Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sturmwind (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
16 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Duranik
Published by redspotgames in 2013

If there’s something positive to be taken from the long gestation period of the independently-developed Sturmwind, it certainly has to be the anticipation created by the dazzling, beautiful screenshots released in 2010. Three years later the game finally arrived to the eager hands of Dreamcast fans all around the world in two variations. Mine is the meatier one, a nice longbox with magnetic lids containing the main disc, a remixed soundtrack CD, a booklet with pics and info on all bosses and an odd miniature of the spaceship from the game (it seems to have been made from spongy plastic in a 3D printer). It’s a pretty cool package that hints at how much independent development love was dedicated to Sturmwind.

So how well does it fare as a game then?

Whenever a project’s ambition overflows from inside the walls of the developing studio into media domain, expectations rise proportionally. Style over substance becomes the main critical dilemma for everybody, and somewhere in between this spectrum most games end up falling short. Unfortunately, like many other indie instances in the past, this is also the case of Sturmwind. It is really beautiful to look at, with crisp, fluid animation applied to gorgeous graphics from start to finish. There's always something happening with great detail in the backgrounds, all of them extremely varied and dynamic (look out for some weird appearances, all of them "explained" in the game's ending). It isn’t a difficult game by any means, and the little difficulty that can be found is more due to design oversights than actual challenge. A few gameplay resources get botched by their own nature, which is a pity considering the noble intentions behind their essence.

Everything about the game and its story is expressed in German, from the narration in the animated intro to all names of stages and bosses (Sturmwind corresponds to Storm Wind - the rest of the names aren't so easy to translate though). Your mission consists of invading 16 locations in order to find "Mother", the planet of your living ancestors. Normal mode is where you'll play these 16 levels, whereas Arcade mode picks 6 of them for a much shorter ride, without any difference or gameplay addition whatsoever. It aims at being an arcade-like alternative to a relatively long game, but I only see it as redundant and unnecessary. For whatever's worth, in Arcade mode you can't continue and progress is not saved, two resources naturally built into Normal mode, which also offers the ability to start at any stage previously reached (good for practicing). All 16 stages are unevenly spread across seven worlds, some of them have just bosses and a few boss fights are timed. If you time out you lose a life and the fight is restarted.

Meet LaserlÀufer!

There are lots of control inputs (all customizable) in Sturmwind. By default: shoot with A, bomb with B, cycle through available weapons with R, activate charge shot with X, switch shot direction with L and switch drone shot direction with Y. If you take out the charge mechanic and the switching inputs, this gameplay scheme owes a lot to Konami’s 16-bit classic Axelay, an influence that’s also clearly noticed in the brown weapon, a dual vulcan spread whose opening angle can be controlled by the shot button in 180Âș above and below the ship. The other weapons consist of a forward shot (green) and a conical wave laser (blue), all of them upgraded by collecting the corresponding power-up color for the weapon that’s currently in use. This means that taking a blue while brown is activated has no effect at all – a very faint sound cue will tell if the pick-up was useless.

A single power-up item is released every once in a while with a tag of 1.000 points inside it. Shoot in order to cycle the item across all weapon colors: 1.000 points → brown → red → blue → brown → ... (the thousand point bonus appears only once). The first two upgrades applied to a weapon add two drones/options for a little extra firepower, and these drones can also have their shot direction inverted (button Y). They behave differently for each weapon and disappear after receiving too much damage (just take more power-ups to renew them). Other items that appear more rarely are extra bombs, 1UPs and bonus points (by hitting hidden spots). Bombs are independent of life stock, so it's advisable to not bomb-spam out of desperation expecting to get more bombs with a respawn.

Shooting and taking the desired power-up requires a bit of practice and timing, especially when you notice that weapons also serve as health. Upon getting hit you just lose the current weapon, dying only if you get hit while using the last remaining one. Sturmwind’s catch is that it’s possible to reactivate a lost weapon by taking its corresponding power-up color, thus reestablishing the ship to its original status and prolonging the current life. Granted, the recovered weapon is powered down a bit, but here’s where the gameplay starts falling apart: a weapon’s power level can only be seen in between stages (not while you play), it takes lots of power-ups to reach 100% and upgrading them beyond the pair of options is pretty much useless. All enemies, including bosses, will yield pretty quickly with whatever weapon you use, even at their default power. Even more useless than powering up is the charge shot, an attack that’s executed in two steps and makes you lose the weapon if you let the second energy gauge fill up completely. Yes, weapon overheating leads to ship damage and weapon loss... Why in hell haven’t those outer space engineers installed a safety device on those cannons? This is by far one of the most stupid gameplay ideas I’ve ever seen in a shmup.

Sturmwind's launch trailer
(courtesy of publisher and YouTube user redspotgames)

The basis of the scoring system in Sturmwind is killing complete enemy waves. When this happens a WAVE BONUS message appears, and by destroying all its characters a star is added to the multiplier in the top counter – be quick, sometimes the characters disappear quite fast. The multiplier is confined to each stage and is reset when you die, but what’s most unfortunate about this straightforward and simple mechanic is that it’s made irrelevant by a broken scoring system: during the confrontation against the fifth boss (stage 2.1) you can milk his small fireballs indefinitely. Sadly, both Normal and Arcade modes are affected by this.

Sturmwind boasts an excellent use of color, with sections containing prerendered graphics that create great-looking 3D backgrounds. However, no matter how accomplished it is, the design lacks finesse in how it treats boundaries. There are times where collision detection becomes a nightmare, with deaths happening when you least expect and boss fights taking longer simply because you don’t know where you’re allowed to move. It all leads to unnecessary frustration and really affects the overall fun factor. Strangely enough, this issue is less critical in the levels where the spaceship is seen from the top instead of sideways, as if it was a rotated top-down vertical shmup. This is rather unusual for a horizontal shooter but it works. Also curious are the swift effect of the ship taking off at the end of the stage and the fact that the screen fades to black every time you die, despite the game having no checkpoints whatsoever. Considering that Sturmwind is full of mechanical apparatus and large, intimidating multiple-part bosses, the sound effects are rather disappointing. One would expect all sorts of clanks and metallic sounds, but we only get a gallery of subdued muffled pants. At least the soundtrack is a little better, as it tends to grow on you with repeated plays.

As I mentioned above, style over substance is the main culprit of Sturmwind's faults. In a nutshell, the game just isn't as fun as it looks. Beautiful visuals are the saving grace, but the easy challenge, the gameplay blunders, the slightly abusive loading times and the broken scoring system all serve to undermine the game's lasting appeal. My 1CC high score on Normal is below. Note: Hard difficulty offers more bullets (still slow though), stronger enemy resilience and only 1 life to start the credit.

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