1 Difficulty level
Ship speed fixed
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Developed by United Game Artists
Published by Sega in 2001
Among some of the most intriguing games ever designed and commercially released, Rez is certainly one to raise controversy, be it for its effectiveness as a video game or simply its genre labeling. Emerging from the legacy of the Panzer Dragoon series and infused with unique characteristics that provide a departure from the common rail shooter formula, Rez is seen by many people as an experience rather than a proper game. Sega’s marketing is partially to blame for this because the game debuted on the Dreamcast, but in all honesty there isn’t that much reason for such a fuss. At the end of the day, Rez is a game like any other, with strengths and weaknesses, and definitely worth a try regardless of genre conventions.
Now for the inevitable question: is Rez a shmup? If you agree that rail shooters qualify then the answer is yes. However, Rez is a very special type of rail shooter. Whereas in Panzer Dragoon you possess a mild ability to dodge incoming fire, in Rez you just don’t have it. Your avatar sits there in the middle of the screen, and with very few exceptions every enemy projectile that’s not destroyed will hit you and devolve your current evolutionary form. Therefore, basic gameplay is down to one simple rule: hit them before they hit you. The whole stage and sound design revolves around this concept, and every action the player takes has an influence in the music.
What the developers tried to create is a strong interaction between the player and the game, with the objective of establishing an aural synesthesia that’s supposed to “unite” both. Every shot fired inserts a beat into the rhythm, and every different form you assume (out of six) will change this beat according to a specific frequency. BPM evolves and accelerates as the stage sections unfold, following your invasion into a virtual reality. The character's main mission is to the breach the security of several layers of code (10 per stage) and free an imprisoned digital being known as Eden, all of this while going through a series of trippy, abstract landscapes to the sound of five electronic music tracks. Sound is so important in Rez that the relation between its quality and the overall experience is explicitly stressed even before the Sega logo appears when loading the game.
The journey starts with the character in its primary form, a humanoid shape comprised of single geometrical forms. If you get hit you revert to the most basic and defenseless form, the sphere (another hit taken means death). Higher forms come in the shape of two more complete humanoid figures, a flying guru, a pulsating energy sphere and a fetus. In order to evolve you have to collect blue power-ups left by selected enemies - it takes 8 of these to advance to the next form. Destroying enemies is done by using a reticle. You can either aim and shoot or hold the fire button while you lock onto a maximum of 8 targets or hit points. Once locked, release the button and watch as the targets take damage. Besides the blue power-up there's also a red power-up that fills one cell of the overdrive bar. Overdrive is just another name for the screen-clearing bomb: use it to become invincible and kill everything in sight for a short time.
Rez is a deeply layered shooter, and it's not possible to tell it just by the main game mode alone. This mode, for instance, has absolutely no score - what you get at the end of every stage are just stats on the percentage of subareas "analyzed", enemies shot down and items collected. Progress is saved and you can repeat stages at will, unlocking a specific score attack mode for every level you beat, but you only get access to the last stage by achieving a 100% analyzation rate in the previous 4 stages (shooting down all the cubes that separates the layers). The real fun starts once the game is fully beaten, because then you unlock the "Beyond" mode, which includes two options called Direct Assault and Lost Area. Direct Assault is the proper game with scoring, stages in order and no continues. Lost area is just a single stage with different enemies, I wonder if it's the remainder of a beta version named K-Project (a homage to abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, a major influence on the whole game). There are many other unlockables in Rez, most of them cascaded with beating currently unlocked modes. Extra color schemes and extra music tracks and sounds are the most useful ones; Travelling and Trance modes are just to chill out, since you don't take any damage when playing them.
It’s great to know that Rez allows a proper scoring challenge with the Beyond/Direct Assault mode. Unfortunately, delving into the scoring system also exposes the inherent flaws of the game design. Scoring works in a simple multiplier scheme, in that the more targets you lock the higher the multiplier, up to ×8 (essential hint: enable the point display in the options to see your multiplier during any score-based mode). Going for a higher score means pursuing a maximum multiplier at all times, which increases the chance of letting enemies escape (if they leave the screen you lose the multiplier) and decreases the chance of getting the best endings. These endings are achieved by getting the best shot down percentage you can in stage 5, thresholds being 95% and 100%, with a final evolutionary form upon game completion. The worst thing of all is that you only know your stats after the stage ends, so it's impossible to evaluate how you're doing during the actual gameplay. When aiming for the best endings the best strategy is to kill everything on sight on the 5th stage, which totally goes against scoring. So which player do you want to be: a scorer or a killer?
Breaching virtual security and evolving in the 5th stage of Rez
(courtesy of YouTube user TeamAndromeda)
Abstract graphics with sections that blend with each other beautifully, a profusion of colors and the audio boldness are what make some people define Rez as an experience rather than a game. Sure you can take the easy route and target everything without worrying about the lock-on. Going through all stages and flying through all those sections and bosses feels great when you're in the right state of mind. However, things get a lot more serious (and a lot more fun in my opinion) when scoring is considered. For starters, the top score in the Direct Assault mode is one million points, which is considerably high and demands absolute focus and a lot more risk if you want to take over 1st place. Furthermore, performing well during a stage triggers a harder boss at the end of it. In any case, balancing lock-ons for a higher score while getting the best possible shot down ratio is the ultimate achievement you can get.
Regardless of the approach, Rez is one of those titles that must be tried at least once, even if you're not a fan of rail shooters. Alternative options to the Dreamcast version can be found on the PS2 and the Xbox 360. On the 1CC highest score shown below (Beyond > Direct Assault) I got the ending where Eden opens her hands and the screen fades to white. No butterflies yet, maybe in the future, in one of the other versions... This time I did beat the game in the final form, but the shot down ratio was 87,79%, with an item count of 70,59%.