Few XBLIGs have undergone the kind of ‘night and day’ transformation that the first episode of STRACO did, changing drastically (and for the much, much better) from its original release to version 2.0 several months later; a leaner, meaner hybrid of twin-stick shooter and Tower Defense. Now with STRACO: Purge and Conquest ($1.00), comprising episodes two and three to complete the promised trilogy, developer NVO Games has effectively bridged the gap between the first’s promising mechanics and the sequel’s comfort with those same mechanics, morphing the games into one of the finer series on the indie channel in the process.
The final acts of the STRACO saga once again place you in your souped-up stealth helicopter, rejoining with your army pals and the war machine ‘Optimus Phillip’1 to continue the ongoing crusade against Boss Noss, his multitude of forces …and those damn, dirty Zombies (thankfully, there’s more to these undead than the typical sort). Missions will take you through one hostile portal to the next, taking down all manner of tanks, air support, a zombie tree (?), and more, from small skirmishes up to some lengthy, large-scale battles.
As a hybrid genre, you control your helicopter (or speedbike, or drone, or mech) at all times, twin-stick style, while using a menu to bring up a half-dozen turrets that are deployable anywhere on the battlefield. This is proactive Tower Defense, as careful use of said turrets can and will turn the tide. More guns equals more victory, so to speak, and you can upgrade yourself and those turrets accordingly. With several guns and powerups at hand (shields, a super missile, the ability to slow time, etc.) you’ll typically use overwhelming firepower to slowly whittle down enemy forces.
STRACO: P & C switches up the formula at some points, handing out optional objectives2, or forcing you out of your comfort Heli to tackle things up close and personal. These on-foot segments are a nice change of pace, but they tend to drag on and play a little harsher without you in your better-equipped (and better-protected) vehicle. The missions are few in number, however, so no great harm done. Where harm does factor in is the difficulty, which can vary with the levels and enemy spawns. Even on Normal, a few stages repeatedly gave me trouble until I was able to upgrade my turrets and / or myself, or… (gulp), I switched over to Easy.
Pro Tip: Don’t hug the walls. It gets messy.
In addition to the 2+ hour Campaign, the new ‘Slo-Mo-Co’ minigame is a fun, clever alternative that plays like a mashup of twin-stick / roguelike / time trial. It asks you to clear a series of rooms filled with enemies, using a limited amount of your slow-motion powerup and giving you only one HP. Enemy layouts are thoughtful and challenging, with plenty of tense, strategic puzzle / fights, as you figure out how best to attack each wave with your allotted time. Both ‘Slo-Mo-Co’ and the Campaign feature online leaderboards, which should give you an incentive to go back and improve your scores.
Overall, it’s a very solid experience to go out on. Minus a few small missteps and the occasional difficulty spike to contend with, there’s plenty of content, humor, and fun to be had here. Playing from its humble beginnings, to its stronger, updated middle, STRACO: Purge and Conquest delivers a much more confident— and satisfying— conclusion… on the Xbox 360. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of it. We need more games with a heart and soul like this.3