Space Cortex

A game by BRAINOS for PC, originally released in 2019.
Space Cortex is an open world actioner set on a deep space research station. An artificial superintelligence has gone awry and threatens the station, and possibly all of humanity… not to mention those juicy R&D profits. You take on the role of a jetpack-wearing operative – or a pair of them in 2P co-op – as you infiltrate the station, clear out the hostiles, and make your way to the AI core to destroy it, thereby opening the station up for destruction by an antimatter beam, ideally after you have safely departed.

The only way on or off the station is by way of a docking bay, so you park your ship in the bay and make your way through the five major regions of the space station. At the center of the station is a security area that requires five keycards to unlock, which are acquired by defeating bosses in each of the five regions, after which the player enters the central core for the final showdown.

You can fly freely in any direction, but you can only shoot to the left or right. While your gun fires continuously as long as the button is held, it fires very slowly and only one bullet can be onscreen at a time. But, by exploring the station, you can find upgrades that increase your firing rate, the number of bullets onscreen, and your health meter. (In 2P mode, only one player can collect each upgrade.)

You begin the game with five units of health – which can be doubled by finding all of the upgrades – and the meter refills after a few seconds of not taking damage. So, you can find a safe corner during a firefight in order to heal, or you can just wait a few seconds once you’ve cleared out a room before moving onto the next. That said, you have virtually no invincibility period after taking damage, making it easy to sustain multiple hits in succession.

Getting killed returns you to the most recent save room, and there is sometimes quite a lot of area to replay if you fail. Rooms remain locked until the enemies within are destroyed, and re-entering previous rooms causes enemies to respawn (and doors to re-lock), making exploration and backtracking somewhat dangerous… which is offset by your regenerating health. As such, players are encouraged to play it safe, which is supported by a generally slow pace.

A map displays the overall layout of the station, with save rooms and transition corridors clearly marked. Rooms appear on the map as you enter them, and they show which directions the doors lead, making it easy to tell where you have yet to explore. Often, powerups are found in dead end rooms.

While powerups are largely optional, they make your life much easier, particularly given that most enemy bullets are destructible. At the start of the game, when you can only fire one bullet at a time, you have to be careful to dodge enemy fire and retaliate with quick pot shots before the enemy lets off another volley. Later, when your firing rate increases and you can have more bullets onscreen at a time, you can blast a volley of your own, destroying enemy bullets and eventually the enemy itself.

There are also a few equippable items that grant you secondary abilities. These include a speed booster that lets you zip through the air more quickly, and makes it easier to dodge enemy fire. There’s also a shield which absorbs enemy bullets – even those that cannot be destroyed by your weapon – allowing you to nullify them while protecting yourself from damage.

You can only equip one item at a time, and they can only be swapped in save rooms. If you keep any of these items active for too long, they will set off an explosion and take away one unit of your health. This prevents you from constantly boosting or remaining shielded for extended periods. Shields are further balanced by the fact that they also absorb your own bullets, effectively making impossible for you to fire while using them.

Your ability to defeat bosses is directly related to the number of powerups you’ve discovered, and the nonlinear structure of the space station lets you tackle bosses at just about any point in the game… although boss rooms aren’t marked, so it’s possible to accidentally step into a boss encounter before you are ready to take it on, and possibly quite a distance from your last save point.

Bosses have simple patterns, but it may take you a couple of attempts to see what is needed in order to destroy them, and all of them speed up and dish out extra bullets as they sustain more damage. Some bosses have dedicated weak points, which require you to lure them to strike and then quickly get behind them… or team up in 2P to work them from multiple angles.

Some bosses fire off projectiles or call in support enemies, requiring you to alter your tactics. You can shoot down some bullets, cancelling your own out in the process, or focus your firepower on support enemies to open up an opportunity to strike the boss. Some bosses fire indestructible bullets, so you can use your shield strategically to smash through a row of bullets and can clear a path to fire on your target.

Making your way through the station is fairly straightforward, and once you fully explore a region, there is no reason to return. Most enemies take the form of turrets, which either fire directly at you or at defined angles, and there are some enemies that move in on your position. Some regions feature level hazards, such as spiked plants in the organic region, or electrified beams that turn on and off. In a nice touch, destroying the electrical boss also disables all of the electrical beams in the region.

Exploration grows somewhat more complex late in the game, with openings that allow the player to pass between rooms without going through doors, along with a couple of alternate routes, and an area where you must unlock special doors and then backtrack to reach them, fighting tougher enemies within.

Aesthetically, the game offers a chunky low-rez presentation and lo-fi soundtrack. Each region of the space station is uniquely themed, and the explosion effects are nice.

Space Cortex was developed by Jacob Pavone under his BRAINOS label, based in Tucson, Arizona. Music for the game was created by T8HI using PxTone, a program developed by Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya, developer of Cave Story and Kero Blaster. The pair previously worked on Saving Princess.