Lifespeed, a futuristic, flying combat racer from Irish indie developer Wee Man Studios, is smooth, stylish, and exhilarating: a true testament to the capabilities of the New Nintendo 3DS (the game doesn’t work on original 3DS hardware.) A few notable issues keep it from being the F-Zero or Wipeout surrogate you might have been hoping for, but manage your expectations and you’ll have a good time with what’s here.
There are only a handful of gameplay modes to dive into, but each one provides a more or less identical experience: you pilot an airborne craft down a snaking tunnel, competing against nine other racers to reach the finish line first. Which mode you start with should really only boil down to how much time you have to play, and whether or not you’re in the mood for a bit of narrative padding between races.
Lifespeed’s story, which is told through a rather attractive series of painted comic book panels, drops players into a future in which rebels are forced to fight for the survival of their planets by competing in a death race that will somehow allow them to defy the evil empire that’s at the heart of the galaxy’s problems. I know that was a run-on sentence, but that’s sort of what it feels like trying to decipher the game’s story. The Star Wars influences are obvious from the first panel, with main character Cypher Reid, a clear stand-in for Han Solo, making dismissive references to an ancient religion that only old men believe in. In fact, the whole presentation here reminds me of the minimally animated cut scenes from Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, which is pretty cool. But again, it’s hard to truly appreciate any of this, because cut scenes flash by so quickly that it’s almost impossible to read a single panel without getting caught up on the jargon-heavy dialogue. That, combined with a lack of proper punctuation and an abrupt cliffhanger ending that fails to even tease what might be coming in planned future episodes, makes it really hard for me to care about what happens to these characters. My advice: skip the story mode so you can focus on what’s really great about Lifespeed.
No matter which mode you choose—Story, Single Race, or Championship—you’ll be racing on the same eight tracks. That’s not a bad amount of content for the price point, especially when you consider that similar racers like Wipeout 2048 or Fast Racing Neo shipped with only a few more tracks but at much higher price points. There’s a nice assortment here, too, from simple ovals to complex mazes filled with hairpin turns and shortcuts that can only be found by ramming through walls.
Control-wise, acceleration is handled automatically, so the only things you have to worry about are steering, braking, and weapons/item deployment (there’s also a superfluous barrel roll move, but it mostly just sends you careening into walls when what you’re actually trying to do is avoid collisions.) Items are pretty standard, with the homing missile and machine gun being the most useful, while others, like the bombs you can drop behind you, don’t seem very well implemented. But really, combat is a secondary consideration, because it’s all about the speed here. It feels great to fly through a boost ring and snatch victory from your AI opponents at the last minute while the track zips past you in 3D. Doubly so because Lifespeed zips along at a near-constant 60fps.
Unfortunately, some questionable design choices—and one very big omission made in the interest of, well, actually shipping the game—may keep Lifespeed from having the kind of legs it might otherwise have earned. The first issue is the inclusion of ambient weapons systems that home in on you and blast you out of the sky at certain points on some tracks. I suppose this “feature” was implemented to help sell the fatalistic nature of the game’s world, but instead, it completely undermines what’s great about the game by punishing you for something you can’t even avoid.
The second issue, which seems to be related to limitations of Lifespeed’s engine, has to do with how the game handles crashing. For a game designed to approximate the feeling of racing at Mach 2 speeds (close to 1500 mph), you’d expect your craft to explode upon contact with obstacles. Instead, it just sort of stops in place, pushing forward stubbornly until you manage to steer around the lip of a tunnel or whatever other indestructible object you’ve gotten stuck on. Traveling this fast should come with less-lame consequences when players mess up.
Which leads me to that big omission I mentioned earlier: the complete lack of multiplayer. Lifespeed is the kind of game I could see myself dropping into compulsively for a few matches with friends every night; instead, since I’ve already played through its eight tracks multiple times at this point, I’m likely to only pick it up on that rare occasion that I don’t have my Vita and Wipeout 2048 nearby. To be fair, Wee Man’s a single-coder studio, so adding a multiplayer mode to its debut game was likely simply beyond the studio’s scope; still, it’s hard not to feel the feature’s loss when the games Lifespeed most closely mimics are considered classics in large part because of their multiplayer modes.
When you consider Lifespeed as a whole—with its narrative shortcomings, no-frills front-end, and complete lack of multiplayer—there’s no doubt it’s a budget affair. But if you can look past all of that and just focus on the racing itself, there’s a thrilling, if short-lived single-player experience to be found here. Here’s hoping Wee Man Studios is able to move enough units to address these issues in a full-sized sequel, because I’d love to see what they can do with a bit more time and budget.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Lifespeed is based on final review code provided to us by Wee Man Studios. The game launches on Thursday, February 2nd, 2017.