There used to be a genre type that had everyone’s hearts pounding, their veins coursing with adrenaline. A genre that required absolute precision and lightening fast reactions. Follow me on a brief jaunt in gaming history.
It’s the late 80′s / early 90′s and everyone who wants to blow something up is hammering coins into arcade cabinets housing titles like Twinbee, Salamander, Flying Shark, R-Type and a hundred others. Home versions of those and other great shooters like Thunder Force IV, Apidya and Project X all light up the charts. These were the glory days of the shoot’em up.
Then along game a rather talent Uber-Geek and he coded a fancy thing called a 3D game engine – shooters changed overnight and the rest is gaming history.
Schmups (as they are now known) still hold a special place in many a long term gamers heart and a very hard core niche has developed over the years. Mostly shooters these days consist of frustratingly hard difficulty levels which require inhuman levels of dexterity to complete.
EastAsiaSoft’s Soldner X 2 takes the genre back to the people with a generous health based system for your ships, a pitch perfect difficulty arc and visuals that will make your eyes dribble with glee.
OK, let us first deal with the “story” element. Yes there is a story that accompanies the game but, much like titles akin to BlazBlue and Super Streetfighter IV, it is just window dressing to the main event – in this case blowing things up!
So the story picks up from the end of the original Soldner X in 3110AD when your original actions sought to bring peace to the universe. Flash forward to 3124 AD and the Soldner X defence force has been re-formed to once again drive evil invasion forces from the galaxy.
Throughout the games eight main stages you take on progressively harder foes through a variety of backdrops. Each area being graphically diverse offers a great chance for developer SideQuest Studios to flex their creative muscle and provide some diverse environments. They don’t disappoint with each stage offering progressively more outlandish foes and environments to contend with.
Whilst we are on the subject of looks graphically Soldner X2 is stunning. Not only for “just” a download title ( a 1GB download at that!), but in general it is an absolute visual treat. The sheer amount of detail in the simplest of items is incredible for this genre – especially as ninety percent of the assets on screen are just there for you to lay waste too. The ridiculous amount of parallax scrolling going on is mesmerising, especially when you take in to account the sheer amount of activity on screen, and that things are zooming by at a silky smooth sixty frames per second.
The audio just about manages to keep pace with the stunning graphics only taking a few spills in the voice over department and a few lack lustre samples. The limited voice work touches the realms of cheese during the intro sequence but the in game radio broadcasts that act as an in-flight tutorial are well done. The music, the worse kind of techno euro-dance music, fits the game perfectly. A liberal dash of j-pop influences round of the soundtrack, which on paper sounds worrying, but in practise slots exquisitely in to the melting post of audio visual cacophony.
Last time I played a schmup was a few years previous and found that the rigid use of the traditional – collect orb, bank it, then use it later to upgrade a facet – was wearing a little thin. Thankfully EastAsiaSoft have done a great job in upgrading this system.
You still collect power-ups a plenty which slowly beefs up whichever one of the crafts you chose to pilot. You already have three weapon types available to you from the start. These are accessible by cycling through using the R1 button and take the form of pulse, bullet and laser fire. Each one of those weapons can themselves be upgraded by picking up the relevant orbs dropped by the enemies. This allows you to pick the most suitable weapon for the given situation with ease.
You also collect the main stays of the schmup like small orbiting satellites that also fire at your enemies. Collecting is just as much a part of the game as the shooting or dextral dodging. The game throws multiple orbs at you offering power-ups, rings to add to your score, score multipliers and many more. You also slowly build up a small scale blaster attack that will take out a small proportion of surrounding enemies when you press the [ ] button. The other very satisfying feature is the limit break you slowly build up. Filling the meter and pressing O will unleash an absolute shit-storm of photon death on the screen, dealing immense amounts of damage to anything stupid enough not to die instantly.
Longevity is always a tricky one for both downloadable titles and games in the schmup genre. The eight stages on offer are tackled in sequence and probably take around ten minutes a pop to complete. Sitting down to play the game from start to end, providing you survive that long in one sitting, would take you around an hour and a half give or take a few retrys. The game keeps note of what stages you have completed so you can restart from later stages at any time which is nice. Once you do complete the stages you unlock challenge modes that add legs to the whole experience, as does the online high score tables and daily top scorer bulletins.
Sure Soldner X suffers for it’s genre affiliation. The old staples that dog this type of game rear their ugly head every so often here. Longevity, as mentioned is a sticking point as it lack of some online play. Overly full screens of destruction and bullets coupled with multiple layers of sumptuous parallax make it impossible to tell what exactly is going on at times. Thankfully SideQuest have managed to keep this to a minimum and even when your staring at the screen, eyes watering with the strain, you can’t help but appreciate the pure chaos of the scene in front of you. There really has not been a shooter of this quality for a very long time.
The kind of graphics that cause your retinas to spasm in pure ocular joy. Fast, silky smooth and blisteringly frenetic I have never seen a more beautiful shooter.
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Relentlessly testing gameplay makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and sweat bead on your brow - this is exactly how a well balanced shooter should behave. A forgiving shield based system gives access to gamers of all skill level.
Push aside the cheesy voice work and the odd duff sample and this game sounds exactly as you would want a schmup too. Plenty of heavy weapons fire, riotous explosions and frentic euro techno music. Excellent stuff.
As with any game of this genre there are limits to what can be done here. After the 8 stages are complete the challenge mode will keep you going for a spell but the game will loose lustre eventually.
Soldner X2: Final Prototype offers the pinnacle of it’s genre. Ultimately accessible & joyfully playable, this offers a fantastic starting point for gamers new to schmups as well as a warm fuzzy feeling for the long time player. A frenetic explosion of colour and liquid smooth motion make this one of the best shooters I have ever played.