Cluster Lander is a new game from Candystand, part space exploration and part racing game. You have been sent on a voyage to explore a series of "clusters," which are a little like asteroids, and your mission is to explore and retrieve the coordinates that will allow you to continue traveling through space. Each cluster is an obstacle course that you must navigate using your cleverly designed exploration vehicle.
The central element of gameplay is the way your vehicle actually works. The basic controls are simple: Press an [arrow] key, and the opposite thruster fires. The ship has a basic stabilization system that keeps it upright and relatively easy to pilot, but crashing into things or getting hit by enemy fire can destabilize you, which makes it much harder to pilot your ship. Sometimes, though, you'll want to break your own stabilizer on purpose, so that you can orient the ship differently, fit through small cracks, or fire at otherwise unreachable enemies. A skilled pilot can take advantage of the increased flexibility of the ship when it's destabilized, but learning to reestablish your stabilizer is a useful skill in itself. The controls are very responsive, which is great in a game that relies so much on precise maneuvering.
As you wander through clusters, you'll encounter lasers, locks, turrets, and other objects that will stymie your progress, as well as fuel, health, and bomb power-ups that will let you keep fighting. Tap [S] or [shift] to drop a bomb, and [A] or [ctrl] to change weapons. Since the game records your movements as you fly, you have the option of racing against a "ghost" when you try a level again, which will allow you to garner medals by flying faster than your opponent. Playing the ghost mode has a second advantage if you're getting stuck on levels, because it gives you a guide in case you get lost.
Analysis: Cluster Lander has a great premise, with tight controls, and a ton of replay value. Getting to go through the levels again for better and better times will keep medal fanatics busy, but you can always enjoy poking through clusters trying to find another weapons cache even if you're not trying to beat any specific time. In fact, you might want to take your time; piloting the lander definitely takes some getting used to, and you'll want to get a feel for what's going to send your trusty ship rocketing into the nearest wall before you stomp on the gas.
The levels are expansive and really give you a great feeling of exploring the clusters. As a bonus, hidden caches of weapons, armor, and fuel are scattered around the level, which really gives you that thrill of discovery when you find them at the right time. There are also additional clusters available for purchase if you so desire, but the original free game should be enough to keep you busy, and doesn't require any form of payment to do so.
If the game has a flaw, it's that it's almost too straightforward. Not to say that the game is simple, since the difficulty curve ramps pretty steadily, but it would have been nice to have, for example, an upgrade path to make your lander stronger, faster, or more dangerous. Since the lander never upgrades, the final levels can feel a lot like the early levels. The combat also takes a while to get used to, since you are generally dropping bombs from above your enemies and have to take momentum into account when you're launching them. These are pretty minor issues, though, when the rest of the game nails the exploration genre so dead on.
If you've always wanted to see what lies beyond the big blue yonder, and pilot an extremely fragile spacecraft through dangerous terrain, then Cluster Lander is the game for you, provided your reflexes (and your patience) are up to the task.