycling through the available choices, I instead cared that I was deciding what to do like a real captain, or like I was in a real table top campaign. However, looking past the gorgeously painted design and aesthetic and the missions, even with all their choice, everything just boils down into little more than a medium for grinding and gaining experience as many of the missions repeat themselves. It’s the same old routine dressed up differently each time – despite each mission having a differently worded briefing, they all end up being “go here and kill this guy” or “go there and kill that guy”.
Galaxy of Pen and Paper is undoubtedly dripping with late 90s vibes, from its inspired synth soundtrack that accompanies you through the game to its pixel art visuals which follow the modern wide colour pallet to build beautiful and impressive landscapes. The soundtrack to Galaxy of Pen and Paper makes a great listen, with its rolling synth and Saturday morning cartoon feel similar to that of Behold’s previous game Chroma Squad. Over time, however, this music does start to feel repetitive, and after you hear the same music while doing the same task over and over again it starts to grate on you and loses its charm. This is the problem at the core of Galaxy of Pen and Paper, where there is too much filler and grinding so every element which usually seems full of charm and whimsy starts to become more and more irritating as you play. The pixel art style, while not an uncommon choice, suits Galaxy of Pen and Paper perfectly with its setting, being suitably retro and a homage to older games. However, the game positively chooses not to be entirely stuck in the the past by using a full range of colour which allows each environment to truly flourish.
“*** NO IN-APP PURCHASES! *** *** Pay once and play the complete game forever! ***” reads the steam description, shamelessly ported over from the mobile release and, clearly a warning I should have seen long before I left Galaxy of Pen and Paper. However, throughout my time with it I was never feeling that it resembled a typical mobile game. The port of Galaxy of Pen and Paper feels like a complete experience and one that has its place on the PC. While the menus in the PC version are large and seemingly suited to a mobile device they seamlessly port over, not leaving any cracks in the experience. It should be a testament then to Galaxy of Pen and Paper’s quality that I didn’t realise this while playing the game myself. I had been sucked in by its aesthetic and I had no intention of leaving the warm nostalgia bubble it had created for me. That said, I soon realised I would have far rather played the game on mobile, with the sheer competition for attention on a PC coupled with the few seconds of hesitation that comes with any game’s booting sequence had me hesitant to return to the admittedly simple grinding. It’s no doubt that Galaxy of Pen and Paper would win out on mobile, as on a PC it’s a far harder sell unless you are a beloved fan of the series.[review]