Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype (PS Vita) Review

Do you like shmups?  Those spaceship shooter bullet hell games?  I love them.  Not many come to the US, so I like to try the ones that do.  Soldner-X 2 was a game that came on my radar awhile after its debut on PS3.  Some time ago, I read about a forthcoming Vita version, and waited until that came out to give the series a try.  On a side note, I really don't like the term shmup, but it's the accepted term for the genre, and it requires less typing that "spaceship shooter".

While Soldner-X 2 is very similar to a bullet hell game, it's not quite there.  It just feels too sloppy.  Successful bullet hell games are very patterned, precise and calculated.  Soldner doesn't feel like that.  Controlling the ship doesn't feel precise enough, but that could easily be because of the Vita's analog nub and not the fault of the game.  Enemy appearance patterns are scripted, sure, but they have strange patterns that just work against the game.  While thankfully they don't appear from the left side of the screen (behind you), they do pop out at just about everywhere else.  I feel that is to make the game harder, since enemies can pop up in front of your face, or right behind you while you try to get a power-up.  Since you don't die in one hit, it is just a cheap way to damage you.  I get the impression the life bar is because you will take cheap damage, and if one hit killed you, very few would stick with the game.

Each stage ends with a big boss fight, true to the genre.  They can be long experiences, since you have to whittle down their health little by little.  Of course, each has at least two forms or stages to them.  There are two separate bomb-like attacks that can help.  Sadly, they both feel weak (but do look cool).  You can only get one of each, so it's not like you can stack a few to save you.  They just don't at all feel as useful as similar attacks in other shmups.

There are three ships, one of which is unlocked after completing some of the challenges.  They have three different weapons that can be easily swapped to.  While each weapon is different from each other, it's not as huge a change as I would think.  One ship has a flamethrower, that while cool, seems really weak and not as useful as the default laser.  There's also a wave beam, that again, seems weak for how hard it is to use.  I found the default laser the best option throughout the entire game, and with both ships.  Weapons don't change to get better when you power them up, which is disappointing.  They do power-up, but it just makes them a little stronger.  I would go through the trouble of powering them up, but they never felt like they got stronger.  The effect was so minor I'm not even sure it works.

You also get chasers to help you out.  Chasers are small ships that follow you around and shoot when you do.  These are super helpful.  Unfortunately, they are also timed, so they only hang around for a bit, and then abandon you to the mercy of the alien armada.  At least they persist through your death until their invisible timer runs out.

Most bullet hell games are not only about surviving, but amassing a huge score.  Soldner-X 2 is no different in that regard.  Besides the score, they also rate you (I'm not a fan of that in any game).  They higher your grade, the more enemies there are, which in turn makes it harder.  Fair enough, that's kind of cool that it will seamlessly get harder as you get better.  However, one of the ways it scores you is by collecting rings that enemies leave behind when killed.  That's fine, other shmups have medals and coins and stuff when you kill guys for bonus score, so that part is fine.  My problems with it in Soldner-X 2 are: 1) they stay where the enemy died on screen, 2) they disappear pretty quickly, 3) they appear from random enemies and 4) there are many lulls in ring distribution, especially during boss fights.

It doesn't necessarily impede progress, but I dislike the rings.  If you do what you are supposed to and shoot the enemies, it can be way too dangerous to collect the rings, since they stay in the same position on the screen where they dropped.  Better shmups have some rings, coins, etc stay on the ground where the enemy was and others fall toward the back/bottom of the screen, so you can get a fair amount without putting yourself in mortal danger for a few points.  The game warns you when the chain is going to drop, but there isn't much you can do about it.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what enemies drop rings, and boss fights have big lulls where your combo just dies, since you aren't killing anything.  It's not an irredeemable system, but it would need some changes to be less frustrating.

There are seven stages to complete, but the last two have to be unlocked by collecting secret keys that certain enemies drop.  While in theory I should hate that, I actually kind of like it.  The stages you can access are pretty long and give a decent playtime, plus the keys give you a good incentive to play stages multiple times.  It does kind of suck that you can't beat the game unless you randomly get the keys or look up where they come from, though.  There's also some unlockable challenges to complete.  I'm not really a fan of these in any bullet hell games I've played so far, and Soldner-X 2 is no exception.  They are really tough, but of course you have to complete some to unlock others.  I wish they would just have most of them unlocked at the start.  You at least get another ship or a trophy for completing some of them, and they can be made easier by switching the difficulty.

The DLC adds three more stages, and more secret keys to collect.  The second of those stages in particular is really cool, since you are basically travelling along a giant battleship for the entire stage.  There is more story in the stages, but I don't feel they were cut out of the base game, so I'm not against the DLC existing.  It definitely adds more playtime and trophies if either interest you, and it's only a few bucks extra.

It might sound like I'm overly negative with Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype, but it is a competent game.  I think it's far from great, but easily could be with a few tweaks.  It can be fun and it has a fair amount of replay value with getting the keys and completing the challenges.  It's worth playing if you like shmups, but there are far better available.

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