Meet the gaming equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating with the headline for this review, let's survey some of the similarities between Orbient and Pink Floyd's legendary album, Dark Side of the Moon. Both are space-themed, obviously. Both feature repetitive, synthesized sounds. Both are much deeper than they first appear. Both are challenging and take a lot of time to fully appreciate. Both fluctuate between calm and pulse-pounding tempos. Both evoke pseudo-hallucinatory sensations (or maybe actual hallucinations, depending on your mental state). Both are utterly awesome.
In Orbient, your goal is to manipulate gravity to guide your little planet around a solar system, merging with other planets to grow larger and eventually capture a target planet. Everything is color coded so that you can easily tell which planets are larger (can be orbited), which are the same size (can be merged with), and which are smaller (can be captured as satellites). You have no direct control over your planet. Instead, you navigate through the solar system by activating gravity or anti-gravity from the planets nearby. The entire game is controlled with just two buttons – you don't need the joystick, D-pad, pointer, or motion sensors. How your planet moves depends on where it is and what's around it; the effects of gravity are always dynamic and usually hard to predict at a glance.
With its unusual control scheme and focus on growing to a target size, Orbient draws easy comparisons to Katamari Damacy. They really are similar games, although their aesthetics are totally different. Orbient is more puzzle-like, since there are usually just enough planets to reach the desired size, whereas Katamari overloads the player with things to collect, and the challenge is learning to prioritize and stay focused.
The game's adherence to actual laws of orbital mechanics is admirable but likely to confound many players. Did you know that planets move faster in lower orbits, or that you can catch a lagging satellite by moving to a higher orbit and then coming closer after a couple periods of phasing? These principles are vital to Orbient's gameplay, but the game has no tutorial or visual indication for the vast majority of players who have never taken an aerospace engineering course. Luckily, many of these arcane physical behaviors can be learned through trial-and-error, but the game may prove frustrating for a while before you start to grasp what's really going on.
The aforementioned aesthetic is a strange combination of outdated graphics and spare (but mesmerizing) music. The overall visual design is perfectly fine - it’s simple and low-key - but that's appropriate for the game. Not fine are the super-low-quality sprites that appear to have been blown up from their original GBA resolution. They make Orbient look like a PC game circa Windows 95. It's ironic that a game branded "Art Style" would have such crappy art. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we all know that space is a beautiful place. You wouldn't know it from looking at Orbient, though.
The music fares much, much better. Each stage starts with an ultra-simple melody that will play in the background throughout. As you collect satellites, other layers are added, and they increase in speed and complexity as your cluster expands. The music can become so fast and complex that it resembles a Philip Glass composition. And just when you think the next layer will be too much to handle, the sounds all merge together harmoniously. If you manage to catch a bonus satellite (a crescent moon), the previous music ceases in favor of a peaceful lullaby.
Orbient also gets my vote for having the most disturbing credits sequence of all time. It's a tiny dot growing slowly to overtake the entire screen, while the music gets louder and more frantic with no end in sight. Think of the intermission to 2001: A Space Odyssey and you'll have the right idea.
It should be clear by now that Orbient is not your typical game. The gameplay is simple but incredibly deep and addictive, and although you only need two buttons to play, there's nothing easy about navigating the cosmos. As an artistic experience, it achieves something special despite unnecessarily low-grade visuals. There's little else like it on Wii or any other platform, and that alone makes it worth downloading.