Ellipsis


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Though it may look like a simple Geometry Wars clone in screenshots, Ellipsis is a very different type of experience. You have no direct form of attack and your objective in each of the many short single-screen levels is to gather a set of collectibles and make it to the exit without getting hit. With branching paths and a large, neon world filled with plenty of creative enemies and hazards, Ellipsis has far more to offer than you might expect.

Even though you can’t directly do anything beyond moving around, your actions often do have a direct impact upon the levels. The most common example of how your movements can affect your surroundings is the collectibles themselves. As is fitting for a game named Ellipsis, the collectibles are circles with smaller dots inside them. You initially only see a single circle with a single dot, but collecting the circle will make a new circle appear with two dots, then one with three, then four, and finally five. The interesting part about all of this is that the dots within the circles are actually entirely separate, optional collectibles. While dots are slightly attracted to your circular ship, colliding with their circles at high speeds will make them go flying off in various directions, bouncing off the walls and becoming decidedly far more difficult to collect.

The collectibles system as a whole serves as a rather clever and very organic way of allowing players to adjust the game’s difficulty to their liking. To begin with, the fifth circle is entirely optional as the exit portal always opens after collecting the fourth circle. Each level becomes more complicated as you collect circles with new enemies spawning in, stationary hazards moving, lasers shifting positions, and other such events so collecting this final circle usually requires a fair bit more skill than collecting any of the other four, especially since the exit portal itself is sometimes positioned as an obstacle. Each circle and each dot counts as only a fifth of a star for your final rating on each level. Thus, collecting only the four mandatory circles won’t earn you so much as a single star, collecting everything except the fifth circle gets you two stars, and collecting every circle and dot awards you with four stars.

But surely there’s a fifth star hiding somewhere? There is indeed a fifth star and it is tied to your speed. A green line with five dots on it at the top of the screen will gradually disappear and to get a full five stars you need to collect everything in the level before even a single one of these dots disappears. This timer doesn’t appear on your first run of the early levels, presumably so players don’t feel pressured to get a perfect rating while they’re still getting used to the game, but for the vast majority of the levels it appears right away so you won’t need to complete every level twice just for a perfect rating. Since these timed stars are often on the unforgiving side of things, you can’t afford to approach every single carefully so you must instead learn to rush at them at just the right angle to be able to snag all of the dots before they can go darting off without slowing down. If you’re wondering what the reward for all this hard work is, the answer is: nothing at all beyond a gold ring around the level icon and a few achievements. There are no hidden levels tied to your star count, no secret upgrades, or anything of the sort (unless there’s something tied to getting five stars on every single level, though I have my doubts). Though this lack of a tangible reward may initially seem disappointing, I think it’s ultimately the best choice. Those who simply want to complete a level can do so without missing out on any of the content, those who want a greater challenge get to face the new obstacles surrounding the fifth circle, and truly masochistic completionists get the greater challenge of doing all that while under a tight time limit. Every player gets to enjoy Ellipsis at their own pace and the world map is incredibly easy to navigate and search through for anyone who might want to go back and try for a better rating on an old level.

Interacting with collectibles may be the most common, and possibly the most substantial, way in which you affect the world, but it’s not the only way. Many levels, especially the later ones, have switches which either permanently activate once you touch them or gradually do something, such as opening a door, while you remain on them. Beyond opening doors, these switches can also rotate turrets, cause lasers to start moving, or just spawn in more hazards in cases where a circle is placed on top of a switch. Three types of mines also exist which explode when you get near them. The most common type of mine takes a while to explode after you activate it, but it creates a massive explosion which sticks around for a few seconds, making this mine something you need to be really careful of when trying to speedrun a level. Blue mines are basically identical to the previous type of mine, but their explosions don’t hurt you and instead destroy any enemies or red barriers they touch while the final type of mine makes a small, brief explosion and activates almost immediately. One of the later areas also has a particularly interesting mechanic where enemies and other moving elements only move when you move, giving each level in the region a more puzzle-oriented nature.

You may be able to affect various elements within the levels, yet one of my favorite parts of Ellipsis is the way the world unfolds as you progress through it. Just as hazards appear and change as you collect more circles within the levels, the world reveals a little more of itself and changes as you complete levels. Initially, the world map is little more than a giant black square, but your surroundings are revealed to you piece by piece with each new level you unlock. Sometimes these revelations are small, such as a turret barrier or enemies flying around a new level entrance, and sometimes you come across significantly bigger reveals like an entire minefield or a massive fortress. This world where everything is made from simplistic neon triangles, circles, and squares is made to feel surprisingly alive via small touches like groups of enemies flying into defensive positions when you reveal a new level near them.

Just which parts of the world you reveal and when depends on which branches you decide to take. Branching paths become increasingly common as you progress and they come in a variety of forms. Sometimes you simply have a choice between two or three levels before the paths converge, though often branches can go on for far longer. Whenever you have longer branches the challenges you face are almost always radically different between the branches. For example, early on you have a choice between going through a fortress filled with triangular turrets which fire off lasers when you pass in front of them from a certain side or you can take an alternate route through a nebula where objects and enemies can become invisible if they’re too far away. Even when all the branches are going through the same region they can be completely different, like choosing to pass directly through a spike area filled with turrets or taking a longer route around it where you’ll need to maneuver through drifting space debris and manipulate laser barriers. If you don’t like a particular gimmick you are generally given an alternative option with branches eventually converging on levels which incorporate elements from multiple paths or which have ‘bosses’ made from multiple enemy parts stuck together which you often need to defeat with blue mines. The frequent branching paths serve as one more way in which Ellipsis allows players to journey through the game in whichever way they find most enjoyable, though seeing the full scope of the world is a nice reward in and of itself for taking every path.

The simple aesthetics in this game are actually used well alongside the enemies, supporting them rather than hindering creativity. The levels are devoid of music, instead putting an emphasis on creating a soundscape from the interactions you and the enemies make. Small turrets are dangerous, but they’re also percussion instruments and the ceaseless drone of security lasers adds in a fitting sense of additional menace whenever you see their red glow. Each enemy and each projectile has a unique sound, often with a reverberating echo quality which allows sounds to properly build upon each other before fading away while also creating an appropriately ‘cosmic’ atmosphere. Impressively, the simplistic graphics are utilized in such a way that they allow for an impressive amount of enemy variety while telling a story without any words. Red triangles serve as the main antagonists and sometimes you’ll need to deal with large swarms of them while other times you’ll have to dodge around smaller, stealthy groups or have a showdown with a single red triangle boss which has surrounded itself with turrets. Later on, these same red triangles serve as guards which make sounds whenever they turn corners and stepping into their vision cones summons in more units and/or activates security systems. Groups of rectangles create cars on a busy street, a rectangle, a circle, and a square is all it takes to make a turret, and four triangles stuck together with shifting colors is all it takes to give one enemy type a great sense of speed. It would be easy to create a game in this aesthetic where you went up against all sorts of abstract opponents in equally abstract locations, but Ellipsis instead chooses to take the more difficult option of using little other than basic shapes to craft entire locations with distinct aesthetic and mechanical identities.

The one area where Ellipsis suffers is, oddly enough, in its controls. This isn’t a simple matter of the gameplay not feeling smooth, in fact your ship moves fluidly regardless of if you’re using a controller or a mouse. Rather, there are two rather specific issues. The first of these seems to be a glitch which only occurs if you’re playing the game in windowed mode and using a mouse. This glitch affects levels which have wind elements, which push your ship, and levels which have ‘space’ elements, portions where the normally pure black background gains some stars and you have less friction. In both cases, your ship will follow the mouse cursor perfectly and completely ignore these elements while playing in windowed mode; playing in fullscreen with a mouse or in either mode with a controller will result in these elements working as intended. The other issue is that playing with a controller is generally just harder than playing with a mouse. When using a controller, your ship moves at a slow speed if you slightly tilt the analogue stick, at a decent speed if you fully tilt it, rather fast if you press a shoulder button while slightly tilting the stick, and extremely fast to the point that it’s virtually uncontrollable with a shoulder button pressed and the stick fully tilted. You can go through the game well enough without using the shoulder buttons and even get some of the more generous speed stars, but most of the timers are strict enough that the only way to get them with a controller would be to play with the shoulder button pressed and the stick slightly tilted, which can be rather awkward, especially since you often need to abruptly change directions to avoid attacks and pushing the stick even a bit too far will send your ship smashing into a hazard. Having some sort of controller sensitivity option would have eliminated this issue, but as it stands you’re almost certainly going to want to stick with a mouse if you’re aiming for all the stars.

Ellipsis may not be revolutionary, but it is exceptionally well crafted. Many of its individual elements seem familiar, but they are combined in such a careful way that the end result is a surprisingly refreshing experience. Whether you’re just looking for a game which lets you set your own pace or you want to see elements from arena shooters used in a way which goes far beyond mindlessly copying the stale Geometry Wars formula, the universe of Ellipsis is one worth exploring.

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