Friday, September 29, 2023

Space Elite Force (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Rising Moon Games
Published by QUByte Game Studio / Red Art Games in 2023

A tiny little shooter developed by a tiny indie company, Space Elite Force comes bundled with its sequel in the Space Elite Force 2 in 1 package, recently honored with a retail release for the Playstation 4. I could state that a secondary honor is to be featured here thanks to the curiosity that moved my daughter and I to try out the game on a whim during a lazy Saturday. We did get along with it during the short time we had, and she was even able to follow me along in co-op until some of the boss fights. Given this good first impression, later on that night I decided to get back to the game and see what else it had in store in a serious solo run.

Space Elite Force is a straightforward shooter with little flair for backgrounds and not much variety as far as the enemy gallery goes. The good news is that it doesn't do anything wrong with these assets, which can be considered a strong positive in light of some of the dreadful disfigurements that many recent independent games sell as innovations. Get the basics right and offer decent fun from start to finish, never mind the game not being tailored to the hardcore audience that's always hungry for seemingly undodgeable bullet curtains.

In a nutshell, Space Elite Force is great for beginners. Often compared to Steredenn - Binary Starts in how it looks, even though I also see throwbacks to Aegis Wing here and there, the game is otherwise much more simple and straightforward. It's beatable in a single short session and can be played with a friend sharing power-ups, with good dodging fun, no complicated mechanics, no inertia for the ship and a gentle difficulty slope across seven stages. The sound design is by the book and follows along nicely.

Planetary dust rings, lasers and space carriers

The start of the game pays homage to Star Wars in the introduction story section, and once you skip it the action starts. Default inputs consist of button × for the main weapon, button □ for the secondary weapon and button R1 to slow down the ship (a third button for an extra weapon appears in the options but it's never used, probably something the developers forgot to exclude and nobody cares about). Both weapons come with autofire, but note that you can't use them at the same time. The secondary weapon takes precedence, so under normal conditions a balance needs to be achieved between shooting the main weapon and tapping the secondary weapon when needed, after all it's more powerful but has a much lower firing rate.

As you destroy the enemy armada tiny dots are left behind and get automatically sucked into the ship when you get close enough to them. This is the money that you'll be able to spend in between levels to purchase upgrades to both weapons and the ship itself. Expected upgrades exist for the starting pea shooter and the auxiliary missile, such as double, triple and spread shots or more powerful, versatile heat-seeking missiles as well as mines and piercing shots. A little catch is that you can only choose one of each prior to starting the next stage. Ship enhancements include reduction of enemy bullet speed, increased resistance to damage, more health and more temporary power-ups, and the good news here is that all these upgrades are permanently applied to the ship (or ships when in co-op). Another great touch when playing with a friend is that all weapon purchases are available to both players, and each one can configure his/her ship differently before going into the next mission.

Lives are treated as a single health meter that gets refilled every time a new stage starts, and if this meter reaches zero the game is over. When you begin the game you get 10 health cells on Normal, whereas on Hardcore you get 5. Lost health can be recovered within the level if you happen to come by the + item that appears from destroyed power-up carriers. These carriers might also release temporary power-ups in the form of a rotating shield, firepower boosters (a lightning bolt), money magnets (attracts money dots from all over the screen) or an extra score multiplier of ×2. The regular multiplier is shown below the score counter and increases as you kill enemies in succession, decreasing slowly whenever nothing is being destroyed and faster when you get hit. The secret to cranking it up is taking advantage of those waves of small enemies that appear from time to time, then surfing the rest of the level while trying not to destroy everything too quickly.

With a combination of all kinds of aimed shots and spread patterns, as well as lasers and enemies coming from all sides, which is always properly warned by exclamation signs at the borders of the screen, Space Elite Force's gameplay is as solid as it gets, if only too simple at times. All bosses have a health bar that tell you when they're about to die, I just felt they could be a little more menacing. Some of the later bosses are easier than the initial ones, for instance. This is one of the examples where the game could've use some fine tuning, but there's also the slight visual confusion when the magnet power-up is on and showers of coins start coming from the other side of the screen amidst enemy fire. Both points are minor though and shouldn't be taken as real issues.

Trailer for the Space Elite Force 2 in 1 combo for the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)

In spite of how well it plays and feels, Space Elite Force does have a few functional shortcomings. While I do appreaciate the way power-ups are implemented in the regular game modes, Infinity mode is an inexplicable alternate experience where you play randomly generated levels and bosses one after the other, but power-ups can only be acquired by dying and ending the credit. Then you start again with the new equipment, and the only way to upgrade any further is to keep dying over and over. Another botched feature is the ranking table. There's no local ranking, and the online rankings for all modes were never updated for me even though I was able to place myself amongst the meager slots available for high scores.

Anyway, since we're talking about the Playstation 4 we all know you can easily record footage as you play. By doing that I was able to extract the final result below before it quickly disappeared from the screen, playing in Hard(core) mode. Hopefully soon I'll get the chance to try Space Elite Force II.

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