Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Red Star

No, not the Eisner Award-nominated comic book by Christian Gossett, designer of Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber. Rather, I'm here to discuss the excellent PS2 game based on that comic.

Released in 2007 after years of delays, The Red Star was to have been one of the last games by Acclaim. Acclaim went under in 2004 while the game was still in development--a shame because it would have been the company's finest title by far--but at least, three years later, players were able to enjoy the finished product courtesy of publisher XS Games. An inspired mash-up of side-scrolling beat 'em up, bullet hell shoot 'em up, and top-down multi-directional shooter, it is simply one of the best arcade-style action games I've ever played.

The bulk of the game plays out like a classical arcade brawler. One or two players proceed, mostly from left to right, through linear stages. Every screen-length or so, a pack of enemies must be eliminated before the players may progress. Combat is mostly hand-to-hand, but the game's main twist is that the player characters also come equipped with guns. This combination of melee and gun combat is reminiscent of the Alien vs. Predator arcade game, probably the best of the Capcom beat 'em ups I've played. A more current comparison might be Capcom's Devil May Cry, with its mix of swords and guns, but The Red Star actually does a better job of balancing the practical effectiveness of each, encouraging constant and seamless switching between the two for more than just showboating.

Melee attacks are still the most effective offense, but you'll regularly find yourself chipping away with the guns for free damage from a distance or offering support to your partner on the other side of the screen. There are also certain enemies that can only be disposed of with bullets, and most enemy groups contain one or two foes that are themselves long-range fighters, forcing you to be just as flexible when taking on these diverse parties. Also, just like in Alien vs. Predator, the guns overheat if you hold down the shoot button too long, at which point you must wait for them to fully cool down before firing again.

The two player characters even kind of resemble Linn Kurosawa and Dutch, the non-Predator characters from Alien vs. Predator. Makita is the fast female character with quick melee attacks that can be strung into long combos. Kyuzo is a hulking brute with slow but powerful attacks and an impressive beam cannon super move. Beating the game unlocks an entirely unique third character, Maya, who favors ranged "melee" attacks. All three characters feel very different, and each offers more depth than the average beat 'em up character of yesteryear. The most disappointing thing about the game is actually that you cannot change characters during the campaign, except by switching controllers with your partner, assuming that you are playing co-op and you actually selected different characters to begin with. Not only are some sections blatantly better suited for specific characters, but it's a real shame, given how distinct the three of them are, that you do not even get to enjoy the variety on offer without having to start a new save.

At the end of a stage, a "FEALTY IS DUE" warning message will appear and the camera will tilt to a top-down view to signal the arrival of the level boss. Most stages also include a mid-boss or two as well. These bosses are usually mechanical constructs fitted with multiple cannons. It is during these battles that the game really becomes more of a shoot 'em up. Clearly influenced by such classics as Contra, Gradius, and even Ikaruga (there is a boss named "Ikarius"), these fights rival the best in the genre for intricacy and intensity, and it is in balancing these high-level tests of concentration against the more primal joy of the beat 'em up action that The Red Star creates something new and masterful. As enemy bullets flood the screen in manic arrays, your attention must turn to dodging while firing blindly back with your own guns. Melee attacks can still inflict damage, but the head-on approach is impractical at best, suicidal at worst. Early bosses can be outlasted with just a steady hand and attentive eye, but later battles are so hairy that they can only be survived by deciphering the patterns and perceiving the safe spots ahead of time.

Thankfully, as a game designed for home consoles, The Red Star is a good deal fairer than any of its arcade inspirations, albeit still harder than any modern Devil May Cry. Instead of falling in one hit as in most shoot 'em ups, player characters have life bars as in beat 'em ups. This allows a little room for error during those boss battles. On the other hand, the game probably expects you to take a certain number of bullets as a result, and since there are never health refills until after a boss or mid-boss, it can seem impossible having to take on an end-of-level boss series after having already been worn down by a difficult stage's regular enemies. Whereas in Ikaruga your craft is as able at the final boss as it began at stage one, in The Red Star it is quite possible that you will have to face a level's toughest section while at your weakest state in it. Knowing that you'll have to save yourself for the boss does make for a more skill-intensive game than any other beat 'em up. The difficulty doesn't really ramp up until the final quarter of the game, but, yeah, it does get quite hard. Some mid-level checkpoints would have been a nice, progressive inclusion to make it more manageable for today's console players, but like the best old-school arcade games, it can still provide a great experience even if you never make it past level 15 without cheating.

There are other ways too that The Red Star could have been improved. I wish there were a way to attack floored foes, because it has never made sense to wait for an enemy to get back to his feet before resuming the attack. Even more annoying, of course, is having to wait for an enemy knocked off the edge of the screen to shamble back into view.

Visually, the game's grayish look adequately captures the bleak, perpetual winter of Russia, but the polygonal models do not pop as well as the colorful sprites of, say, Warriors of Fate, and I consequently had trouble at times distinguishing my partner from the enemy (not that there is any friendly fire, thankfully). There is also a lot of foreground clutter that can obstruct the player's view without improving the look of the game.

The game is overall unpolished, which is most evident in the bare-bones menus and transition screens. The throwaway story distills the acclaimed source material into just a series of senseless text briefings between missions. Makita and Kyuzo don't even have any lines. All dialogue is between Maya and another commander, Urik, who doesn't even appear outside of those briefings.

While there is no doubting the development team's love of classic arcade games, there is, as well as the lack of budget, probably a lack of practical experience behind some of the design elements. The targeting system is the game's most problematic mechanic. Although you can fire in any direction, this is not a twin-stick shooter, and the only way to move while firing in another direction--a necessity in all boss fights--is to utilize the auto-aim feature. In order to lock on to a target, you must roughly face in its direction and then hold down the auto-aim button. If there is no target recognized, your character will simply fix his aim in that direction. Unfortunately you cannot target an enemy that is downed or in an otherwise invincible state, and it isn't always clear that you've "missed" the lock-on until your target moves laterally and you find your character failing to track them.

I would also question some of those boss bullet patterns. The level 15 boss--the first major stopping point that I faced--was especially difficult because its various guns fired bullets of different colors. Having to evade hundreds of densely packed, fast-moving projectiles of just one color is already a tough prospect that forms the basis for many a bullet hell shooter. Having to simultaneously track bullets of three or more colors and trajectories--that becomes a whole-brain activity that, in my opinion, demands a little too much of the player.

Like a cooperative Mario game, the idea of a brawler-shooter hybrid seems so obvious, yet it took generations for any developer to really attempt it. Sadly, with the closure of the studio behind The Red Star, we are left with a fun but flawed game with no followup on the horizon. But just as The Red Star took inspiration from the classics before it to deliver an experience simultaneously old-school yet far fresher than any other beat 'em up of the last decade, I would direct any developer to look to The Red Star for where to start with the next great arcade game. This game already came so close to getting it all right that I would think it would be a simple process for any developer to just take the work begun here and tweak it a bit--add support for two more players, tighten up the shooting, clean up the presentation--to create the greatest arcade action game of all time, if only somebody had the guts.

3 comments:

Actoberfest said...

You can get a signed copy from directly from Christian Gossett's at http://www.archangel-studios.com/game/

Henry said...

Thanks for the link! That is very cool indeed.

Czardoz said...

Hey, don't game reviewers usually get complimentary copies of games? At the very least, why are they shilling copies of the game to someone who has already played it? They should be rewarding you with a signed copy!

Hmm, maybe Ikarius is a reference to Ikari Warriors?