Before I even attempt to describe Astronaut: The Best, I’ll prematurely dispel any suspicions upfront: No, I am not tripping. But two of my astronauts were the day before they were set to launch into space.
The debut game from indie studio Universal Happymaker — one that took a whopping eight years to develop — Astronaut: The Best is so unlike anything I’ve ever played that it’s hard to describe. It’s a narrative roguelite wrapped around an occult management simulator about managing PR for the world’s worst astronauts. There’s spellcasting! There’s boxing! There’s secret reptilians! Unpredictable doesn’t even begin to describe what’s essentially Calvinball: The Video Game.
Astronaut: The Best is a wildly inventive game that delivers pointed capitalist satire and goofball farce in the same breath. Its randomness can be frustrating as it’s hard to keep track of every zany mechanic it throws at you, but that hyperactive attitude is the point. It’s an absurd Saturday morning cartoon about how anything and everything can go wrong when unpredictable humans and overbearing political metagaming are involved.
Astronaut: The Best quickly does a lot of table-setting in its first mission. A shady council of zealots informs me that I’ve been appointed the new director of the Flaustrian Royal Space Academy, and it’s now my job to lead a successful space mission that’ll bring glory to Flaustria. I’m essentially helming a high-stakes propaganda mission and failure could cost me my head.
There’s a lot that goes into my day-to-day routine as the launch approaches. I recruit astronauts that can be trained every day in stats like piloting and charm. Training is as simple as holding a button down to raise the stat a few levels, but the longer I hold it, the more stress they accrue. If that gets too high, they’re at risk of having a mental breakdown or sustaining an injury that’ll keep them out of action for a few days. I can either reduce that stress by giving them a day off … or by practicing witchcraft.
That training comes into play in a variety of ways leading up to launch. In my first mission, I need to hold a press conference hyping up the launch. I pick my most charming astronauts to lead the presser, and they have to pass certain skill checks to make a convincing case. Sometimes that’s represented by a spinning wheel that has safe spaces relative to my stat, while other times it’s played out in an idle minigame where a spaceship has to reach the moon using the number of stat points an astronaut has.
That’s where Astronaut: The Best can get a little frustrating. The chance-based nature of it can often lead to failures that are entirely beyond my control. I pulled my hair out as I got to a launch, only to have a random wheel skill check fail and screw up an hourlong run. That’s further complicated by the fact that each astronaut has a set of random, hidden traits that can throw a significant wrench in things. I ended up with two astronauts on one mission who would occasionally be indisposed for days as they were too busy tripping on drugs. that’s admittedly hysterical, but it can make all the repetitive training that leads up to it feel a little meaningless at the drop of a hat.
That’s kind of the point, though. Astronaut: The Best plays with the idea that anything that can go wrong will go wrong when the stakes are high. It’s a comedy about how even the most careful planning can go out the window when dealing with erratic human beings who can’t be controlled like machines. It’s as much an ode to humanity’s eccentricities as a head-shaking indictment of how idiotic we can be.
That’s further reflected in its sharpest satirical layer. In addition to mounting a complicated space mission, I need to keep each council member happy if I want to continue getting funding for the operation. That means agreeing to certain demands that throw more stress on my own plate, like promising to have my astronauts say a prayer as their first words in space. That bureaucracy makes my already complex job harder, as I’m left appeasing shady lobbyists at the expense of the mission’s safety. It’s a hilarious slice of political comedy that often has me agreeing to moronic requests so I don’t have to beg for money.
Explaining how Astronaut: The Best’s mechanical systems work doesn’t really do justice to just how remarkably weird the actual game is. So instead of going into more detail, let me tell you the rousing story of my first (semi) successful space launch.
In the game’s second story scenario, I have a few weeks to assemble and train a team. That task quickly becomes a headache as my crew’s hidden traits begin to reveal themselves with each passing day. One of my crewmembers turns out to be a wild card with a disregard for rules. Another begins spending a chunk of my budget on new clothing every week. Oh, and it turns out one is a secret reptilian, a fact I choose to keep secret from the council while hoping that no one notices later.
Before I can get to launch day, the council tells me that I need to prepare two of my astronauts to fight in an intergalactic boxing match against a rival nation. It’s a total sideshow, but I don’t have a choice but to spend a week or two buffing two of my best’s fitness stats. Before I can get there, I flail my way through a disastrous weigh-in. Fortunately, the fight itself went better. I pass some fitness checks to win a few rounds, without even needing to use the secret code that one council member tells me will send my opponent into a blind rage. Doing so would have sent me on an entirely different story path that I’m eager to go back and try out.
From there, I can focus on my mission. Well, actually, not yet. One day, I’m flocked by reporters who begin asking questions about the launch. I’m caught off guard when one asks me to comment on rumors that one of my astronauts is, in fact, a secret reptilian. Dammit. Thinking on my feet, I decide to defend her and say that reptilians are actually cool and allowed in the space academy. That revelation doesn’t just send the tabloids into a frenzy, but causes another astronaut to reveal that they’ve been a secret reptilian all this time too, unveiling another hidden trait. With a reptile-infested launch day in sight, a council member comes to me with a request: Turn the rocket ship into a sphere to protect it against snakes. Fine, whatever!
All of this comes to a head at launch, where I need to pick my three best astronauts capable of passing several tough skill checks. Half of my mission isn’t really up to me anymore, though, since I’ve made so many previous obligations to the council. I have to include two specific crewmembers on the trip, and I’ve also promised that I’ll do a cool spaceship trick once I get up there. Plus, my spherical spaceship turns out to be a pretty inefficient design that can’t hold as much fuel. Surprise, surprise.
Regardless, I start prepping for the launch. That begins with a safety check — one that my wild card pilot decides he’s too cool for. After lighting a cigarette during the check, he explodes and takes out a good chunk of the ship’s fuel. My other two crewmembers manage to get the thing up into space and absolutely fail to pull off a cool trick. Instead, the ship explodes, forcing them to parachute out onto a nearby asteroid. While they’re unable to engineer the rock into a ship, an alien cruise ship passes by and offers to pick them up. Well, it offers to pick my most charming crewmember up. The other is deemed too uncool to board. I have to bribe them with half of my remaining budget to convince them to let her crash the party.
Mission accomplished, I guess?
That’s the kind of ridiculous, free-form storytelling that’s possible within Astronaut: The Best. Even when repeating the same story missions, each “run” can feel entirely distinct thanks to randomized requests and traits that completely screw up your best-laid plans in unexpected ways. As annoyed as I was in the moment when my pilot blew himself up because of a failed skill check, I love the story it let me tell. I fought against impossible odds and headache-inducing bureaucracy to get to the stars — and I only killed one person doing it!
Think you can do it better than me? Then take my job. Please, I’m begging you.
Astronaut: The Best launches on August 15 for PC.
- Take a break from September’s loudest games with this cat-filled indie charmer
- I made my own Starfield radio station for your space exploration needs
- Unity clarifies what types of game installs count toward its new Runtime Fee
- The best games of August 2023: Baldur’s Gate 3, Sea of Stars, and more
- This witchy indie will challenge your idea of what a ‘narrative’ game looks like