Friday, 6 September 2013
My mother always told me, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." If I followed her advice, This review would end after the next paragraph or two.
To many aspiring game developers, creating a shoot 'em up (shmup hereafter) may seem like the obvious choice for a first project. On the surface it's one of the simplest concepts, only needing a few collision detection routines to tell if your bullet has connected with an enemy or an enemy bullet has collided with you, and some simple scoring logic. Add to that some brightly-coloured graphics, some shooty-bangy sound effects and a repeating background track. Bang. Job done. Add a price tag and you have one shitty-shmup ready for retail release on XBLIG or the portal of your choice.
What many developers don't realise, is that under the surface of a good shmup, there needs to be much more than just shooty-bangy sounds and enemies to kill. There needs to be some method in the madness, be it in the form of intelligent scoring systems, interesting mechanics, or even just intricate bullet patterns that players need to learn and master to navigate through unscathed. In addition to this, a cleverly considered colour palette to easily differentiate bullets and destructibles from the backgrounds they fly over helps - as does working collision detection and tight controls.
Sadly, Pester falls firmly, squarely, and awkwardly into this shitty-shmup category, breaking both of its ankles upon impact.
Pester is a vertically scrolling shooter with abhored faux-8-bit visuals and a wide range of play modes - none of which are worth playing, and several are ridden with bugs. Oh, and for the record, there is a BIG difference between low-resolution, low colour-count pixel art and zero-effort coder graphics thrown together in MS Paint. Maybe read this before falsely declaring that your game features '8-bit' graphics?
The annoying thing is, Pester, surprisingly, has quite a lot going for it, and the creator obviously has seen mechanics from other games that he has tried to emulate - and what little works, works REALLY well. It's just a shame that the main game is so awful, really.
Ok, so let's start with what Pester actually does right. On the plus side, Pester is an extremely customisable game, with many options. You can view the gameplay through scanlines on a slightly curved display, emulating an arcade cabinet, or you can do away with filters altogether, and stick with a crisp, clear image. You can also change the game's backdrop setting and bezels, and turn off particle-based explosions (when switched off, the game resorts to a single, explosion, stretched to different sizes depending on what's exploding). There are three different player ships to choose from (but they all are only cosmetically different), and playing well with them earns various unlocks, such as awards and new backgrounds, music (including an awesome, nostalgia-inducing arcade ambience audio track), and game modes.
First up, there's 'Classic Arcade' mode; unsurprisingly, a classic arcade mode. Shoot bad guys, collect the coins they drop to build hyper meter, and use the hyper meter to destroy end of level bosses. Don't die, and try to get a high score while you're still alive.
Then there's 'Survival'; essentially the same as Classic Arcade Mode, but you only get one life. You get shot... and it's game over, man.
'Asteroid Belt' mixes it up slightly. Instead of killing wave upon wave of enemies, your weapons are disabled. In this mode all you can do is attempt to navigate through an increasingly dense and speedy barrage of flaming asteroids. The longer you survive, the higher your score.
'Boss Mode' pits you against the game's bosses, one after the other, whereas 'Boss Survival Mode' is exactly the same as Boss Mode, but you only have one life.
These game modes can all be played with modifiers for extra challenge. I like this idea. You can double the difficulty, a race against the clock 'Tempus' mode (which we will elaborate on later), reverse your game controls, or even control two ships at the same time in the Raiden IV style 'Duo' mode (one using each analog stick on an Xbox 360 controller). The Duo mode is really interesting, and my favourite way to play the game. It's the only thing that I would consider genuinely worth trying.
Now that I've strained to say nice about things, it's time to list all the problems this game contains! I hope you're settled in and comfy, because this might take a while!
I'll start with the fact that shmups are supposed to be things you learn. You learn the patterns, master them, and improve with practice. Pester manages to fuck this up royally. You simply can't do that in this game, because enemy patterns and placements are random, with enemies just spammed up onto the playfield.
Games of this genre should use simple colour coding to easily identify what's friend and what's foe. This is basic shit, people, and ALL of the classics, show this off to great effect. Now, let's look at the colour scheme of Pester, shall we? Let me break it down for you...
Player one's main ship colour? White. Player two's main ship colour? Yellow. Player one and two's bullets? White (regular) and yellow (when powered up). Remember that. Bear it in mind whilst I list out the rest of the colour scheme.
Collectable coins? Grey. Time Bonuses? White. Power-ups? Yellow/Blue. Explosions? Yellow. Enemy bullets? Yellow/Black, Green/Black or Grey. *Sigh*.
Yep, positive collectables, player shots, and enemy shots are all the same colours! It gets worse too! Some of the bigger enemies take multiple shots to destroy. When you hit them, they momentarily flash silhouette-black, appearing to vanish when flying over darker backgrounds. You can only imagine the confusion this can cause when the screen gets full of those stupid, randomly placed enemies.
To make things even more annoying, bullets don't fire from the guns on the front of enemy ships! oh no, that'd make things far too simple. Instead, they originate underneath(!) the centre of the enemy sprite. They are also obstructed by the OTT explosions instead of being on a higher z layer, where ALL enemy bullets should be. There have been many, many occasions where I have destroyed a ship and died immediately afterwards, thinking to myself "What the fuck???" before noticing a lone, expanding and contracting, yellow spinny bullet pass through where my ship once was. To say it pisses me off is an understatement.
It's not only limited to bullets either. thanks to the randomly created waves of bad guys, sometimes two or more will spawn at the exactly same point, leaving you to shoot one, and for the others to hit your ship. Pester loves to fuck you over with its randomness.
And when randomness doesn't kill you, the game bugs certainly will. Even something as simple as playing in full screen mode on the PC version penalises you, because Pester's developers can't figure out how to do aspect ratios properly. Everything in full screen mode is stretched slightly, and causes many issues with collision detection. Sometimes bullets will miss your hitbox by several pixels, and yet you'll still explode. This is basic stuff, completely and utterly screwed up. Again.
Some of the biggest bugs are evident in the game's 'Tempus' mode. Now, as I mentioned earlier, Tempus mode is a race against the clock. You kill enemies, and each enemy you kill drops a clock power up in the play area. Collect the clock for a one-second bonus. Time can be frozen by activating your hyper power-up, earned by shooting the enemies without dying. Time constantly ticks away, and while you have infinite lives in this mode, each death will result in a 10 second penalty, and a removal of any weapon power ups you've earned. It's a fun premise, and should be really enjoyable. Except that it isn't because it's completely broken.
First off, when you begin your first game, you get 20 seconds on the clock - but there simply aren't enough enemies populating the screen to keep the clock going. Even if you pull off a perfect run, killing every enemy and collecting every clock, you cannot physically beat the first level. It's technically impossible. It's a giant cluster-fuck of a bug. However, when you restart (and after the game saves and asks you to not switch off your console - even though I'm playing this on a PC), you get the full 99 seconds that you're supposed to have from the beginning - not that this makes a great deal of difference, thanks to other game-breaking bugs.
The idea is that every ship destroyed will leave a clock power up - but not where they've exploded (oh no, that'd actually make sense). However, they often don't appear. In fact, more often than not on later levels, you will be left stranded and clock-less, even after destroying an armada of enemies. Either that, or you'll see a clock, and kill an enemy while flying to grab it, only to see it disappear millimetres away from your ship, because the game has a god-damn sprite limit that actually removes power ups to fit more bullets and enemies on screen!
Other things that pissed me off include the waves ending (yet there is no pause in the action, nor any noticeable changes from one wave to the next) and the Shite-o-Vision graphics. They're not 8-bit, they're not 'retro', they're not even a homage to Atari 2600 - they're just ugly. If you can't draw a god-damn spaceship, then maybe, just maybe, you should get someone who can, instead of labeling it 'retro'. Now, this is what an actual, genuine 8-bit shmup looks like. Pester, on the other hand, with it's confusingly mixed resolutions, sprites that look like placeholder coder-graphics and garish colours is a complete mess.
I don't know if I'm lying to myself when I say that Pester could have been a fairly good game if a bit more effort was lavished upon it. When their press release for the game includes solid-gold phrases such as "A poop load of more bullets", and "A crap ton of game modes", I should have realised then that Pester would be shit (pun intended). Under the surface, there are some promising glimmers of hope and some genuinely nice features (like the aforementioned Duo mode and the arcade ambience audio), but it's certainly not worth buying the game in its current state to check them out.
Download the demo/buy the PC version here (from the Flump Studios website).
Download the demo/buy the XBLIG version here (from the XBOX Games Marketplace).
Download the demo of the Ouya version here (from Total Ouya).