Laika Believes preview: The robot space dog with a heart of gold

Believing in Laika Believes

Minicore Studios is a small indie developer in Austin, TX, and it's making an alternate history game about the first dog in space. The game is called Laika Believes, but unlike the legitimately terrible fate that befell the real Laika, Minicore's version of history represents something a bit more hopeful, despite its dystopian overtones.

In this universe, Laika survived her trip into orbit and returned to Earth with robotic augmentations, somehow transformed into a capable canine war machine. Why exactly this happened remains uncertain, though her mysterious metamorphosis hasn't changed her into a mindless killing machine. If anything, Laika's conversational skills are just as important as the various weapons mounted on her back.

The mid-alpha build of Laika Believes on display at GDC 2013 was split into two segments: An arena-style combat demo, and a conversational demonstration focused on showcasing the game's surprisingly deep branching dialogue options.

The arena demo came first, with Laika dropped into a disheveled para-military location. She was immediately confronted by robotic ships, soviet soldiers and tremendously pissed-off birds, all of which were hell-bent on making sure the powerful little pooch bit the bullet. Dispatching baddies was a matter of maneuvering Laika with the left thumbstick and aiming her back-mounted weapons with the right, somewhat akin to Twisted Pixel's Comic Jumper.

As important as offense is, however, defense is even more crucial, with proper use of Laika's shield ability playing a major role in how successful each encounter was. By absorbing incoming enemy fire with her shield, Laika charges a meter that eventually can be spent on a powerful, explosive shield burst technique.

In its current configuration, Laika's combat is very difficult, but whether that was due to enemy balance/tuning issues, control-scheme problems or my own ineptitude was hard to discern during my brief stint with the game. The enemy's onslaught was swift and unforgiving, and moving while shooting wasn't quite as effortless as it seemed like it needed to be.

Hands on with Laika Believes

Regardless, combat was fun overall despite the challenge, even in this very early stage. Laika's shield ability is extremely gratifying once you learn how to time it properly, and her different weapons (machine gun, laser, shotgun, etc.) all felt satisfying, unique and worth making use of.

The second demo, which focused on Laika's interpersonal communication skills, was light on action and heavy on dialogue and flavor text. Having survived a soviet onslaught, Laika takes refuge in a camp maintained by an underground resistance movement. There, the game changes from a twitch action shooter/platformer into a side-scrolling, plot-driven RPG of sorts, wherein every NPC can be talked to and most items can be looked at or interacted with in some fashion.

Whenever Laika speaks to an NPC, the dialogue options presented depend on who she's talked with previously, as well as what information she may have learned about that NPC from snooping around in his tent or investigating items found in the world. These conversations slowly reveal more about Laika's past and what happened to the Earth while she was in space, in addition to serving the more traditional purpose of delivering quests to the player.

Hands on with Laika Believes

The camp itself, despite being represented in two dimensions, is actually built in three, which can be seen from a planar map system in Laika's pause menu. This means that, while the camp looked relatively small at first glance, there was actually a fairly huge amount of real estate to explore. Travelling into the foreground or background was handed in an efficient, straight-forward way as well; I was never worried about missing part of the map, as there was always an arrow to indicate when I might diverge from my default, left-to-right path.

The world of Laika Believes is, in its current state, the game's strongest asset: The characters are well-realized, the dialogue well-written and the concept gripping without being overwrought or heavy-handed in its presentation. Combat was less laser-focused, but this being a mid-alpha build, there's both time left in development and wiggle room in the game design for those kinks to be ironed out.

Right now, the plan is for Laika Believes to launch on PCs sometime in 2013 ("I'm gonna say fall," Minicore CEO John Warren told us at GDC), with a Steam Greenlight campaign expected to commence shortly. Minicore is also investigating other platforms and is set to receive an Ouya development kit, though those plans are less concrete at the moment. When it does launch, the game will be released in three segments
likely to be bundled later at a discount the first of which will take about eight hours to run through, without side missions.%Gallery-184811%