Sunday, November 27, 2022

Project Starship X (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (minimum)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panda Indie Studio
Published by eastasiasoft in 2021

I'm always skeptic whenever a new title arrives claiming to bring fresh ideas to the shmup genre. The main reason why these games are so fascinating is the simplicity of their gameplay: a few stages, power-ups, bosses, even a rudimentary scoring system and off you go, blast away and have fun. Even though these elements are all present in Project Starship X,  there's no denying that this game is also a true conundrum of uniqueness that's bound to puzzle shmup fans in the most diverse ways. After all, on top of the roguelite procedural generation it doesn't give anything away about the many intricacies you're bound to face.

Project Starship X is the third chapter in a trilogy that starts with Red Death and continues in Project Starship. Even though it ditches the use of the entire widescreen area, it's got much in common with the latter while expanding greatly over its assets and ideas. The main gimmick now is the X maneuver, a dash resource that makes the ship invincible and represents the bane of survival at several key points throughout the game. It's one of the two inputs available, the other one being the shot button. Both are permanently mapped to all buttons in the Playstation 4 controller, so that players can use the combination that suits them best. Note that the ship moves slower whenever you're holding shot, however the firing pattern doesn't change.

On a large scale, Project Starship X is a wacky venture into outer space that's extremely colorful and full of visual effects applied to the 8/16-bit styled graphics, joined by a cartoonish art design and chunks of lighthearted humor with no continues allowed. The game is extremely unpredictable and alternates regular sections with rather intense moments of bullet hell, in what the developer calls cosmic horror. This sort of makes sense when you get to face some of the later bosses, but Project Starship X is also a mess in terms of structure, with little to no information of what's supposed to happen in any regular run. Apparently figuring this out is an integral part of the challenge, an elusive ruse and for better or worse a true evidence of the game being unique even among its growing list of roguelite peers.

Released digitally across several platforms, Project Starship X also received a physical special edition for the Playstation 4. It comes in a very nice package that includes a CD with the charming chiptune soundtrack.

Playstation 4 launch trailer for Project Starship X
(courtesy of YouTube user VideoGamePhenom)

Initially there are two characters at the player's disposal, both returning from Project Starship. Garret Zepolla pilots the blue ship with a straight shot, whereas Gwen Rossi pilots the red ship with a spread pattern. She's slightly faster but starts with one life less. By regular playing you'll unlock John Johnson, who pilots the green ship and has more firepower at the cost of a lower firing rate, and Sophie Jefferson, who pilots the purple ship and always begins with random stats. Swagthulhu, the hidden fifth character, pilots a yellow ship and has the best combo of firepower + speed but starts with only one life. He's unlocked by shooting at and eventually defeating the shopkeeper that appears after stages 2 and 4.

In the world of Project Starship X most enemies appear only after being announced, which is pretty neat and avoids an unacceptable feeling of unfairness that's naturally present in the way stages and enemies are presented. Each stage has two or three variations chosen at random, each one with a specific theme, enemy gallery and boss(es). Some of the craziest levels are those modeled after the wild west, Super Mario (the Koopa boss!), a bowling alley (huge pac-man ghost awaiting at the end) and the one with an attracting sun (brought back from Project Starship). The action might be interrupted at any time by "mad events", brief interludes where you must fight or evade a special threat, although occasionally a shooting star might appear to grant you a free item. Items are in a category of their own, appearing randomly and requiring a certain level of familiarity so that the credit doesn't go to shreds lest you pick up a bad one.

The basic and most frequent items for survival are S (extra shield) and ♡ (+1 shield stock and an extra shield to fill it). All other items affect the ship in the most diverse ways. Permanent firepower enhancers include P (power-up), R (increases firing rate), three types of rotating orbs (replicated shot type, missile or laser), M (extra missiles), gattling gun (heavily increases the firing rate), double fire (doubles the current firing pattern) and scepter of Cthulhu (stronger power-up). Other items replace the current shot type, of which the only ones I'd take are the laser beam and the holy grail. The flamethrower, the virus and the crossbone are valid alternatives only after you've powered up the ship quite a bit, but I'd totally avoid the harpoon, the fist or the items that provide speed up (×) or down. Let's not even mention the poop and its shitty fire.

The remainder of the items appear more rarely and can be of the recovery type (morphine, the sun), temporary enhancers (lightning/overload, adrenaline, invincibility star) or three types of bombs you can use later (EMP, overload and invincibility). In order to use these bombs you need to double-tap the dash button, a move that unfortunately can't be used in certain situations. One of them is during the crawler mode activated in a few levels: you enter crawler mode when flying over surfaces, with the ship morphing into a spider-like vehicle that replaces the X maneuver with a jump function. During these parts the only items available are the red mushroom (same as S) and the fire flower (3-way shot, lost when you get hit).

A curious detail about item collection is that you need to dash into them in order to pick them up. Items bounce back upon contact, but will only register when dashed into (crawling areas are the only exception to this). The X maneuver allows some direction control but only forwards, not backwards, except when you see a dashing icon positioned to help you overcome obstacles. Finally, all items collected and installed – the game calls them "plugins" – can be seen in a special text log when you pause. This is a great way to know the actual function of the most mysterious icons.

Sophie Jefferson about to dash for great justice

Another very important thing you'll be picking up along the way are coins. For every in-stage enemy killed you get a certain number of them. They're used as currency to get additional items from the shopkeeper at the end of stages 2 and 4. Note that you can shoot and damage him twice for a few free coins, but if you continue to do that he'll get angry and fight you (thus allowing secret character Swagthulhu to be unlocked). Contrary to what you might expect coins have no influence on scoring, which is based on killing successive enemies for a multiplier of up to ×4 or ×8 when overloading (by picking the lightning bolt or activating its special bomb). Multiplier depletion is indicated by the thin light bar at the top of the screen, but transitions and mad events can freeze it temporarily.

With so much going on it can be tough to get a sense of what's really happening or what you should do to avoid horrible deaths due to a combination of lousy power-ups and crazy hazards. Eventually I learned to cope even with those annoying crawler areas. No matter how powered up the ship is, you'll have to go through them with that puny fire shot (tip: tap the button for a little more power). On the other hand, the Mario crawler area is quite rich in shield items, which is good even if your shield stock is maxed out because for every 5 extra shields taken you earn a new shield slot (same effect of the , just take a look at the bars that appear below the shield stock indicator). Another aspect that doesn't quite gel with the rest of the game is the tank module, which is awesome for sheer firepower but is a pain to deal with. It can appear normally during the start of the credit, otherwise whenever you complete a level without getting hit a free tank module will be awarded before the next stage starts.

Now for the weird stage arrangement. Even though it takes 5 stages to beat the game, players can extend its duration simply by avoiding to enter the final boss chamber at the end of the fifth stage. Don't dash into it and it will eventually go away, allowing you to continue playing. Subsequent levels are harder but they obviously make the scoring system moot since you can theoretically go on forever. Regardless of the number of stages played, in order to see the real ending to I had to beat Project Starship X at least four times, unlocking all available levels in the process and seeing most of the bosses except one. Upon initially booting the game I had "Tutorial" at the top of the start screen. I beat it once and it changed to "Shadow's Lies". I beat it again and it changed to "Geometries of Horror".

Completing the game one more time in the abovementioned phase not only changed it to "The End?", but also unlocked Hardcore and Ultra-hardcore modes (a red skull at the center of the screen when you start the credit, and a red skull with horns that comes right after you pick the first skull). The real ending was only shown when I beat "The End?", which shifted the game phase to "Game Over???" and unlocked Boss Rush mode and Chaos mode (a steaming skull to the left of the screen and a dice to the right when you start the credit). Beating "The End?" also enabled the appearance of doom letters, special alphabet bosses that show up randomly in the place of mad events and must be defeated for you to have access to true last boss Grandma-Thulhu. Since there are six of these letters and you only get one per level (when lucky), you need to play at least 6 stages in order to do it. If successful in killing the TLB, Doom mode will be unlocked (a red D to the right of the screen when you start the credit) and the game phase will finally settle in "Journey's End". The purpose of Doom mode is just to activate/deactivate the appearance of the doom letters. Chaos mode shuffles everything in the game (from stages to enemies and bosses), whereas Hardcore mode is a bit harder than normal and allows score multipliers of up to ×8 with ×16 when overloading. As for Ultra-Hardcore mode, on top of being much harder it also adds new gameplay elements that include freezing the ship in place if you don't adhere to certain rules (a heart attack).

As we can see, it's up to the player how far he/she wants to push into the depths of Project Starship X. The game speaks to very specific sensibilitites, but as far as roguelite shmups go it's definitely one of the best options out there. Is it fun? I would say it eventually becomes fun if you don't give up on it. The final boss is no pushover but the game as a whole isn't terribly hard, it's just very unfair at least until you start figuring out how to deal with all possible gameplay variables. Since the game allows co-op play, you can also do that with a friend.

I got the completion screen below by beating the regular game in the "The End?" phase with Garret Zeppola and no looping at all (only 5 stages played). Afterwards I did try to pursue the doom letters a few times but eventually gave up. For now I'll leave this final pursuit for another opportunity.

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