Vostok Inc. is described by its developer as “The Wolf of Wall Street… in space!” That’s a sales pitch we’re finding hard to ignore.
It was a perfect storm. The day I started Vostok Inc. I had read an article about vending machines that increase the price of drinks when the outside temperature rises; it told me about algorithms that raise and lower prices online throughout the day to try and capture the perfect buying time, the perfect price. I had made a black coffee and it stood on the arm of the chair letting up tendrils of steam.
Adrift in iridescent space, an irritating businessman in a cheap suit jabbered away in my ear, his voice the garbled yaps of Star Fox. After being told how to move and shoot I wanted him to shut up. I was angry at him. He was giving me useful info but all I wanted to do was blast frangible asteroids apart and collect the ‘moolah’ that came spewing out. Assets, stock, profit. My heart quickened.
Soon enemies came pouring in and, as I spat hot plasma at them across the black, he yapped on. A thin film of sweat had broken out on my face as the glow of reward sent tingles through my brain. I became aware that my face was a rictus gurn. After a heated exchange I exhaled and caught the retronasal memory of something faintly familiar, and it was then I realised what Vostok Inc. reminded me of: cocaine.
Developer Nosebleed Interactive (see! It’s a bit on the nose, I know) has described the game, saying, “Think The Wolf of Wall Street… in Space!” Well, indeed: it’s a euphoric rush with tunnel-vision acquisition on the brain, your goal being to mine resources, destroy your opponents, and manage your internal employees to build the eponymous company into a corporate galactic behemoth. Bezos eat your heart out!
At the bloody tip of the capitalist spear, you’ll be exploring the solar system in your ship, battling aliens – be they moustachioed Mafioso robots or pink-brained aliens in ’50s-style flying saucers. The feel of arcing your ship using your booster rockets and wallowing into turns feels good – a thick and chewy approach to Delta-v, with fun in mind.
Hitting R1 gives you a scorching blast of speed to slice across the galaxy, or out-manoeuvre enemy craft in a white-blue trail of frothing light. There’s an acidic satisfaction in tracing a ring round your prey, firing with your thumbs working in gyrating tandem, evading and dealing damage in perfect synchronicity.
This is not all, mind. A scattershot jam of styles breaks up your play and keeps your synapses firing. No sooner was I worn out from fighting than I flitted to planet-sapping. From mining to setting up colonies, you’re given a range of different avenues for cash flow – and by investing in satellites you can transfer your gains instantly off-world. If you’re mining a planet’s minerals then why not set up affordable housing for your miners? Take back a chunk of their wages by way of rent and slap down a shopping mall to keep them sedate. This is capitalist feudalism in action, and it’s not such an alien concept: Google and Facebook are developing these principles in real life.
Add to this the bizarre melange of mini-games and extras waiting for you in your pause menu. You’ll collect CEOs, middle-management personnel, and investors floating in the vacuum. Hoovering them up – rescuing them, in a way – before they run out of oxygen means you can stick them to work in the company; this means higher profits and efficiency, but you have to keep them happy. In one of the most bat-shit brilliant touches, you do this using Tamagotchi-style toys: mini games with 2-bit colour palettes, food and gifts to lavish on your bratty, layabout higher-ups. The money flows upwards.
The whole enterprise becomes a blood-gorged parasite. There’s something terrifying and satisfying about watching your money tick upwards – at first gradually, and later with feverish speed – as you cruise through. The sickening stroke is that you too are merely part of the cycle: the loop of play has you plying cash into weapon upgrades, ship upgrades, and more efficient terraforming apparatus. You shoot to acquire money and vice versa, ad infinitum.
To Nosebleed Interactive’s credit, though, this loop scales with your upwards trajectory – crucially, there’s always something to buy. As entire planets become lactating coffers, you’ll begin to feel untouchable. It’s like Michael Gambon’s speech in Layer Cake: “You’re born, you take shit. Get out in the world, you take more shit. Climb a little higher, take less shit. Till one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like.”
What’s wonderful is not how well these two radically different styles coalesce – twin-stick shooter and idle-clicker management sim – but that heaps of information is parsed and presented to you in a play-led drip-freed. When your gabbling mentor goes ignored it’s to the game’s credit that you can learn-by-doing so cannily. There’s a lot to take in and a mountain to climb, but it’s relentlessly enticing.
This is all cut to a subdued synth-wave soundtrack that hums and nudges, keeping you in a perennial zone while you play; it’s not overbearing, and you flit in and out of noticing it and letting it wash over you. There’s a David Firth quality to its look as well. The characters have a charming web-comic naffness about them. You may think the whole thing gimcrack to begin with, only to find yourself coming round to its oddball flavour.
Vostok Inc.’s Achilles heel is however its fleeting, short life.
That ravenous, consumptive pace, the euphoric feeling of progress and acquisition, the twitchy thrill of bullet-hell space battles: it’s draining. It’s casual when you’re not playing it. In theory you can dip in and out freely; only, I’m never quite sated and each sitting has been diminishing returns. Nothing has beaten that first session I spent with it: my flat mate came home to find me a perspiring mess; my time, much like my diet that day, was measured out in coffee spoons. All my time since has been spent chasing that first thrill, and I still am. I’ll never get it back.