Monday, May 27, 2019

Steredenn - Binary Stars (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pixelnest Studio / Plug in Digital
Published by Strictly Limited Games in 2018

Steredenn - Binary Stars is the expanded revision of a digital game called Steredenn. First released digitally for several platforms, it soon received a limited print run for the Playstation 4. The game preserves the overblown pixelly graphical style of the original title and adds new ships, weapons and modes, keeping the aspect that distinguished it from its brethren: the roguelike gameplay. I confess I'd never really come close to the style ~ or the term itself ~ until now, probably because it is so rarely done in the shmup genre.

One of the fears I had before embarking on this game was the dreadful prospect of having to grind my way towards a playable situation. Fortunately that's not the case. Everything you need to achieve victory is supposed to be granted in each and every run, which ends when the last energy bit is gone with absolutely no continues allowed. Players (re)actions depend on very random factors that affect the spawning, placement and behavior of enemies as well as the selection of power-ups that come along the way. In essence, no run is like the next. That's one of the cornerstones of the roguelike approach originated in RPGs, the genre that actually gave birth to this very specific branch in video game design.

The graphical style in Sterendenn - Binary Stars is definitely an acquired taste, and my feeling is that the emphasis on foreground action kinda diverts the attention (on purpose) from the simplistic design of the backgrounds. That shaking effect when anything explodes can be toned up/down or eliminated in the options, which also allows the activation of a switch called "Cinema" that completely removes the HUD (beware, I did it by accident once and thought the game was bugged!). If the graphics aren't your cup of tea, chances are you'll feel a little better about the energetic, rock-driven soundtrack that certainly pumps things up a notch.

Trailer for Steredenn - Binary Stars
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Pixelnest Studio)

After the federation mothership is obliterated you dart into your mission all by yourself, shooting your basic default weapon with button ×. Cargo ships pass by every once in a while, bringing new random weapons that can be collected with the Δ button. There are only two slots available for them, so if you want to take a new weapon you'll have to relinquish one of your ocuppied slots. Selecting the weapon to use (or to be exchanged for a new one) is done with buttons □ or L2. Finally, each ship has a particular special ability triggered with buttons ○ or L1. Tempest is the name of the default ship, and its default special move is a short-range melee attack.

There are more than 30 weapons in the game, of which only some will ever be available for use in any run. They are divided into categories that dictate the nature and use of most upgrades you'll come across in between stages after beating bosses. The main categories are bullet (yellow), energy (red), heavy (orange) and bots (purple), but you're also entitled to activate a couple of shield-like weapons and replace your special ability attacks. Weapon behavior varies greatly, so the only real advice to be given here is to try them all and see which ones work best for you in regard to power, reach, autofire, reload/burst mechanic, piercing ability and influence over ship speed. However, coming to terms with a certain assortment of favorite weapons is just one part of the general strategy, after all the choice of upgrades can make or break your chances at surviving the odds.

With each defeated boss any lost health during the stage is replenished and you're given the chance to activate one out of several random upgrades for attack, defense or scoring, as well as a few that provide influence on other gameplay factors. They all have some sort of self-explanatory text to guide you, but figuring them out does take a while nonetheless. Just like the weapon gallery, the amount of available upgrades is overwhelming at first and only becomes more natural after you've clocked a few hours with the game, eventually unlocking new ships and some extra game modes in the process. These new ships represent the most drastic change between different runs, to the point that the game becomes a completely different beast. The Specialist ship, for example, is only allowed to use bot weapon variations, whereas the Red Baron is given only two weapons besides its special ability. Moreover, some of the special abilities, such as the rocket circus from the Fortress ship, take a little time to recharge.

Regardless of the chosen ship, Steredenn - Binary Stars makes no concessions at all in its gameplay, so be prepared to get shafted with bad luck and lousy weapons for several credits in a row, only to be given that favorite weapon for a good while afterwards. Of course good weapons don't necessarily mean an easy ride though, as players are kept on their toes all the time. Blink and you'll be engulfed by successive traps and overlapping waves, not to mention those resilient and unpredictable bulky ships from the last couple of levels. Most hits consume only a health cell, but the ones of the heavy kind can take up to five cells in a single blow. And getting to the battleship (6th stage boss) or the mothership (7th stage boss) while low on health isn't encouraging at all. Speaking of bosses, it's interesting to note that they get bigger and bigger as the game progresses, and up to the carrier (5th boss) they can have at least two different forms, each one with its particular set of attack patterns.

The Red Baron against one of the not-so-large bosses

In the roguelike nature of Binary Stars, moving away from what comes off as luck to something that can be considered proper knowledge of the gameplay definitely takes lots of practice. The simple task of not getting hit and preserving health has another benefit that becomes clearer the more you play and aim for better scoring results: the multiplier rises up automatically as you destroy enemies and reduces a little for every hit you take. The more energy you lose the bigger the dent in the multiplier. That's cool because in the end you don't need to consciously think about the scoring system at all.

My favorite upgrades when trying to go the distance (the ones not related to power increase) are the laser shield (protects the ship from a laser hit and recharges automatically after a few seconds), chain reaction (makes all enemies explode into a short radius burst that damages everything that's close) and shield breaker (shields can be destroyed by your weapons). Only when I've collected those and the remaining that aren't that useful I might pick up the ones that affect scoring (score boost, combo protection). There are lots of other mysterious upgrades to collect and some of them depend on the choice of ship, but much caution must be taken when beating one of the special hidden bosses. All upgrades released right after them have both a good and a bad effect on the gameplay. Note: by pausing the game you can see the upgrades you've already acquired.

Even with all the minor aspects that rub me the wrong way, such as the impossibility to remap controls or adjust the screen size to your liking (it's naturally a little larger than the usual widescreen TV), the need to press the fire button again when you switch to a different weapon (which can be eliminated with the "improved reconfiguration system" upgrade), the random hazard modifiers applied to complete stages (quantum asteroid field, sunburn, bulletstorm), the bogus items released by extra bosses and a few rare occurrences of severe framerate skipping, I had a very hard time leaving Steredenn - Binary Stars behind. It can be extremely unfair at times, but it's still a massively addictive game that will always pull you in if you give it a chance. It's a one of a kind achievement in the shmup genre, that's for sure.

The main game can be enjoyed solo or in co-op, but as I mentioned above the package also includes a few unlockable extra modes. In Daily Run players share the same levels, upgrades and weapons all over the world, Boss Rush is a challenge that changes weekly and Arena is a glorified boss practice mode where you can tweak everything for ship/weapon combinations. My favorite weapon duo for the Tempest ship is supergun + fusion hyperblaster, and that's the ship I used when reaching the 3rd stage of the 2nd loop in the picture below (online leaderboards available). Further loops have suicide bullets and bosses that fire trickier variations of their original patterns.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Philosoma (Playstation)

Horizontal / Vertical / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment in 1995

Even before I knew of how Philosoma played I happened to enjoy the game somehow. As a shooter fan, I've always played all sorts of variations of the genre, but my favorite ones were always those of the classic scrolling kind and the into-the-screen titles like After Burner. An ambitious game self published by Sony at the start of the Playstation lifetime, Philosoma dared to mix all the styles I mentioned above in a fully narrated, nicely animated story-driven outer space adventure, and by doing so it kinda catered to this personal dream I've ever had: the one of playing a shmup that changed its orientation frequently for a more cinematic, dynamic, fluid experience.

A lenghty intro details the formation of a special squadron sent to investigate a menace lurking in planet 220. The player assumes the role of a rookie pilot, initially taking the backseat in the action as the more experienced in the group fly ahead. Constant audio communication conveys tension during the battle, which switches perspectives very often and even puts the player in a situation of flying out of the screen, as in a rail shooter where you see the ship from the front instead of behind. Every single transition is animated into the next, in a total of four levels with several bosses and fast, relentless enemy waves. Each life has five shields, so death only comes when all shields are gone. A visible warning tells you when you're on your last remaining shield.

Intro to Philosoma, Western version
(courtesy of YouTube user TGApuleius)

The adoption of an energy bar for every life can be deceiving, for Philosoma is eager to eat away lives in a snap if you don't know what's coming. It's one of those shooters that value memorization a lot, with a strategic touch in the assortment of weapons at the player's disposal. There's a vulcan shot, a laser, a charge shot (A-Break) and a rear shot (Ray-B), all selectable at any moment at the press of dedicated buttons. Each one can be upgraded twice, but you need to be using the weapon for its power to be increased when picking up the corresponding item. All weapons are decent to use at any moment, but it took me some time to properly value the awesome power of the A-Break. Provided you have it maxed out (level 3), larger enemies and bosses yield much faster with well placed/timed charge shots.

Some items are certain to be generated every time in the same place, others are random. A green POW provides one upgrade to the currently selected weapon, while the purple POW maximizes all of them instantly. SHIELD recovers one energy hit, 1UP grants an extra life, BGR adds a bomb (a.k.a. buster grenades) to the bomb stock and only one type of auxiliary missiles can be activated for the current life (SRM for homing missiles, MRM for straight missiles). With an extend also achieved at every 100.000 points, one could say Philosoma isn't stingy at all on extra lives. A tiny detail in the power-up system is that every time you take an item you become invincible for a split second.

Experienced players will surely know where the inspiration for the abovementioned detail comes from. There are many others, including the classic rail shooters from Sega, the Thunder Force series, biological themed arcade titles like X-Multiply and even unexpected stuff like Xenon 2 (which is evident in the main boss fight of the 2nd stage). A particular part of this level throws a special nod to the Macross universe as the ship assumes a Gerwalk-like form and slides over a flat plane that sounds like something straight out of  a horizontal variation of Viewpoint. There might be more throwbacks to other games in there, but these are the ones that stand out the most.

The A-Break weapon in its full glory

On visual merits the game has a mix of standout moments and only a few segments with poorly designed textures, the latter mostly during rail shooting sections. The first stage is particularly tame when compared with the rest of the game, which boasts some rather impressive backgrounds. The level of variety also follows the constant shift in scrolling perspectives, even though the highlights are reserved for the horizontal parts due to the best results in mixing 3D polygons and sprite art. In that sense Philosoma predates more famous shmups like Thunder Force V, R-Type Delta and Einhänder. An excellent example of graphical and musical prowess is the section in the 3rd stage/phase that starts with a descent in a diagonal shaft followed by gigantic fan blades and a fast scrolling area, ending with an awesome revolving background. Most of the time the music is of a subdued nature and works well with the graphical style, but some tracks (like the one of the section above) do shine a bit more.

As engaging and exciting as Philosoma visually is, it's kinda baffling that Sony let players down by finishing the game with one of the most anticlimactic final bosses I've ever seen. At first I thought an enormous, menacing creature would emerge from that huge dome, but the thing just fades away as the end movie starts rolling. The emphasis on the FMV snippets, which are unlocked in a special movie gallery as you advance through the stages, is also another aspect that irks me a little. Why not give some love to the scoring system, for example? Not only does the game ignore high scores completely, but the size and visibility of the score in that transparent HUD are horrible. I had a hard time getting a proper picture of my result as I was fighting the final boss.

It would be amazing if a worthy STG developer looked back at the great possibilities hinted by Philosoma. Fleshing out the graphics and adding a scoring system that goes beyond the kill'em all basic rule would do it for me. Recent titles like Astebreed follow the same structure, but somehow fail to capture the idea of the multiple perspective design like Philosoma did. After all, it manages to deliver great atmosphere with intense action and tight gameplay. It's a rarely seen experience that every fan of the genre should have the chance to try.

My best 1CC result on the Normal difficulty is below. The last sight you'll ever have of your score in any run is this one during the fight against the last boss. Depending on the chosen difficulty, different epilogues narrated by different characters appear in the end. Control inputs can be selected from six distinct preset configurations. I used type E.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

L-Dis (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NCS / Masaya
Published by NCS / Masaya 
in 1991

Fantasy themes where characters are abducted to live a great adventure have always been present in video games since I can remember. One of the most noteworthy entries of this kind of story in the shmup genre is Dragon Spirit. Even though it didn't achieve the success or notoriety of Namco's arcade/console classic, Masaya's L-Dis also has a main character being drafted into a fantastic but perilous adventure, one that certainly does not disappoint if you're a fan of horizontal shooters in general. It's leaps and bounds above Toilet Kids, for example, another PC Engine quirky game that also uses the abduction motif.

Granted, L-Dis is quite an obscure title, and it could never aspire to anything more than that since it was never released out of Japan. The game's story starts when a boy and a girl are drawing creatures and objects on a wall, then the girl gets kidnapped by an evil guy and the boy boards a spaceship that looks like a fish to rescue her. The catch is that their drawings become the enemies across six increasingly longer levels that show lots of inspiration from the Gradius series. Does that get you interested? A word of warning though: L-Dis is inspired by Gradius but doesn't play like Gradius at all, and I mean this as a compliment.

The start of a dangerous journey
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

A colorful, cutesy shooter on the outside, this game actually presents a few interesting challenges for the player. One of them is figuring out the upgrade items brought by harmless floating yellow balloons. Since they're only differentiated by kanji characters, it does take a while to know what you're getting. The good news is that they always cycle in the same order when spawned, with three types of items to consider. The first one is the power-up / speed-up. The second one is the auxiliary shot, which has three forms (a straight type, a bomb/missile type and a special shot that passes through walls). The third item is the bomb / 1-hit shield. Auxiliary shots are fired by trailing options (2 max, no upgrades), you can carry only one bomb (it trails behind the options) and a maximum of three shields can be stocked at any given time.

Before starting the game you can choose to watch a tutorial by pressing left or right (in the end of the message はい means YES and いいえ means NO). Then you must choose one out of three weapon configurations. The best advice is to try them all to check which one fits your play style better, but suffice it to say you're bound to see some weird shot sprites, such as women's shoes, hatchets, pointy fingers or crawling toothpastes. Once the choice is made you're ready to go: fire with button II, drop the bomb with button I. Autofire is there by default, as is the possibility of losing lives in a snap with almost no breathing room on respawn. You do get the chance to recover some of the lost power-ups though.

L-Dis holds the distinction of having lots of sections within a level, with one or more mid-bosses prior to the main stage boss. The adventure begins above a city landscape, then descends into street level prior to a scramble outside a huge battleship that leads to an encounter with a revamped version of Big Core. From then on the challenge picks up in an underwater level and inside a factory filled with walker mechas, lasers and tricky hatches, ending in a lengthy boss rush with lots of cramped passageways in between deadly moving cylinders. The sheer amount of variety (stages and enemies), the sudden shifts in scrolling speed (5th boss, escape to the final boss) and the constant need to navigate tight corridors provide a remarkable challenge that's somewhat detached from the cute aspect of the whole package.

Watched by green eyes and guarded by green mechas

While technically very competent, L-Dis chokes a little bit when the screen gets too cluttered with bullets. Though not common and mostly present in the final parts of the game, the slowdown in these moments is actually welcome for survival. The final stages are also quite stingy in upgrade items, so do you best to get there with a fully powered arsenal. An interesting fact about maximum firepower (besides the long time it takes to be achieved) is that while the main shot sprite increases in size its efficiency is actually diminished. It can't get through tight spaces and turns out slightly less powerful, probably due to the reduced firing rate and the appearance of two side shots whose nature depends on the chosen arms configuration. In any case, these late side shots are very helpful and certainly compensate for the main shot power loss. And just for some basic rank routine, note how those mechas in stage 5 start to shoot thicker laser beams if you get there on a single life.

L-Dis isn't overly hard, but does require a good knowledge of what's coming. There's something shady about the scoring aspect though. Bonuses are registered every time you pick up a surplus power-up or bomb, but they seem to be random. Sometimes you get mere 100 points, only to win 100.000 points in the next one for no special reason at all. At times I thought it was the yellow color of the item badges, but it doesn't seem to be the case. 100 grand is a great figure not only for the overall score but also because extra lives are awarded at every hundred / two hundred thousand points, with a couple also granted as you enter the chamber for the final boss. A few bosses might allow some milking, but it's quite tricky to pull it off consistently.

With intro and ending sequences that properly present/give closure to a story that's akin to an urban faery tale, L-Dis also counts with crystal clear voice works, lovely parallax effects in several places and a nice soundtrack to match the wackily cute but solid challenge level. My best 1CC score is below, playing on Normal difficulty with the arms-B configuration. I did not do any milking whatsoever in this run.