Before I attempt to describe Astronaut: The Best, let me clarify right away: No, I am not hallucinating. However, two of my astronauts were the day before their scheduled space launch.
The debut game from indie studio Universal Happymaker, Astronaut: The Best, is a unique experience unlike anything I’ve ever played. Developed over a span of eight years, this game defies categorization. It combines a narrative roguelite with an occult management simulator, where you handle the PR for a group of the world’s most inept astronauts. There’s spellcasting! There’s boxing! And yes, there are even secret reptilians! To say it’s unpredictable would be an understatement; it’s essentially like playing Calvinball: The Video Game.
Training the Best
Astronaut: The Best wastes no time setting the stage in its first mission. A secretive council appoints me as the director of the Flaustrian Royal Space Academy. It’s now my responsibility to lead a successful space mission that will bring glory to Flaustria. Essentially, I’m in charge of a high-stakes propaganda mission, and failure could cost me dearly.
There’s a lot involved in my day-to-day routine leading up to the launch. I recruit astronauts who can be trained daily in various skills like piloting and charm. Training is as simple as holding down a button to increase their stats, but the longer I hold it, the more stress they accumulate. If their stress levels get too high, they risk experiencing a mental breakdown or sustaining an injury that takes them out of action for a few days. I have the option to reduce their stress either by giving them a day off or by resorting to witchcraft.
Image: Universal Happymaker
This training becomes crucial in various ways leading up to the launch. In my first mission, I need to hold a press conference to build hype for the upcoming launch. I choose the most charming astronauts to lead the presser, and they have to pass certain skill checks to make a convincing case. Sometimes, this is represented by a spinning wheel with safe spots based on my astronauts’ stats, while other times it’s a simple mini-game where a spaceship must reach the moon using the astronaut’s skill points.
This is where Astronaut: The Best can become a bit frustrating. The element of chance often leads to failures that are entirely out of my control. I’ve pulled my hair out when, after reaching the launch, a random skill check on the wheel causes an hour-long run to go awry. To make matters more complicated, each astronaut has a unique set of random hidden traits that can throw a significant wrench into things. For example, I ended up with two astronauts on one mission who would occasionally be unavailable for days because they were too busy indulging in recreational drugs. Admittedly, it was hilarious, but it made all the repetitive training leading up to it feel somewhat trivial in an instant.
Image: Universal Happymaker
However, that’s precisely the point. 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 that showcases how even the most careful planning can crumble when dealing with unpredictable human beings who can’t be controlled like machines. It serves as both an ode to humanity’s eccentricities and a head-shaking critique of our own idiocy.
Furthermore, this satirical layer is reflected in the game’s bureaucratic challenges. In addition to managing a complex space mission, I must navigate the demands of various council members to secure continued funding for the operation. This often involves making concessions that add more stress to my own plate, like agreeing to have my astronauts say a prayer as their first words in space. This bureaucracy only makes my already complex job harder, as I find myself appeasing shady lobbyists at the expense of the mission’s safety. It’s a hilarious glimpse into the world of political comedy, where I often find myself agreeing to absurd requests just to avoid having to beg for money.
Explaining how Astronaut: The Best’s mechanics work doesn’t fully capture the remarkable weirdness of the actual game. Instead of delving into more detail, let me share the thrilling 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. However, the task quickly becomes challenging as my crew’s hidden traits start to reveal themselves over time. One crew member turns out to be a wild card with a complete disregard for rules, while another keeps spending a significant portion of our budget on new clothes every week. Oh, and did I mention that one of them is secretly a reptilian? I choose to keep this fact hidden from the council, hoping that nobody will notice later.
Image: Universal Happymaker
Before the launch, the council throws a curveball at me. They inform me that I need to prepare two of my astronauts for an intergalactic boxing match against a rival nation. It’s a complete sideshow, but I have no choice but to spend a week or two improving the fitness stats of my best astronauts. Before I can get there, I stumble through a disastrous weigh-in. Fortunately, the actual fight goes better. I pass fitness checks and win a few rounds without needing to use the secret code that one council member shared with me, which supposedly would have angered my opponent. It would have revealed an entirely different story path, one that I’m eager to explore in the future.
After that, I can finally focus on my main mission. Well, not just yet. One day, I am bombarded by reporters who start asking questions about the launch. Caught off guard, I’m faced with a question regarding rumors that one of my astronauts is actually a secret reptilian. Dammit. Thinking on my feet, I decide to defend her and state that reptilians are cool and allowed in the space academy. Not only does this revelation send the tabloids into a frenzy, but it also causes another astronaut to reveal their own secret reptilian identity, unveiling yet another hidden trait. With a launch day infested with reptiles on the horizon, a council member approaches me with an unusual request: turn the rocket ship into a sphere to protect it from snakes. Fine, whatever!
Image: Universal Happymaker
Everything culminates on launch day, where I have to carefully select my three best astronauts capable of passing several challenging skill checks. However, it’s not entirely up to me anymore, as I’ve made numerous previous commitments to the council. I have to include two specific crew members on the trip, and I’ve also promised to perform a cool spaceship trick once we’re up there. On top of that, my spherical spaceship turns out to be inefficient and can’t hold as much fuel. Not surprisingly, it poses a problem.
Nevertheless, I begin preparations for the launch. It starts with a safety check, but my wild card pilot thinks he’s too cool for it. He decides to light a cigarette during the check, causing an explosion that damages a significant portion of the ship’s fuel. Despite this setback, my other two crew members manage to get the ship into space, but fail to execute the cool trick. Instead, the ship explodes, forcing them to parachute onto a nearby asteroid. Although they can’t engineer the rock into a functioning spaceship, an alien cruise ship happens to pass by and offers to pick them up. Well, they offer to pick up my most charming crew member. The other crew member is deemed “not cool enough” to board. I have to bribe the aliens with half of my remaining budget to persuade them to let her join the party.
Mission accomplished, I guess?
This is the kind of ridiculous and free-form storytelling that Astronaut: The Best enables. Even when replaying the same story missions, each “run” feels entirely distinct due to the randomized requests and traits that completely disrupt your best-laid plans in unexpected ways. As frustrating as it was when my pilot blew himself up due to a failed skill check, I couldn’t help but love the story it allowed me to tell. I fought against insurmountable odds and navigated through headache-inducing bureaucracy to reach the stars—and I only lost one person in the process!
Think you can do better than me? Then please, take my job. I’m begging you.
Astronaut: The Best will be launching on August 15 for PC.
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