Tag Archives: Death is a Constant Companion

REVIEW: Chasing Styx

Chasing Styx ($1.00) is an RPG-like bullet hell shooter featuring a screen-full of bullets at every turn and a humorous tale concerning Cerberus (three-headed guard dog of the Underworld, if you please) falling asleep on the job, only to let a pack of cutesy bunnies slip into the realm of the undead and subsequently upset the fragile hellish-to-adorable ratio they’ve got going on there. But really, it’s an entertaining excuse to kill and / or re-kill several demons, multiplying slimes, and other abominations.

Though that distillation doesn’t exactly do the game justice. ‘Shooting’ represents Chasing Styx’s core idea and minute-to-minute gameplay, but it does much more than simply give you targets to shoot. To put things in a larger scope, Chasing Styx is an a retro-looking adventure game with RPG elements that just happens to be a shooter. Cerberus and his extra heads form your ‘ship’ (complete with a center ‘heart’ vulnerable spot), while the River Styx functions as your hub world, letting you do business (i.e. earn and trade upgrades) with vendors and catch a ride with that old jokester Charon to half a dozen lengthy stages1.

Chasing Styx lets you tackle those challenges in any order, with the second half unlocked once you’ve acquired coins found in previous lands2. Said stages offer an overhead view and open floor plans, letting you choose your route at some points. This goes beyond simple choice, however, offering multiple paths that can lead to shortcuts, stiffer challenges, or traps that require careful navigation whilst dodging enemy fire. Each of the levels also contain a handful of hidden secrets and treasures, which are key to acquiring game-changing abilities and attacks. Some grant you things like additional hearts (your HP), an extra primary attack slot, or new weapons.

You’ll need them, too, thanks to the frequent battles that keep you on your toes. With smart (and sometimes re-used) enemy design and some equally-great boss battles, you’ll have to make judicial use of your special abilities and know when to strafe or ‘blink’ through bullets to escape tight quarters and an advancing enemy. It’s stressful but satisfying stuff when you pull it off.

chasing-styx-screen

Which is both a gift and a curse. It’s mainly a single player experience, though you can do everything cooperatively. And that’s the thing; while the local co-op would (presumably) make things easier, playing it solo can occasionally be a frustrating experience, mostly due to the lack of mid-stage checkpoints (you do get to restart from any boss fight, albeit with the health you reached that point with3). Spending twenty sweaty minutes just to get to a boss you have no serious way of beating is not a very good feeling.

Still, the game is far too well done to stumble over the small things… like you dying repeatedly. If anything, it forces players to be wiser, and the in-depth ability and perk tree is there to let you find a winning combination. In summary, you’ve got a fantastic-looking shooter that’s fantastically designed, with a really stellar soundtrack to boot. Chasing Styx might very well be the last great XBLIG4, and you’d be doing yourself a big favor by picking it up.


  1. Don’t let that number mislead you. All told, you’ll spend at least 4 to 5 hours completing the game, even more if you’re trying to collect everything. And after that, you’ve got Boss Rush and Survival modes to conquer, as well as additional ‘costumes’ for Cerberus to unlock. 
  2. Everyone knows you’ve got to pay your way in the land of the dead. Rides aren’t cheap, and Charon doesn’t do charity. 
  3. Which really is a slap in the face; what the hell am I supposed to do up against a boss with a massive health bar when I’ve got one heart? Answer: Lose repeatedly, until I’m forced to exit in shame. I mean, at least give me half-health, let’s make things interesting. 
  4. Certainly the last great XBLIG shooter, and hey, you can always pick it up on PC, if you prefer to game on a service that isn’t newly dead. 
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REVIEW: Disastr_Blastr

In a lot of ways (and not just in videogame form), Disastr_Blastr ($1.00) fits modern society’s chaotic pace, evolving sense of style, and constant need for gratification. There’s the truncated title words, for starters, ready-made for texting shorthand, and the twin-stick shooter genre it belongs to is about as close as you can get to mainstream consumption, combining arcade-style high-scoring and that maddening, ‘one more try’ flavoring that keeps you hooked despite your many disappointing deaths.

Then there’s the abstract visuals (cubes, cubes all the way through1) to consider, or the new age rule sets that pop up in each stage to keep things busy and upturned (the word ’emergent’ makes an appearance in the description). Gameplay is all at once fast, interesting, confusing, precise, and nuanced. Oh, and evil. This game can be so very difficult2, too. But more on that later.

At its core, Disastr_Blastr is a straightforward shooter; you’re a cube destroying other cubes, some bigger and more complicated than others, sure, but cubes nonetheless. The game’s stages are laid out in grid format, with you completing them in any order that you choose. Adjacent levels are unlocked when you complete a stage, opening up new paths and / or challenges. Scoring, too, works as you’d expect, as chaining kills together will increase your combo, completing a map quickly will add any remaining time to your total, etc.

Where Disastr_Blastr differs is in its stage design and objectives. Levels can alternate between scrolling and free-range, between claustrophobic and open, branching and linear. You may be asked to fight to the exit in one, destroy a certain color cube in another, or seek out items hidden in breakable blocks. There’s some tough boss encounters, and hidden special stages, all of it set to a timer that likes to remind you that everything has an expiration date3.

Even the powerups you pick up have to be carefully considered. Find a spread shot to cover more ground, but you’ll lessen your overall firepower. A laser beam will do focused damage, yet you’ll be screwed once the bigger cubes break apart and create dozens of smaller cubes, backing you into a corner. How and what you choose to attack is just as important. Enemies bounce off each other and ricochet off walls, leading to unpredictable results. And sometimes, impossible odds.

Disastr_Blastr - Screen

And that can be a problem. Disastr_Blastr is not for the meek or the casual crowds. There is no health bar. The game’s one-hit-means-death mechanic is no joke, mercilessly killing you over and over until you’ve learned a lesson or lucked into a narrow completion. Even in the first ‘world’ set of levels, death is a constant companion. On some of the tougher, longer stage assignments, one simple mistake can reset your progress and really prove disheartening. You can retry a stage as many times as you like, but failing to finish one level may wall you off from accessing other levels, or force you to chart a different route.

Mileage will vary with each player’s skill and patience, and because of that, I’m left with an uneasy recommendation. On the one hand, the game looks great, plays great, and smartly considers the limitations of the genre to create a satisfying, evolving shooter. On the other, it’s immensely challenging and potentially exclusionary, which might rightly turn some players away from it. One thing is certain; Disastr_Blastr is dangerous cubes.


  1. Hell, even the numbers in your score are cubed. Cubes within cubes. Cube-ception. 
  2. But there’s cheat codes for that, ya know. Look here
  3. Especially You. And milk. Cheese. A lot of dairy, really. 

REVIEW: Broken Pearl

From the weird and inventive Birth Order, to the equally-strange and nontraditional platformer X.S.E.E.D., Wide Pixel Games and Mikael Tillander have always succeeded in creating unique, infinitely-playable and fun games. Even others that I haven’t covered here, like Heavy Recoil and Twin Tiger Shark, have been quick favorites. The studio’s newest, Broken Pearl ($1.00), is no exception, taking the shooter genre onto a retro and vertically-scrolling path with a (potentially) hard-as-nails Bullet Hell.

If you’re even slightly-acquainted with shooters, Broken Pearl‘s setup is the typical stuff. You get two ships to choose from; a focused-fire variant that can plow through targets straight-ahead of it, and a spread-shot type that is better suited to damaging multiple enemies from multiple angles at once. You’re allocated a set number of lives and screen-clearing bombs (for emergencies, natch), then set loose to wreak havoc on a series of stages and their respective bosses. Oh, and probably a few thousand cannon fodder in-between.

Those foes aren’t likely to go gentle into that good night1, of course, littering the screen with plenty of bullets in a mesmerizing and ever-changing display of neon death. Thankfully, only the very center of your ship is vulnerable to their fire, (hopefully) resulting in some nimble maneuvering that will enable you to advance and aid in your high-score chasing2. You can also ‘rescue’ enslaved allies found in each stage, adding their guns and firepower to your ship for the duration of that current life.

Some of the heavier, bullet-sponge types will drop powerups that morph over time, which amounts to Broken Pearl‘s clever rewards payout. You can choose from a boost to your firepower (and any allies at your side), a score multiplier, or an additional bomb. Depending on your skill level and how much risk you’re willing to take on, it’s a simple but effective choice that helps newcomers as much as seasoned veterans. Both crowds will need the help.

Broken Pearl - Screen

While the phrases ‘a stiff challenge’ and ‘bullet hell’ tend to belong in the same sentence, it needs to be said that Broken Pearl IS difficult. The upside to that comment is that the game is only as hard as you make it, meaning as you practice and improve your own skills, the game’s inherent reward system— i.e., the bombs and weapon powerups— naturally decreases the challenge over time, with only yourself (and / or your ego) to blame upon death.

The game’s premise and mechanics may not be as bizarre as some of the studio’s previous titles, but Broken Pearl is still an easy recommendation to make. The game choreographs its version of a bullet ballet extremely-well, giving you ample challenge and that much more satisfaction when you eventually succeed and rage, rage against the dying of the light3.


  1. Yes, yes, the Dylan Thomas poem. Or villanelle, rather. Hey, they use poetry against us to sell jeans and wrestling these days, so what the hell. 
  2. You can upload your score to the game’s online leaderboard via your smartphone, where applicable. Always a clever work-around for the limitations of XBLIG. 
  3. Yup, back on the Thomas poem again. It got stuck in my head for some reason. 

REVIEW: Bopscotch

For all its many bright, colorful levels, numerous ‘costume changes’, and ball-shaped characters leaping throughout, Bopscotch ($2.99) is still an endless runner. Well, I suppose if you want to get technical, it’s an endless bouncer. There’s no ‘jumping’, per se. At any rate, you’re still stuck on auto-run, testing your reflexes and overcoming the same obstacles / hazards you’ve dodged and ‘cheated death’ from thousands of times over1.

And yet, ‘bouncing’ your way through each stage brings a subtle variation to the formula that is both mildly-refreshing and annoyingly-perverse. More on that later, first the details. Bopscotch features an assortment of customizable ball avatars2, called ‘boppers’, and offers up over 90 stages of well-designed— and yes, occasionally frustration-fueled— deathtraps and spikes, sprinkling in some additional tricks as you go along, like sudden speed changes, one-way signs, and breakable floors / ceilings to open up new paths.

You’re gathering candy as you go (which equates to your score), but the goal is, as always, misleadingly-simple: reach the exit of each level unscathed, and move on to the next. Of course, that objective and its cheery visuals are a lie; this is a masochistic endless runner, and you’re going to die, my friend. A lot. Instant retries are unlimited, natch, and there is the Willy Wonka-esque ‘golden ticket’, a single-use item that is occasionally handed out, and which permits you to skip the current stage in exchange.

Which you may need. Rather than traverse the game’s many dangers the old-fashioned way, Bopscotch‘s round-ish fellows are quite good at bouncing, forcing an entirely-different method of of movement and timing on the player. In addition to allowing more space to line up jumps, you can also tweak your speed on land and in the air, which is vital to crossing some gaps and ‘threading the needle’ between spikes. The tutorial level gives you the basics, but you’ll still need a bit of time to adjust to Bopscotch‘s particular cadence, if you will.

Bopscotch - Screen

Can be more complicated than it looks.

That adjustment is mostly painless, mind you, but it does throw a wrench into the traditional machine of understanding endless runners. The levels themselves are pre-set sequences, fun to figure out but built to be completed in a certain way, one that requires nigh-perfect timing on your part. Given the genre the game belongs to, you can expect to replay some stages over and over, along with all the colorful language that results from it.

In that way, Bopscotch is no different than something like, say, The Impossible Game. Clever idea and ‘ball cosplay’ aside, it’s designed to frustrate over long periods of time. You’ll find ample challenge and more than ample content (besides the 90+ level ‘Adventure’ mode, there’s a two-player local race option), but you still have to know what you’re getting yourself into. Proceed from there.


  1. Only to die a thousand deaths more in the next level or game. Vicious circle, Life’s a Bitch, [insert hopeless fatalism here], etc. 
  2. Knights, Teachers, Mummies, and the like; change your color, or swap out hats and shirts as you please, with new items unlocked for completing a series of levels. Hardly in-depth stuff, but hey, it’s fun for the dress-up crowd. 

REVIEW: Amazing Princess Sarah

For years now, the 2D Castlevanias (and, of course, all the Castlevania-likes) have been struggling with a pretty significant part of their gameplay— how to make the constant overworld battles with whatever evil dungeon / cave / castle’s numerous foot soldiers interesting1, and keep players engaged between boss fights and story events. Lucky for us all, Haruneko‘s Amazing Princess Sarah ($4.99) might have just solved that problem, and it might’ve become one of my favorite action / platformers in the process.

The game shares some similarities with one of the developer’s earlier releases, Akane the Kunoichi, but whereas that was a more traditional platformer with traditional mechanics, Amazing Princess Sarah is a deliberate crawl, a slugfest for every inch of ground, from one end of the stage to the other. You don’t play the game as much as you just survive, as it cleverly reinvents the in-between stuff and makes the end bosses almost a secondary concern.

Don’t let the generous cleavage fool you; Sarah is one tough chick. After her father— also the King— is kidnapped by a demonic party, led by a horned boss known as Lilith, she sets out to tramp through a series of increasingly-difficult (and increasingly-longer) castles to retrieve him. These fortresses follow the platformer mold… in theoryplenty of enemies, some challenging jumps onto narrow (and sometimes disappearing) ledges, all concluding with the requisite boss encounter. In action, it plays completely different.

While Sarah has a normal blade attack that does adequate harm, her real skill lies in her unnatural strength; strength that allows her to hoist up the bodies of her slain enemies, and chuck them into oncoming threats for massive damage.2 Nice parlor trick, that. It’s also key to dealing with the unending parade of baddies, wiping out the more dangerous foes and / or trying to combo the rest to fall like dominoes. It’s hard to explain in words, but trust me, when it’s done right, it’s awesome, and really satisfying.

Choosing the right corpse for the job is important3, as most of them will have their own weight, properties, and effects. A bird can be tossed farther, but does less damage, while a bomber’s body will naturally explode upon contact. Ditto for other enemies and effects, like archers (split into arrows) and firebrands (waves of traveling flames). Depending on how you line up your ‘corpse attacks’, you can score several kills at once, helping you to level up and increase your overall health. This too, is vitally-important, as you’ll need the extra hitpoints to advance from checkpoint to checkpoint, the space between clogged with more and more enemies and hazards.

Amazing Princess Sarah - Screen

In fact, despite their epic size and decent challenge, the bosses do become secondary. Being chased by a giant spider or fighting a demon with sexy legs (… don’t ask) somehow provokes less tension than simply getting through a tiny stretch of one castle. This can either be a very good thing, or a very frustrating thing, depending on your view. While the controls are generally excellent, and the difficulty never felt unfair or too over-the-top, be forewarned— there are some tricky sequences (a vertical corridor near the end, comprised entirely of disappearing platforms and lined with archers that cause knockback, proved especially maddening).

You’ll certainly get your money’s worth, though, as you have to play through the game several times to actually ‘beat’ it, a process that will doubtlessly run you several dozen hours in length. Considering one playthrough will take you about five hours, finishing all seven(!) game modes4 to fight the true final boss will require serious dedication. But time and difficulty be damned, I say! With its clever re-imagining of basic stage design— and the inventive use of corpses— Amazing Princess Sarah is a challenging (and absolute) must-play.5


  1.  Part of that blandness with the combat is offset by ‘exploration’, and the old Metroidvania trick: slowly giving you access to new items and weapons to keep you motivated and moving forward. 
  2.  I’ve seen this compared to the idea behind Mischief Makers, Treasure‘s platformer on the N64. 
  3.  Something very wrong about seeing that line written out. 
  4.  With some neat variables to up the challenge, like your own ghost following you around the level, causing damage on contact, or ‘Drunk Princess’, a mode that messes with the camera. 
  5. This review is also featured at Indiepitome