Many horror games are described as claustrophobic, but I’ve never played a game which captures the feeling of being confined within a small space anywhere near as well as CAPSULE does. Even though it contains common horror elements like isolation and the unknown I wouldn’t go so far as to say CAPSULE belongs in the horror genre, it can be a similarly stressful and unnerving experience all the same. Trapped behind the small, vertical screen of your capsule, you can only experience the world around you through sounds and abstract circles and squares. With only a brief overview of the basic controls and a vague objective at your disposal, you are plunged into CAPSULE‘s world with little in the way of concrete information. Your air is running out, your fuel is low, and you’ll have to do everything you can simply to survive.
Before going any deeper into discussing this game there is one thing I want to make clear. A large part of what makes CAPSULE interesting is the way in which you gradually and organically discover more information about the world around you so if at any point it sounds like the type of game you might consider buying I would strongly suggest that you stop reading this article and avoid any other source of information until you’ve gone out and played it for yourself. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive into the mechanics.
With only the arrow keys and the space bar at your disposal there isn’t much you can do. In fact, all you really can do is use space to send out a pulse and the arrow keys to either turn or to adjust how much power you use to move forward or backward as you try to make your way to the current destination. Your oxygen levels are constantly falling so it can at first seem logical to crank the movement speed up to full power to reach the goal as quickly as possible, but moving quickly drains your power at a much faster rate so if you aren’t careful you can easily end up stranding yourself in the middle of nowhere, unable to move as you watch your oxygen continue to deplete.
The abstract screen through which you view the world can be intimidating and confusing at first, though it’s actually fairly simple. The plus shape in the center of the screen represents you while any diamonds or circles you see along the way are other things. This is where the space bar’s ping ability comes into play as it sends out a circular wave to help you identify objects. Things closer to your capsule get identified almost immediately yet you’ll need to wait a while for bars to fill up before anything closer to the edge of the screen gets identified, which is time you may or may not have to spare. There isn’t much challenge to the game at all initially as all the diamonds around you are revealed as either air pockets for restoring oxygen or ion vents for restoring power; you can simply walk over anything you see on the screen without identifying it and it will help you in some way.
The difference between being able to identify something with a label and knowing what it actually is soon becomes a crucial part of CAPSULE. The game is more or less divided into levels with each level consisting of the journey to a new base or other location at which you restock on oxygen and energy while discovering the position of a new location and getting some narrative information through reading e-mails. Each level requires you to travel a larger distance than the one before it and the map itself is largely randomized with even the relative position of the next location changing on each attempt. The one thing which isn’t random is the gradual introduction of new objects in each level other than the final few and this is where you need to start taking a more active approach to your exploration of the world. For example, the second level mixes in cycads, nytrox, lichen, and mines alongside the air pockets and ion vents. You can probably guess that the mines are best avoided, but you can’t really be certain about the other three until you take the risk of touching them. Through experimentation you can learn that nytrox explodes and hurts you a little, lichen seemingly does nothing, and cycads serve as walls, all of which becomes useful information later on when you have far less leeway.
CAPSULE excels at putting its players under pressure. The moment the game starts up you hear your character take a deep breathe of air and from that point on the two sounds which you will hear constantly are your character breathing and the mechanical noises of your capsule. It’s one thing to see the passive indicator bars for oxygen and power on your screen run low, but it’s quite another matter entirely to hear the perpetual warning beep from low power as your character’s breathing becomes increasingly labored. You are told to “proceed with caution” every time you get a new location marker and this is where the pressure really kicks in – rushing is almost always fatal so you have to force yourself to slow down even while everything around you indicates that you’re only seconds away from failure. For example, you’ll want to scan any diamonds you see on your screen, especially if you’re low on power or oxygen, and objects scan faster the closer you are to them, but getting right next to the unknown before scanning can be fatal once seeker mines are introduced. Seeker mines are normally stationary, but they rush in a straight line towards your location the moment your scan touches them; you can dodge seeker mines easily if you have a decent amount of space and they don’t actually deal too much damage, but even a small amount of power damage is fatal if you’re already running low.
Even though CAPSULE is short enough to finish in under two hours it feels almost like two different games. The change is gradually and happens rather naturally as the game goes on. Initially, most of the tension comes from the atmospheric sounds and your almost complete lack of information about the setting. Distances to locations are fairly short and it’s just generous enough with air and power supplies to make you feel like you’re in more danger of running out of either than you actually are. Once you start learning more about the world, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of the objects and creatures inhabiting it, the tension starts to come primarily from the gameplay itself. You have to travel considerably farther between locations later on and the number of helpful items dwindles while the number of hazards increases. If you run into a drone it will slowly follow you until you outmaneuver it, force it to crash into a hazard like a mine, or use up some extra power to get away from it with a speed boost. Drones can make it difficult to circle around and pick up supplies while they are chasing you and they can be particularly problematic once you start factoring in other dangers like the shrikes, which appear as passive, slightly large diamonds normally, but will rush at your capsule if you scan them and hit it with enough force to put you in danger even if you’re at full power.
This dual nature of the gameplay is a strength, but it’s also a rather problematic weakness. On the one hand it’s satisfying to feel like you’re truly getting better at piloting your capsule. Once the challenge kicks in you can start identifying many objects, especially hazardous ones, without scanning them just from paying attention to their size, their movement patterns, and how densely clumped together they are; there are always exceptions and sometimes what you thought was a danger turned out to be a rare large power or air supply, but in general you can begin to tell when pinging your surroundings is a bad idea. Similarly, you become better at simply navigating by maintaining a proper speed, escaping from hazards while using the minimal amount of power needed in order to do so, glancing down to check your bearing, and checking to make sure that the destination itself has not gradually drifted too far away all at the same time while remembering to pace yourself even during a crisis.
On the other hand, the increased tension from the rather unique style of gameplay comes at the cost of reduced tension from the narrative side of things. Any sense of danger from the unknown begins to melt away once levels stop giving you new objects and instead start throwing the same hazardous objects at you in larger quantities. The story likewise begins to lose a lot of its tension due to the game’s refusal to deviate from its formula. I kept expecting the game to throw some sort of curveball at me in the form of a new splash of color, a sound coming from a source my screen couldn’t identify, or just some unexpected static, but it never did; there are a few narrative twists near the end, but they ultimately have little impact because they are not reflected within the gameplay itself. Even the threat of death from running out of air changes in nature since the later levels are hard enough that you’ll probably die a few times; the tension associated with listening to your character’s breathing progressively become worse only really works the first time it happens and after that I began to care more about the fact that failure meant that I would have to restart the current level from the beginning rather than about any attachment to the protagonist. Ideally, CAPSULE would be able to maintain its initial atmospheric tension alongside the later gameplay-oriented tension but it unfortunately fails to do this by refusing to deviate far enough from its initial formula.
Even though I wish CAPSULE would have done a better job of building upon itself rather than gradually shifting from a narrative focus to a gameplay focus, it works quite well overall. This is a highly experimental game which I found to be enjoyable the whole way through, even if the reasons for that enjoyment changed over time. CAPSULE may not live up to its full potential, but it’s still worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for something very different from usual.