Roguelikes aren’t usually about looking back. Spelunky’s slapstick descent starts in crumbling mineshafts and ends – if you’re good enough – deep in the pits of hell. FTL sees your lonely ship forced to push deeper and deeper into the unknown, as the rebel fleet gives chase. But while Cargo Commander shares its deep-space setting with the latter game, each loot-grabbing expedition in Serious Brew’s PC platformer ends with a zero-G freefall back to base.
Cargo Commander casts players as a deep-space scavenger, and captain of cuboid cargo ship. Starting each day on that ship, players use a magnet to yank in the derelict cargo holds floating through the sector. They arrive with a wallop, slamming into the side of your vessel (and each other) before you pick a path through the smashed hulls. Inside are loot, platforms and aliens, and while this core of the game is a little bland – from monster designs to the basic jumping and shooting – it’s enlivened by Serious Brew’s very lax interpretation of what happens to the human body in the cold vacuum of space.
Your lumberjack-like commander can float briefly through the void, before drilling (with the aid of a handy arm attachment) his way back into the containers. These abilities are analogous to Spelunky’s bombs and ropes, letting you reject the lie of the of the procedurally generated land and come up with your own way through it. They’re also needed to quickly retreat at the end of each wave, when a wormhole rips the containers apart and away from your ship. The interplay between the gravity-free void and the gravity-filled cargo holds also leads to unexpected moments of comedy, as you tunnel into a container only to fall straight through it and back out.
Floating around outside these levels is quietly affecting, the weightless motion and muffled sounds conveying a surprising sense of the lonely emptiness of space. It’s a feeling amplified by the story, delivered in epistolary nuggets via emails on your character’s PC. They’re a mixture of broad anti-corporate satire and sentimental tugs at your heartstrings in the form of love letters from home, but they convey a sense of a life beyond the commander’s lonesome drudgery.
As do the leaderboards. Each sector in Cargo Commander is randomly generated, but from the moment of creation they’re also fixed, allowing you to perfect your playthrough. Replaying levels tends to expose the simple nature of Cargo Commander’s mechanics, however, and we found ourselves warping to new sectors whenever we could, which due to the game’s stingy rationing of sector passes wasn’t as often as we’d have liked. But while Cargo Commander might be an occasionally limited platform game, it’s nonetheless an entertaining ode to the simple pleasures of an honest day’s work.