Category Archives: Shooter

REVIEW: SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance

Generally, it falls on your parents to prepare you for the world, but in the event they mollycoddled you (being the only son / daughter, the prettiest, whatever), allow me to state a few truths. Three things in life are guaranteed— Death, Taxes, and twin-stick shooters on Xbox Live Indie Games, set in space. It is absolutely no surprise then, that SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance (80 MSP) proclaims itself to be of that party, or that I am officially out of openings for twin-stickers.

Remarkably, there is an extended story, about CoNs destroying space-faring human settlements (‘Alien Race attacks Earth and its colonies’ for short), as well as some neat ‘on this day in history’ stuff that shows up on the front end menu like Mass Effect. This compliments an already lengthy codex detailing the characters and the backstory. No expense was spared in crafting the game world BSA takes place in.

The same can be said for your ships, which come with preset stats and special weapons (heal bots, turrets, mines) for varying tastes but are upgradeable with salvage collected during the missions, kept all to yourself or shared equally with your allies (co-op for up to four, locally).

There’s some larger set pieces (i.e. larger ships) and escort sequences, though the gameplay boils down to generator defense time and time again. Salvage is the ingredient throughout, collected and used to rebuild said generators, as well as for re-supply and the mentioned upgrades. Survival and Freeplay modes are worthy of a few plays, and repetition is less of a problem with friends, but a little more mission variety would have been appreciated.

This is compounded with the later campaigns, which throw more and more enemy ships your way as substitute. Solo, you’re upgrading between missions to stay ahead of the curve, but at times (when tasked to guard two or more generators spread across a level, let’s say) the game really wishes you were playing the four-player co-op. This tends to be a problem with the average XBLIGer, brought up in an era of ‘online everything’ and short the two or three additional controllers / friends.

Haven’t you guys ever heard the expression, ‘fair fight’?

By the middle missions of the Mars campaign and beyond, you’re vastly outgunned, leading to hopeless battles where there’s little chance of turning the tide as the lone gunman, or in the wrong class of ship (with its placeable turrets, the ‘Euphrates’ class is key). The AI should have allowed for all possibilities instead of a ‘catch-all’ solution in overwhelming odds that ends up feeling like punishment to single players. As such, the balancing isn’t what it should be. Friends are damn near required to get anywhere at some points.

It doesn’t negate the solid framework in saying it may not be the most gorgeous or original shooter, and with the wealth of options and content, you can’t argue the effort in SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance. The above problems, the ‘sameness’ to every mission, and the occasionally rough difficulty give me pause, though, to recommend you try before you buy.

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REVIEW: RotoSchutzen

If you’re one of those people that believes in and bases their existence around absolutes, then it’s probably safer for the both of us if I refer to RotoSchutzen (80 MSP) henceforth as a ‘mini-game’, rather than a full product. That is what it is, in actuality, a half-game, not masquerading as one so much as it is gallingly so.

Dropped onto a deserted (but lushly-illustrated) planet defended by turrets and mines, you (the little helicopter-box guy) set off in search of ‘the big button’ that you must push. All of that comes from the marketplace description, and that’s all you’re told for the duration of the game.

Gameplay consists of you trading a barrage of shots with the resident turrets of varying size / shot pattern, and maneuvering around mines or steam traps. Occasionally you’ll hit switches to open up doors, tracing their wiring back to the source, then its back to the turrets. You’ll be forced into small caverns with a lot of enemies, resulting in death, though the checkpoint feature here is incredibly friendly, usually putting you within a few feet of where you met your end.

The trailer says (or doesn’t say) it all.

Though in flying over its green fields or through its steamy interior, there’s no implication of how you came to be here or what the planet is about. While the results of pushing ‘the big button’ are obvious enough, there’s no reason given for any of it. There’s no extras, no New Game+ or impetus to play through again, leaving you with a rather hollow victory.

RotoSchutzen comes from creator Owen Deery, who by his own admission is focused on bringing polished but quick, one-off games (sorry, ‘mini-games’) to market. I’m not against that idea from the outset; if it works, and it’s full-featured or an arcade-type, why not? There doesn’t have to be a minimum timetable. But with something like Bytown Lumberjack (from this past March) or now with RotoSchutzen, you need a little more content or replayability if you hope to get gamers on board. 80 MSP ain’t a bad entry point, I agree, but I can’t recommend something that finishes in under an hour and exudes almost no personality during it.

That’s the story of RotoSchutzen, regrettably. A good-looking game with well-oiled gears, just dressed up and given nowhere to go. If the developer adopts a new policy and throws his full weight behind an idea, I’ve no doubt it’ll be amazing. Just don’t look here for any of that promise.

REVIEW: Overdriven

Shooters of any vein have typically been my bread & butter, so in watching the Dream.Build.Play trailer for Overdriven (80 MSP), I couldn’t help but take notice. It looked fantastic, for one, and all the not-too-picky elements I look for were present; one ship shooting a bunch of other ships in different and interesting ways. See, easy to please.

Overdriven takes on the vertical shmup across seven levels, using the shooter-standard ‘unknown alien invasion’ premise, ‘last human hope’ etc. etc for a setup. Sine Mora it is not. What Overdriven (the ship / pilot, not the title) does get is a pair of lovely ladies whispering sweet nothings into his / its ear, and by that I mean pertinent information about the current stage and twenty variations of ‘watch out!’.

The game’s big sell and namesake mechanic is a beam shot that slows your ship’s movement but makes for a stronger, concentrated fire. Health is also sacrificed while ‘overdriven’, dropping your ship to within an inch of its life. It creates a tense trade-off once the screen gets lively and comes in handy for the bigger baddies and end-level bosses.

In a twist, stages aren’t unlocked simply by beating the previous. Beyond the first three, you’ll have to find a set amount of ‘alien artifacts’ scattered around town or dropped by enemies (5 per stage) to earn the right to advance. I found (more like stumbled onto, all dumb luck-like) the majority the first time through, though there are some cleverly-hidden ones. For collectors, there’s plenty of said artifacts and oddities (hidden cows?) to find, set to excellent music throughout. Also seven level-specific challenges that play out like self-contained mingames, with Awardments to pin to your digital chest for bragging afterwards, do well to invite extra playtime after clearing the story.

Minor quirks abound. The game suffers from the same ‘bullet recognition’ problems as other shooters, with enemy fire hidden in your own leading to some cheap hits. The bosses don’t vary much (except in name) from stage to stage, and bits of the art recycle. In fact, Overdriven‘s only serious problem is its art, pretty as it is. Especially in darker stages and during a firefight, it becomes almost impossible to tell your foreground from background, leading to health-sucking grinds along barriers and / or deaths. Repeated runs through the level will commit these segments to memory, but it’s a mentionable annoyance that could be an issue for players on higher difficulties.

Otherwise, it’s reliable. The controls feel solid, shot patterns are tough but navigable, and it forgives almost as much as it forgets. Overdriven slips comfortably into its Bullet Hell suit, and posits a good challenge for both ends of the shooter skill set. It doesn’t do anything extraordinary with its shmup license, but it’s fast, fun, and assembled the right way. Competence is a compliment here.

REVIEW: MiG Madness

When it comes to videogames and explaining one’s passion for them, the majority of gamers tend to invoke the familiar mascots and titles. I owe a debt to Mario the same as the rest of you, though one of my earliest game accomplishments to cement that love involves an unlikely duo— Time Pilot (on the ColecoVision console, no less!), is probably the game and system responsible for you reading this. I was so proud of the ending screen in that instant that I asked my mother to take a photo of me standing next to the TV (couldn’t find it for the review, but I know the picture still exists). It was, as some say at a defining point in time, a watershed moment, a word I was aware of but hadn’t considered usable vernacular or of significance until after reading Stephen King’s latest, a time-traveling (how very fitting) jaunt to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Only tangentially-related, I know, but I needed an opening.

MiG Madness (80 MSP) tries to reestablish that link to my childhood, pulling off a lot of the same moves (with equally well-done controls) and nostalgia I expected, while donning a prettier exterior and adding four-player co-op, locally. For the uninitiated, you steer your aircraft around the screen, taking down waves of enemy planes and picking up the health and limited upgrades (wider / heavier shots, homing missiles, invincibility) they drop upon annihilation. Differing from the Time Pilot approach, there is no time travel or Zeppelins to be had, sadly, just day & night cycles and differently-hued planes.

Also missing are ‘levels’ and any sense of progression. Using the format of ‘waves’ would substitute well, if those waves lasted longer. Too much stop and go. Even as you climb the ranks into double-digits, each enemy formation can be dealt with in twenty seconds. With four players, it’s even less. And with the added planes on-screen, bullet detection (both yours and the enemy’s) is almost impossible. Many times I waded into a group of fighters at full health, mingling in the impressive-looking clouds, only to emerge a second later depleted and in flames, without ever knowing my attacker. Another recent XBLIG, Spitfire, had the same problem with shot visibility. Devs, you have to playtest these things. There’s also the issue of difficulty. As in there is none. Even accounting for the familiar arcade gameplay and aesthetics, I shouldn’t be able to mow through 35 waves in my very first playthrough, solo.

There’s not much depth or variety save for endless waves and jousting for round wins in co-op. The lack of other game modes or online leaderboards sap that replayability further, but the co-op is fun if you have willing friends / extra controllers. Gripes aside, MiG Madness is a solid effort that’s capable of reminding some of us of its classic arcade sensibilities; it’s enough, though I wish it could have done a little more.

REVIEW: Birth Order

I can’t sit here and type with a straight face that Shooters are underrepresented on the indie channel. Hear that, I was just laughing. The short of it is, you could throw out a Bing search on the Xbox dashboard and get more results than you could handle before the ‘Sh…‘ sound leaves your lips, ending in ‘…it! That’s a lot!’. Although a smaller sub-genre, the marketplace isn’t hurting for Bullet Hell(s) either, but Birth Order (80 MSP) attempts some out-of-the-hit-box thinking.

Rather than a traditional, numbered stage progression, advancement is handled via a grid-like game board, with you choosing a route (from a handful of repeated stage themes— City, Forest, etc.) towards the final boss, locked away at a seemingly safe distance. Bonus-granting cards earned in-game give you various powers (extra firepower, sidekicks) to use between levels and that last the duration of a stage, which is a unique touch, and adds some strategy to your chess moves (Hint: save ‘shield’ cards for later battles). Also novel is the ‘shooting’ itself.

‘Just Press B. It’s easy.’ Lies I told myself.

All of your shots are homing. An enemy’s weakness is visibly mapped to the face buttons. Match to kill. Sounds cut and dry, and it is, to an extent. See, there will be bullets. Lots of bullets. The pink variety can be converted into stars (the game’s energy currency) upon an enemy’s death, but other shots you’ll have to avoid amid a multicolored-chaos without end. I can’t stress enough the importance of having threat-assessing eyes. There’s the Quick, and then there’s the Leo… eh, you know the saying. And don’t expect any mercy from the start. If you’re not paying attention, the first stage will kill you immediately after the introductory handshake.

It’s not a Bullet Hell in the traditional sense. You’re not learning shot patterns through repetitious death; you’re just getting lucky after repetitious death. And therein lies the caveat, if you’re the type that goes looking for caveats. There’s a degree of chance at play here. While you will certainly improve at Birth Order and its enemy recognition over time (via that pesky death part), sometimes success will be had purely through the luck of the draw, either in the aforementioned perk cards or extra lives found on the world / game board.

Birth Order is short on playtime (my routes through the game ran about 25 minutes each), and the only nudge towards replaying it is to see where the chips may fall / if Lady Luck is on your side this round, but for the buck it’ll run you, it’s worth it to step outside the usual XBLIG shooter comfort zone.