Pilots of Darsalon

A game by Dr. Kucho Games for PC and Mac, originally released in 2020.
Pilots of Darsalon is a gravity-based spaceship game inspired by the classics of the genre: Lunar Lander, Gravitar, Thrust, and Solar Jetman. Per genre conventions, you control a spaceship with limited fuel resources, and you must descend beneath the surface of a planet that is filled with enemy turrets. You fly through 15 levels, moving carefully to avoid crashing into the walls while balancing the need to move quickly and efficiently to avoid running out of fuel.

The game offers a total of five difficulty settings, most of which poke fun at the player for wishing to have an easier experience, which is somewhat appropriate given that this particular subgenre offers notoriously difficult gameplay that punishes even small mistakes. The default difficulty setting is Level 4, which gives an experience that is in line with the difficulty of other genre entries. As a joke, the lowest difficulty setting is called “Narrative”, and selecting it cuts to a Commodore 64-style screen that cheekily types out that you have killed all of the enemies, delivered your cargo, and won the game.

The varying difficulty levels have a sizeable impact on the amount of inertia, which increases at each level. As a result, the highest difficulty setting is truly meant for expert players, as overcoming the inertial effects requires the expenditure of quite a lot of fuel, as well as some advanced techniques such as engaging the shield at the last moment to bounce off of walls. That said, score bonuses are considerably greater on the higher difficulty settings, so players looking for a top spot on the leaderboards will want to increase the challenge.

The mission structure is simple: You must take off from a landing pad, drop down below the planet’s surface, collect a piece of equipment, and tow it safely back to the landing pad, and there are a lot of elements at play to make this simple task quite complicated. An introductory tutorial level introduces the player to all of the game’s common elements.

In many such games, touching a solid object will destroy your ship immediately, but here your ship has a health meter that is reduced a bit based on how hard you hit the wall… although a full-speed hit will still cause the ship to explode. This allows for a few mistakes here and there, which is important given how narrow some of the passages are. Alternatively, you can engage your shield to avoid taking damage at all, but doing so drains a bit of your fuel.

You do not begin each level with a fully-fueled ship; instead, as you descend beneath the surface, you encounter numerous fuel pods that can help you top off your tank. These pods can also be shot and destroyed but there is unfortunately no score bonus awarded for doing so. In a nice touch, fuel pods can be used to set off chain reactions to destroy other pods or enemy turrets. As you play further into the game, it becomes clear that collecting fuel is not absolutely necessary for success... fuel pods are mainly in place to ease players into the experience and ensure that they will be able to make it through most levels.

Each time you complete a level, a score screen displays. You get bonus points for your ship’s remaining health, your cargo’s remaining health (more on this in a bit), and your remaining fuel. Beyond this, you receive penalties for going over the par time and for losing ships. Take too much time, or lose a ship or two, and you’ll see your level bonus reduced to zero. As it turns out, the best way to get a decent score on a level is to bypass all fuel pods, destroy any turrets you encounter, and get the cargo back to the landing pad as quickly as possible.

However, if you don’t care about score, and you simply want to make it from the beginning of the game to the end, the varying difficulty levels and ample fuel pods should see most players through. In addition, the game offers a very forgiving checkpoint system that spawns you nearby if you do manage to explode. As such, the primary challenge is really about getting the cargo up and out of the planet.

Just like Thrust and Solar Jetman, picking up a piece of cargo is done with a rigid tow cable, making it impossible for the ship and the cargo to come in contact with one another. In this case, the cargo has its own energy meter, allowing for some minor collisions with walls and even a rough set-down on the landing pad without immediate failure.

The difficulty in navigation comes from the pendulum motion caused by having a weighted object hanging from the back of your ship as you pass through tight quarters. This is further complicated by the constant pull of gravity and the fact that you can only thrust in one direction. You must be careful not to let your cargo swing too hard or it will pull your ship along with it, and it’s imperative that you keep the swaying to a minimum when moving through narrow passages.

Even more difficult are situations where you must accelerate and use the lagging pull of the cable to get the cargo through a narrow opening before it swings forward again. Players experienced with Thrust and other such games will find that all of their established strategies will work fine here, so veterans of the genre will have a distinct advantage.

There are some quirks that add a bit of extra challenge here and there, mainly as it relates to your shield, fuel collection, and cargo pickups, since all three of these functions are assigned to the same button. When in free flight, pressing the button activates your shield, which protects you from projectiles and contact with solid objects. When hovering over a fuel pod, this actives a beam that slowly collects fuel, and once a pod has been emptied, it disappears. Players must be mindful that the shield cannot be activated while refueling, so it’s advisable to take out any nearby turrets beforehand.

When hovering over cargo, the same fuel collection beam is emitted from the ship, but the cargo is not immediately picked up. Instead, the player must hold the button for a couple of seconds before the tow cable engages, after which the cargo may be picked up. Once it has been picked up, shields are no longer available, since pressing the button disengages the cargo, causing it to fall... which is a fun mistake to make in the heat of the moment.

Cargo pickups tend to lie at the end of winding passageways, and once they have been collected, the player generally must navigate back through the same passages to return to the landing pad. This gives the player a chance to become familiar with the level layout, and as long as he is mindful of destroying turrets on his way down, he won’t have to contend with them on the way back up. That said, there is one level that subverts this structure by providing a narrow route to the cargo and an alternate exit to another landing platform for delivery.

The cargo is rectangular and is always picked up from the short edge. In order to deliver it to the landing pad, you can’t just unhook the tow cable and let it fall (like Solar Jetman); instead, you must set it down gently on the platform and be mindful of the fact that it may tip over if placed longwise. The level does not end until the cargo comes to rest, so if you set it on the edge of the platform, it may fall over and touch an object on the side, causing everything to explode spectacularly. It is also possible to swing the cargo so that it falls down on its side for a more stable landing, often taking a bit of damage in the process.

The game plays with light and darkness in a way that other genre entries do not. You are able to see a short distance around your ship, and there is a light on the front that illuminates the area in front of you. There are also a few lampposts in the environment that provide light, and these are destructible… in fact, you might want to destroy some of them just to remove the chance of swinging your cargo into them on your return trip.

This level of darkness makes it more difficult to spot fuel pods and enemy turrets, but you are also aided by a radar system that shows your immediate surroundings. Turrets have large highlights, making them easy to spot, but fuel pods have very small indicators, so they don’t stand out as much. Cargo is shown with a medium indicator, but it’s also fairly easy to find without assistance since it tends to be at the end of a dead-end passage.

There are a small number of environmental factors that add to the challenge, such as gas emissions that push your ship with their currents, and sliding doors that must be opened by shooting switches (some of which close again on their own). One of the coolest environmental objects comes in the form of conveyor belts. Using these devices, you can drop your cargo on one end of the belt (the belt is hung loosely so a long fall won’t hurt your cargo), and then you fly through a narrow passage and collect your cargo on the other side before it slips off the edge.

There are a few issues that hamper the experience somewhat, namely some inconsistencies in the framerate that can interfere with the kind of precision needed to successfully navigate tight quarters, but it's not so extreme that players can’t adjust to it or recover from mistakes. There is also a visual issue where the fuel collection beam occasionally does not display, although the sound effect is generated and it otherwise functions normally. The game’s biggest issue lies in how background and foreground elements are displayed, since harmless brown background rocks are nearly the same brightness and color as deadly brown foreground rocks, often to the point where they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Sometimes the only way to tell if it’s safe to move forward is to look at the radar, which clearly outlines solid objects in the environment. This visual design for foreground/background objects is in direct contrast to most genre entries where the delineation is made extremely clear.

That said, the game’s visual style is spectacular. The game uses a mixture of 2D and 3D elements, but everything has a color-limiting filter placed over it, giving the 3D elements something of a pre-rendered look. The colors are limited to something more akin to the Commodore 64 color palette… but in way higher fidelity than anything that system was capable of producing. Lighting effects are used to great effect to set the mood and add some complexity to the visuals, even going so far as having levels take place at different times of day.

There’s also a neat time slowing effect that is used whenever the player is killed, and even when the game is paused and unpaused. This gives the explosions of failure a bit more flair and helps the player ease back into the action when respawning or unpausing. The visuals are enhanced by a number of CRT filters, with the lowest level of filtering being scanlines. From here, players may select several additive effects to simulate monitor curvature, screen glare, and even static. Furthermore, the game’s audio was based on the Commodore 64 SID chip, giving it that gritty retro feel.

Pilots of Darsalon was developed by Dr. Kucho! Games, a studio based in Spain and founded in 2014. The studio is headed by Daniel Manzano (a.k.a Dr. Kucho!) and he is the studio’s primary contributor. The studio is responsible for Ghosts'n DJs as well as Moons Of Darsalon, which was developed concurrently with Pilots of Darsalon and is set in the same universe.