The Red Star

FEALTY IS DUEFor a game that spent three years in publishing-hell and entertains such lofty influences as Treasure’s Ikaruga and several of Konami’s classic 2D series, one might expect The Red Star to end up rather disappointing. This isn’t the case.

This is a no-nonsense deep-action game that successfully fuses bullet hell with beat-’em-up mechanics. Bullet patterns start off rather calm – almost patient – but by the end of the game things get as hairy as the latest Cave game. I’ve seen the melee mechanics compared to Streets of Rage or Final Fight, but there’s a lot more going on here than in the 2D classics. Branching combos, down attacks, fall recoveries, juggles, air combos, and more make for some seriously dynamic and (satisfyingly) abusable combat. And thanks to unique movesets and capabilities, each of the three characters must be taken on his or her own terms. Makita is all speed, Kyuzo is all power, and the unlockable Maya is somewhere in between yet almost entirely focused on ranged attacks and tricksy magic.

Directional control is all analog, but this generally manages not to hurt precision too much. Precision bullet-dodging is usually carried off while the player is using the lock-on to strafe in relation to a boss or enemy. The hitbox seems to be generously small, though there’s no visual indicator as to its actual size.

One mechanic that caused me some irritation is the way ranged weapons overheat with continuous use. Once they overheat, they can’t be used until they’ve cooled off again. Now, certainly, this adds to the challenge, but it seems arbitrary, and it’s exasperating to be left limp and dodging while in the middle of an intense boss battle. Cannon Spike, The Red Star’s closest Japanese counterpart, used a similar timeout, but it simply deactivated your lock-on after a few seconds instead of taking away your ability to fire. The best explanation for the mechanic in The Red Star’s case is that it serves to balance out Kyuzo’s overpowering third weapon, with its hugely-damaging bazooka shells. One might guess that the timeout is indended to keep players from relying too much on guns during non-boss sections. But the other two characters have relatively useless second and third weapons, and the abundance of enemies that are invulnerable to weapons fire is enough of a deterrent on its own.

The Red Star’s developers have clearly played a lot of Japanese 2D shooters and are obvious fans of Treasure and Konami. Ikaruga’s trademark red-bordered, black bullets are a common sight, though more traditional bubblegum-colored sprays are common as well. Several stages and bosses reference Treasure’s shooter, and there’s a cute node to Treasure’s love for Engrish in the big-boss warning.

The game does still feel unfinished in spots. The “story” segments between levels, while mercifully brief, tend to feel like placeholders and were clearly meant to complement now-missing CG cutscenes. And while the game puts forth an admirable effort at maintaining a steady 60 fps, the framerate does get hairy now and then. And I’ve experienced and heard about game-freezing bugs here and there.

The background music seems well-crafted, but it’s disappointingly unobtrusive in almost all cases. While level tunes and boss melodies form such an integral part of the experience in The Red Star’s influences, in this case the breakbeats and guitars seem content to take a backseat to the sound effects.

Refreshingly, the game is no pushover. If you die anywhere in any given stage, you get to start the level over again. This does wonders for requiring the player to get intimiately familiar with the game’s mechanics and level layouts, which is, naturally, where the meat of the game is. You have to know what you’re doing, or the game is going to hand your hubris right back to you, nicely pulverized. But at the same time, the first six-or-so stages start out genuinely forgiving, gradually ramping up enemy capabilities and bullet-pattern complexity until the player is intimately familiar with how the game works. Because of all this, the game is friendly to new players without conceding too much of its depth – or cool bosses – for the sake of accessibility.

At nineteen miniboss- and boss-filled stages, the game is long for is genre, but saves between stages mitigate any trouble this might cause. And all the same, the game is varied, intense, and brief enough to be eminently replayable. This is the first game in years that I’ve felt compelled to replay immediately after finishing it for the first time – and this is without (further) unlockables for motivation. That’s genuine replay value.

The Red Star is clearly a labor of love whose creators clearly knew what they were doing. This makes it all the more disappointing that the original development team is no longer together. But the game is finally here, it’s budget-priced, and it was worth the wait.

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