Category Archives: Shooter

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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REVIEW: Snops Attack! Zombie Defense

Snops Attack! (240 MSP) is a vertical-scrolling bullet hell that finds the United States facing its toughest and most-unusual adversary to date; a two-pronged invasion in the form of zombified cats (!) and their alien overlords, disrupting reality television and nuking the west coast into dust. Naturally, our only chance for salvation and getting those reality shows back on-air lies with a jet-piloting dog, Lt. Snops.

Oh, and yes, Snops Attack! looks spectacular, in case you hadn’t noticed. Screenshots can’t do it justice. In motion, it animates fluidly even with a thousand bullets on-screen, and it’s beautiful chaos every time. You could literally build an arcade cabinet around your TV, hang a sign outside your door, something classy like ‘Hurley’s Emporium of Awesome’, and charge a quarter per play (put it on ‘Insane’ difficulty and watch as you really rake in the coins). The point is, they’d be happy to pay, none the wiser that they were playing an indie game.

It has all the familiar shooter trappings; a spread shot as your default gun, or a magma-like, focused fire option for the bigger / tougher enemies and mini-boss battles, as well as the awesome (but under-utilized, in my opinion) ability to fire behind you. You can upgrade the range and effectiveness of your main guns up to seven times. You can amplify that further by swapping out for various ‘buddies’, special subweapons that pop up in the levels that can give you additional firepower options or allot you some extra shielding, via bullet-sponging pigs. These subweapons, like your main guns, can be upgraded (three levels), if you collect three alike.

There’s also bombs and ‘hyper attacks’, the latter of which is available after you’ve filled the meter in the top middle of your screen by collecting crystal skulls from your foes. Both these attacks and the aforementioned bombs ‘wipe out’ enemy fire in your vicinity. I found these tactics especially life-saving against large groups and boss battles where my bad decisions and posturing left me cornered.

And outside of a few sections that let you catch your breath, the action never lets up across the game’s six stages (each culminating in a boss fight) and four difficulty settings, ranging from ‘walk in the park, here to check out the art’, to ‘one ship, make it happen, dog’. Yeah, those are my annotations. Once you’ve reached the end though (under an hour), you’ve really reached the end, with not much incentive to stick around. I wish the game had an extra mode or two to keep me going, leaderboards would be nice as well, but the lack of either doesn’t drag the game down or lessen the fun you’ve just had.

There isn’t any other downside here. It’s one of the (if not the) most visually-impressive shooters available on the XBLIG channel. The looks would start a conversation but go for naught if the gameplay didn’t back it up. Snops Attack! delivers on that account and handles like a dream once the action takes off. That dream is, sadly, over too soon, yet the pure professionalism of its construction and mechanics ensures you aren’t left feeling empty. Give it a buy.

REVIEW: March to the Moon

March to the Moon (80 MSP) is an instant leaderboard game that you’d be crazy not to try if you’re a shooter enthusiast. Not that I’d ever demand you buy a game without a reason, so, alright, (cracks knuckles) here we go. March to the Moon is a vertical shooter where you’ll choose your brand of shooting from twelve (!) character classes like the guns blazing types (Hunting, Engineer), the support / cerebral roles  (Runes, Necromancer) or others that tread the line in-between.

You’ll take on waves of eclectic enemies, small at first, but soon filling the entire screen. And you’re doing this because you’re the hero that’s offered to clean out a basement full of rats, setting up a chain of events that will send you on a march to the moon (oh it’s possible), past alligators and goblins, to fight against farm animals (cows, pigs, and chickens) that have raised an army and displaced the resident moon aliens. So, yeah.

But once you get past the premise and basic art design, and level up some, you’ll gradually uncover the game’s brilliant, more RPG than RPG-like character crafting and customization. Each class has multiple abilities (easily over a hundred between them all) you can put upgrade points into, from standard fire to magic attacks to summoning minions, and passive traits that amplify other powers and yourself, or give bonuses against certain enemies.

Despite reusing art and the same four stage types, March to the Moon dodges repetition with the reward of incremental progress and incentives. It cleverly extends the length of the game (to 4-5 hours) by having the player hit a ‘reset’ at the end of each difficulty setting on the Moon, which adds new story elements and one-liners to the same levels, now with tougher and remixed enemies. With eight levels per ‘world’, of which there are four, or 32 stages per playthrough, for a total of 96, you won’t run out of things to shoot.

Which is good, as this ‘reset’ also expands your already-deep skill trees’ point limits, allowing you to grow in proportion to the new challenges. And really the whole progression aspect in MttM, from stages to skill growth to enemy balance, is handled perfectly, letting you evolve while slowly evolving itself into a serious bullet hell.

Even if the game becomes too difficult, you’re capable of solving the problem. You’re always only a ‘skill respec’ or XP Grind away from regaining the upper hand, save for your initial class selections, which are permanent. Don’t pick up two support classes with limited offensive powers, and you should be fine. Though given the different classes, creating multiple game saves to test out various combinations might not be a bad idea. With the sheer amount of options, I can’t see anyone having a bad experience with the game except by their own doing.

March to the Moon is quite literally everything I’ve ever wanted in a vertical-scrolling shooter, and even more I didn’t know I wanted. Combine the bizarre plot and enemies that continue as the difficulty levels scale comfortably, with the immediate ability to build (and rebuild at will) a character with whatever weapons, skills, and abilities you prefer, and you have a deeply-customizable, immensely-replayable RPG-shooter. Bottom line, buy it. It comes with the highest recommendation I can offer.

REVIEW: Rock, Paper, Lazers

‘Another day, another twin-stick shooter’ has to be the refrain going through most outside gamers’ minds when peeking in on indies. The only thing they’re still taking bets on is if the game will meet the zombie quota. Less about the undead, and focused on shooting everything else repeatedly, Rock, Paper, Lazers (80 MSP) tries to escape stereotyping.

It does this by wisely avoiding outer space (another near-staple of twin-stickers) and setting the fight on the pages of a book. You are a rock that shoots lasers. Hence the clever title. Rock, Paper, Lazers is a wave shooter. Survive for the amount on the timer, advance to the next wave. Powerups like shields, rockets, and flamethrowers, appear on the page sporadically to better your chances.

Teleportation is the game’s big bullet point. During the rounds, switching from one page to the next makes sense given the action takes place in a book, but it doesn’t significantly alter the way the game is played, other than becoming an inconvenience in later waves or on a higher difficulty. In single-player, you teleport at random after a certain time. A few seconds before you transfer, a graphic stretching from the page you’re on highlights where you’ll land on the next. That illuminated path and accompanying sound effect, meant to be helpful, actually distracts in the thick of a fight. For me, it led to more deaths than combat.

Reading is fundamental. Also dangerous.

The battles start to stale, so the game tries out themed-enemy encounters and backgrounds (Halloween, Ninjas, etc.). This doesn’t require a new approach in tactics or otherwise buoy the combat, though it is variety. And yet, throw all the ninjas and powerups on-screen that you can, Rock, Paper, Lazers is just a wave shooter and little more. Multiplayer allows four people locally to take on the waves, which would probably be more fun, should you have that option. Even with friends, the game will struggle to retain freshness beyond a half hour.

Familiarity is what makes twin-stickers so accessible, the quick gameplay that’s instantly recognizable though difficult to master. That same familiarity tends to stifle originality, leading to a deluge of entirely competent, even fun games, that piggyback and eventually cancel each other out, their one of two interesting gameplay wrinkles not enough to salvage an identity. On XBLIG, that problem runs rampant. Thus, if you’ve played one twin-stick shooter, you’ve played Rock, Paper, Lazers.

REVIEW: StarWings

If the very best thing your game has going for it is some of the cheesiest voice acting around, it’s safe to assume you’re in for a shelling. That I strongly considered giving this a recommendation purely for the chance that you, reader, would be so inclined as to try it yourself (see Link below to inquire), can’t be a vote of quality. I ultimately couldn’t bring myself to do it, knowing that asking you to spend a dollar on StarWings (80 MSP) is a direct violation of your human rights.

Star, Lain, and Trey are mercenaries, as evidenced by their crazy hair and ineffectual avatars. Together, they comprise StarWings (as in arwings), and form a poor man’s Star Fox (Star = Fox, Lain = Slippy, Trey = Falco). They’re hired by the Cornerian— ahem, Galaxy Defense, to put a stop to a Bandit army that’s threatening galactic peace, or something along those lines. It’s not required reading. What’s important is it’s a side-scrolling shooter with some minor weapon upgrades between stages.

There’s a problem immediately. You only ever control ‘Star’, the group’s egotistical (had to name the squad after himself, of course) leader. The game hinges on his health bar alone, making your squadmates, for lack of a better term, expendable. Problem is, they go wherever you go. And they never break formation, so avoiding incoming fire is a pain in the ass, multiplied by three. The bullet patterns aren’t too severe as to make it unplayable, but when you’re flying the equivalent of an eighteen-wheeler in three ships, it makes for a pretty big target. You’ll find it’s common to face the boss at the end of each stage down a wingman, or at the very least, weakened, through no fault of your own.

The experience is hampered further by highscores that aren’t recorded and a quick save system that doesn’t work, at least on some consoles. I tried it three times, on three different stages; not once could I load the save file. Switching over to a memory card, however, DID work (the developer is currently looking into the problem). Not that you’ll really need to save your progress. The game is four levels long, and takes about twenty minutes to complete. Extras? No.

It doesn’t bring me any particular joy to bash a game, but StarWings is akin to handing over game development and a case of beer to eighth graders who’ve only seen a screenshot of Star Fox to build off of. I don’t advocate either, and it’s clear to see why. I’m positive that the material and voice acting are meant to be laughably bad. That’s fine, and contributes to the ‘campy’ feel, but if the short gameplay and busted (for some) options were to fall into that same category, I’m not laughing.