REVIEW: STRACO Episode 1

At first glance, you’re absolutely right to feel ambivalent about what STRACO Episode 1 (80 MSP) has in store for you. The developer hasn’t settled on a set genre, and it throws a lot of confusing icons and information onto its HUD at outset, calling its accessibility into question. It may not be all that much to look at, but it does feature some complicated stitchwork, tying together two genres that share equal billing.

And indeed it is hard to approximately label the gameplay in STRACO, as it uses the tenets of tower defense in some missions, while playing as a twin-stick shooter and stressing player control otherwise. The rather in-depth, multi-part tutorial explains the ins and outs (you’d do well to give it at least a glance), but it’s the typical TD staples present, a variety of weapon turrets and repair towers. A separate currency allows you to heal or buy limited-time boosts to your weapons or armor. It can feel overwhelming to start, asking you to become a jack-of-all-trades while keeping a keen eye on the action.

While you can leave your vehicle at any time (I wouldn’t recommend it in a fight) to go on foot or hop into another mode of transport, you can only place and maintain these defenses while in your military-issued helicopter. Each emplacement is a set amount of money, money that must be mined on the map. Don’t concern yourself with the idea; outside of the tutorial, there isn’t a point in the whole campaign where you’ll need to do this (on Normal, anyway).

And as for that campaign, it’s passable. The story doesn’t stretch the imagination, settling on the average invasion arc, unknown enemies, a soldier facing impossible odds, etc., but the plot and text dialogue are frequently bizarre (green-faced villains, comedic AI, zombies, Optimus Phillip, to mention a few) and strangely amusing. It’s also vital to take note of the game’s subtitle. Being episodic, you only get six missions, with ‘survival’ and ‘infinite waves’ options unlocked once you’ve completed it. The writing works in its favor here, leaving me curious to see what the next episode (currently early 2013) cooks up.

It’s strange that it pushes the TD ideas one mission only to abandon it in another, as it doesn’t really require them for more than half the game. And though the twin-stick aspect is decent to allow for different vehicles and ammo types, the aiming is a little loose and there is a delay in when you acquire a target, depending on your directional facing. Small inconsistencies, but mentionable.

Though it’s short and teeters at the brink of blandness visually, STRACO kicks off its adventure with a serviceable introduction. The daunting structure and controls, as well as the multitude of building options, are stripped away quickly, leaving you with a more-shooter-than-tower-defense game that’s left feeling a little uncertain about its identity. It’s enough (and does enough) to satisfy, but hopefully NVO Games can craft a tighter, more confident design for the next episode.

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24 thoughts on “REVIEW: STRACO Episode 1”

  1. Thanks for the update. It looks like a completely different game and I love it. It just went from my maybe I should get list to I purchased it. I wish more developers could announce their updates better than just having to come across a blog or website etc.

    1. It is a much better game, and I agree on the visibility for updates. I’m going to put down BioShock long enough tonight to write up an article about the update / upgrade, to make sure others know.

    2. Wow! Thanks for the compliments guys! It’s awesome to get that kind of feedback after all the work put into the update.

      Tim, you asked before if I was making a new trailer. Well, I did: http://youtu.be/jQatTooRF-4

      Not super detailed, but it gets the point across.

      Thanks again guys! 🙂

  2. FYI, I’ve made an updated version with new graphics and gameplay!

    I don’t have a new video yet, but the screen shots and box art have been updated on both my website and the Xbox Marketplace!

    1. Wow, you really put in the effort on this one. Much cleaner appearance, better HUD. Did you add any content or make drastic changes to the gameplay? I suppose this means Episode 2 is still a long ways off? 🙂

    2. Thanks! The gameplay is pretty different IMO. Instead of purchasing towers in each mission, you have a set of 6 towers that you upgrade with your credits. These upgrades last between missions and also can be used in prior completed missions to get better scores / more credits / more upgrades (finally a reason to mine!). Managing your turrets is also easier because the game pauses in the new turret management menu (the Examine screen).

      In addition to upgrading your turrets, you can spend credits to upgrade yourself to be more powerful. So, you can make the choice to become more powerful, or to make your turrets more powerful, or both.

      Another important change; the enemy’s shots are now 4 times slower, while your shots are twice as fast as before. This allows the player to more easily eliminate enemies while also allowing them to dodge incoming fire.

      Content wise: the dialog, story and mission structure are pretty much the same, just some small changes here and there to fit the new abilities. However, the actual spawn waves have been significantly tweaked and I feel the game is much easier and more fun to play than before.

      The only big content change is the Survival mode. It existed before, but it has been completely revamped to handle the slow enemy bullets and upgrade system. I spent quite a bit of time modifying and testing this mode. So much, that I also modified the trial version to drop the player into it rather than the campaign mode.

      Episode 2? When does Summer officially start? June some time? Hopefully I won’t make a liar of myself!

      OK, this is really long… sorry about that… 🙂

    3. Summer is June 21st, I believe. Take your time. So long as you make a good game, no one will call you a liar. 🙂

      That is a rather extensive list of changes. Sounds like a brand new game. I’ll try to make some time for the update. If you do post a new trailer, let me know. I’ll write an article detailing the improvements.

    4. Thanks! I’ll see about putting together a new trailer. The old one is from DBP 2012 so it’s probably time to create a new one anyway 😉

  3. Thanks for the review!

    As for the mission structure and other issues, point taken. Basically, I was trying to make every mission a little different so that the player was faced with new challenges every time. In the end I think it might be a little TOO different and never makes anyone happy (as is evidenced by my lack of sales).

    I guess I just got carried away with customizing my mission builder. I won’t do that again… or at least I’ll try not to!

    Can I ask you something that you didn’t mention in your review? What did you think of the “trails of light” in the game? I’ve had some complaints, and I’m toying with the idea of removing them from the game. Did you find them distracting and ugly? More and more I think they are a big turn off.

    1. No problem! 🙂

      Variety is nice, but having a focus (with some variances here and there) is better, I’d say. I’ve run across that in indies before, where a complex system is introduced, only to have one or more of the tactics / ideas dropped in the main game, or used so infrequently, you wonder why the tutorial bothered so much with it in the first place. I don’t know if that factor heavily into the so-far sluggish sales. Tower Defense games are now common enough that you really need to do something, either visually or with the gameplay, to wow the audience. A low price helps, but I think I lot of people probably said to themselves ‘If you’ve played one TD game you’ve played them all’. The story and dialogue kept me going. Sometimes it’s the small stuff.

      I don’t have much of an opinion on the ‘light trails’. I didn’t find them ugly or distracting, but I wouldn’t say they serve a huge purpose either. You could always add an option for the next game to turn them on or off.

    2. Trails: There currently is an option to turn them off. However, I’ve been playing with them off more and more and I think the game benefits from not having them there and I’ve made the decision that they will be permanently disabled in the next update. It helps that 1080p no longer suffers from framerate issues with them disabled as well!

      Thanks for the reply! I’ll do my best to stay focused in the future.

      Oh, and sorry for the double post below… feel free to delete one of them.

    3. Ah, I didn’t even know there was an option. They didn’t bother me enough. I can see how they’d be a problem to others, but one ‘positive’ to the trails is they are an indicator of direction, which could help with planning attacks (yes, the minimap would do the same thing). I can also see the value in them for the smaller units, which may blend into the background otherwise without a ‘trail’ to distinguish them. If anything, you could just tone down the emphasis or color, make it more like a ‘dust’ trail. That’s a thought. 🙂

    4. A dust trail would be way better! Basically, more natural, less stylized. That won’t be in the next version, but maybe the one after. I’m also hoping to add some MP or co-op. Probably co-op first… I think people are more forgiving of “network weirdness” when they aren’t competing. Also, only 50 copies sold so far so the “community” would be pretty dead 🙂

    5. Man, XBLIGs are so hit and miss these days. Either it’s higher than a dev expected, or much lower. No happy mediums. A shame to hear it yet again. Could be the genre or a number of factors (visuals, etc.), but even hiring an artist wouldn’t be a guarantee of greater return. About the only thing that can be relied upon for sales would be to add boobs, sad as that is to say.

    1. It’s got that familiar look to it. I could have swore there was an old NES or SNES game that had the same ‘grid’ look and sort-of-same feel to it, but I couldn’t dig up anything in a search. Don’t think it’s a game I own or did own, but I remember playing something just like it at some point. 🙂

    2. That could be it. There were plenty of games that looked / played similar from that era. My memories could be combining two or three different games, who knows. 🙂

    3. Hmmm… I guess my reply to this didn’t make it through somehow…

      Anyway, the grid look is a result of my lack of artistic ability. I really tried to create better looking (and not square) tiles, but it always looked awful. Someday I hope to pay someone to create better looking tiles. When that happens I’ll update all of the episodes to have the new look.

  4. Actually I skipped trying the demo to this but now that I read your review I’m gonna give it a whirl tonight. TD and Twin Stick are my two fave type of games and will be excited to see how well they pull it off. Not expecting greatness after reading your review but I will reserve my opinion till later and will let you know what I thought.

    1. The pairing works (when it’s actually used together), but you’ll probably come away from it thinking it’s ‘just okay’. The whole package is odd enough that I’ll stick around for Episode 2, but I won’t be as forgiving if it turns out to just be more of the same.

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