I’ve been playing Strania: The Stella Machina since it came out on Wednesday, and I gotta hand it to the developer G.Rev. People who know me well know that I’ve always been a big fan of pew-pew shooting games. No, I’m not talking about Call of Duty or Team Fortress, but more along the lines of one spaceship being sent to fend off an army of enemies, lasers, and bullets against a scrolling background that have largely fallen from grace as of late. Of course, this makes me one of the five people left that still enjoy these types of games, and when you combine this fact with the relatively quiet fanfare this game has gotten, it will most likely translate into meager sales for Strania, but I digress.
Underneath the surface, there’s something different about Strania that sets it apart from most of the other shooters that have been recently released. The modern shooter, spearheaded by the influence of well known shooter developer CAVE, has shifted towards the maniac, “bullet hell” style of gameplay, where the focus is more on dumping as many bullets on screen at you as possible and seeing how well you can weave through ridiculously complex and abundant bullet patterns. Not to say that I don’t like this style of shooter (I’ve been buying/importing them all regardless), but my preference lies in the more traditional style of shooters most prominently seen in the late 80′s-early 90′s R-Type/Gradius era, which Strania pointedly advertises itself as modeling after. In a traditional shooter, the enemies still shoot bullets at you of course, but not just to show up, spam a bunch of bullets out wherever, and leave. You’re more likely to see enemies and bosses with some unique attacks and behaviors that just make them feel more “alive” then the typical flying bullet buckets in manic shooters. Traditional shooters also tend to involve the environment more in conspiring to kill you, giving you obstacles and tight corridors to navigate through. Most bullet-centric shooters limit the environment to wide open and sparse areas, giving you little to interact with….besides bullets.
Another significant difference between the modern and traditional shooter is in their approach to the weapon system. The modern shooter tends to be minimalistic and limit armaments to one or two types of weapons which change depending how you press the fire button, along with a bomb for bailing you out of tight spots at the cost of your score. Power ups only exists (if at all) to strengthen the power of your weapon, but not to give you something new. Often, differences in weapons are subtle and dictated by the character/ship you choose at the beginning, but what you start with is pretty much what you go through the entire game with, and is something I find less appealing. In contrast, the traditional shooter usually gives you several extra weapons to collect in addition to your default pea shooter. Several may take it to the extreme and let you mix and match different weapon combinations and array configurations, or change the weapon layout entirely depending on what ship you choose (if there are multiple ones to choose from). They tend to place more emphasis on getting to know the strengths and weakness of the different weapons available to you, and finding out which ones work best for certain sections of the game. While it can get complex, part of the excitement of playing comes from discovering cool new weapons for the first time and messing around with them over subsequent playthoughs, which is something that the simplistic style of modern shooters often forfeit.
In Strania’s case for example, people have comparing the gameplay system to that of Einhander’s. I saw one review specifically mention the Astraea Mk. I ship from that game. For those unaware, in Einhander, you basically have to steal new weapons from enemy space craft to use against them, and the Astrea had the ability to use two different weapons mounted on top and bottom of the ship at once and you could switch their positions at will. I’d say that’s similar to Straina but more like a cross between the Astraea and the Endymion Mk. II also from Einhander. In Strania you can use two weapons at the same time, but you have three (including those two) in stock at all times, and you can rotate between them at will.
There’s one other thing about modern shooters I find disheartening. Specifically, the shift away from cool looking spaceships as player avatars to more character-centric designs, which usually end up being over sexualized fanservice magnets and underage girls, but that’s something I could spend a separate post ranting about. It’s just refreshing that a shooter like Straina has come out amidst a see of others that seem focused on trying to one up each other for how many bullets they can make you narrowly squeeze by at once.
I also have to point out that I like what Straina is doing with their downloadable content. Generally, I don’t mind DLC expect for those who decide to hack off bits and pieces of their full complete game and pawn it off to customers as “item/weapon packs”, “costume packs”, “exclusive character packs” etc. for nickle and dime money (*cough* EA *cough*). For Strania, G.Rev is going to release a side mission (you can see a bit of it in that video link above) that lets you play as the opposing force. So you become one of those guys you were mercilessly slaughtering in the original game and you go through completely new stages, even encountering your player mech from the original. It’s something to look forward too and I feel I’ll be getting something that adds value to the original instead of something that I should have already gotten in the first place when I bought what was originally offered, and that’s how DLC should be handled. But anyway, between this, Hard Corps: Uprising, and Moon Diver (which I should get around to trying), the old school arcade gamer should be plenty satisfied.