In space, no one can hear you scream… in frustration.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always a little wary when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not the kind of person who would lie.” It sets of alarm bells of what’s to come. I get the exact same feeling when an App Store game has an exclamation mark in the title. Like it’s overcompensating for excitement that doesn’t exist in the game. The latest culprit? Space Op!

Billing itself as “intense fast-paced arcade action,” Alawar Entertainment’s latest is actually a clunky puzzler caught between excitement and relaxation, often in the no man’s land of frustration. The problem isn’t so much that it’s outright bad, but rather that the game’s design seems to be in conflict with its goals.

Space Op!

Speaking of which, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to act as a sort of space surgeon. Threading the cosmos with your ship, you catch “clots” – energy cast off from stars – with futuristic nets that match their color. Each galaxy is composed of fifteen levels, joined by portals that open up once you’ve snagged the right amount of orbs. It’s somewhere between this description and actual gameplay that things start to fall apart.

In its dedication to setting, Space Ops! has your ship moving at the mercy of celestial physics. That is to say: very slowly, and with a lot of residual drag and floating. Not a problem in of itself perhaps, but when combined with the pace and expectations of the game? More than a little annoying.

Clots shoot into the great black unknown at a feverish rate, frequently leaving you playing catch up or hedging your bets. More times than I can count, I’d be chasing a speedy clot to the edge of the screen, only to see another color I needed shoot out of a star in the opposite corner. Even pushing my ship to breakneck speeds (read: holding my finger against the screen and gritting my teeth), I’d miss my mark by a mile, and be too late to swing around and catch the back-up. With each match rewarding you for speedy completion, going for a gold medal quickly became an exercise in frustration. It isn’t impossibly by any stretch, but as levels got progressively harder, it became increasingly apparent that the difference between a perfect run and a “pause, retry” was dumb luck.

Space Op!

This is compounded by the general frustration of the game’s more obtuse design choices. Among the four (count em’, four) available control options, only one – using your finger to mark the area to which you want your ship to move – feels passable. And even then, only partially so. Whether it’s tilting, using a virtual joystick, or (inexplicably) “pushing” your ship with repeated swipes from behind, everything feels like a different stage of Alawar’s experiment to get things right. Worse still, they seem intent on punishing you for their mistakes. “Solar flares” from each star will burn away everything you’ve caught, and gravitational pull will often destroy your ship outright as it drags you into one fiery mass or another. Space Ops! demands precision where there isn’t the ability to deliver, and the result is sure to test the patience of even the most devoted high score hound.

A lot of these issues quickly disappear if you decide you’re going to play at your own pace, turning Space Ops! into a relaxing, Osmos-like experience of color absorption. You’ll have to have the competitive urge of a bucket of hair, however. The game constantly reminds you with its countdown, interstitial screens, and disapproving pop-ups of how hard you should be trying not to mix colors or go over your time limit. Of course, these issues can disappear even quicker if you take advantage of the game’s system of boosts, shields, and power-ups. All of them feel exciting to use, but ultimately end up coming across as bait to make you pay to tweak the game to where it should have been in the first place.

The whole experience of Space Ops! was a little peculiar to me. As a huge fan of puzzlers and arcade titles, I spent every level trying to like it, even succeeding on the occasions where luck was on my side. Most of the time, however, the game felt caught in an identity crisis, with me sitting despondently in the middle suffering for it.