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.