Strania – The Stella Machina
Platform: XBLA (reviewed)
Release Date: March 30, 2011
Price: 800 MSP (Available HERE)
Strania – The Stella Machina is a recently released arcade shooter title available from the Xbox live marketplace. This latest entry into the games market by Japanese developer G.Rev shows an attempt to capture the spirit and gameplay style of the famous jet-fighter style arcade shooters that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s games markets. Only for the 21st century age of gaming, audience fascination with jets and planes has been replaced with: Giant Robots. You dig them. I dig them. We dig them. Chicks dig them. The overall sales of tickets for the last 2 Transformers movies prove that well enough. But just how well does this title stack up against the standards of past arcade shooters? Does it deliver something a little different to the audience? And more to the point, will audiences still find arcade shooter type games fun?
The central plot of the game revolves around an ongoing war between the human race that reside on the planet Strania (hence the title of the game) and the human-like synthetic race that hail from the neighbouring planet of Vower. Whether this game takes place in a far distant future or some alternate reality is not hugely relevant to the plot, but it does provide an opportunity to explore concepts of new worlds, technologies and beings that are not limited by fragments of reality. The story portrayed by the official G.REV trailer tells us that both races of Strania and Vower were aware of each other’s existence for at least a few hundred years. However, for whatever reason, the first contact between the two sides went less than well. Now, you as the player are forced to fight in this ongoing war that could very well determine the fate of two civilisations.
The protagonist of the game is an unnamed ace mech pilot from Strania. His reasons for becoming involved with the war or his own individual origins are never actually explored. We can assume that the young man portrayed in the opening menu is the protagonist character. From the very first level, the player is launched straight into the action without knowledge of who they are fighting, or even why. Contextually, the events of the game cover a military campaign by the Stranians to break the Vower front line and destroy their bases, in operation “Stella Shooter”. Piloting a Blue war Mech, the pilot is provided with a collection of missions that involve either assaulting key Vower tactical positions and bases, or defending Stranian resources. However, players themselves are not offered any details of this plan, or that it even exists as it is never explicitly stated in the game. Besides that, the game involves no dialogue between characters, no in-depth story cinematics and really lacks any sort of context beyond what is explained in the trailer alone. In fact, if the player were to have no prior knowledge regarding the trailer or the ongoing war between the Stranians and Vower, then chances are they would assume that the game simply involves a standard aliens vs. humans scenario.
As an Xbox live arcade title, it is understandable why story and context has taken a backseat to gameplay. A typical arcade shooter in the past very rarely draws heavily upon story elements to augment the feeling of raw fun. The basic low down is that you, as the player, have a giant robot with the capability to destroy entire alien armies. The levels are simply the time frames in which you use the Mech for its intended purpose. So for what it’s worth the story holds very loosely together and players won’t always know what’s going on in context. But frankly, it’s not exactly an overly important facet of the game.
The controls of the game are pretty simple for a console game, and therefore quite easy to pick up. The player controls the movement of their mech unit on a 2- dimensional pane, having the choices to move up, down, left and right using the control stick or D-pad. For the most part, the game features a pretty linear forwards moving gameplay, but occasionally a third dimension is added during different stage in an attempt to mix up the gameplay. That said however, even in these 3 dimensional sections, the player is still restricted to movement in 3D. The only change in these section is perspective, as opposed to the character movement. The rest of the controls are very easy to learn as well.
The (A) button can be pressed for semi-automatic burst fire of both left and right hand weapons. Holding down (A) will enable rapid fire for selected weapons. There are 3 weapon slots available on the player Mech unit. One slot for each hand, and a reserve slot for an additional weapon. The player can use the (X) and (B) buttons to scroll through different weapon combinations to find the right weapon to fit the right scenario, enemy or boss. It’s always good to have a few different kinds of weapons available so the player doesn’t feel bogged down with a single weapon or weapon progression “power-up” tree like other shoot ’em ups. I found that personally however, if you have the Vulcan cannon and the beam sword (which are two of the most basic starter weapons) then you can handle pretty much any enemy that comes at you from the front, side or rear. The customisation of weapons actually occurs in game. While in combat, the player may defeat an enemy Vower soldier unit that will drop a special Vower weapon to use against them. Alternatively, the player’s allies will also send them supply boxes which feature different weapons that can be picked up simply by flying over and touching them. Now while this sounds all fine and dandy, unless you approach the pick up from the ideal direction, quite often players will find themselves losing weapons they didn’t want to, and replacing them with other weapons which make the job so much harder… The only way to ENSURE you drop the right weapon and pick up the right alternative is if you approach if from the left or right hand side to specify which weapon you want to ditch. However, in a game that places a high degree of the survival element upon the movement of the player character around shot projectiles, this is often hard to achieve. Especially since the player will ALWAYS be getting shot at. And in most instances, while most of the power-ups look nice and shiny and full of helpfulness, I tended to avoid them like the plague unless they were a Sword, Vulcan cannon or Vower Laser.
Since the game deliberately sacrifices story development and context for gameplay, it has a high standard to live up to. While it is not an absolute necessity to understand why the player character is fighting, since the game missions are comprised of both attack and defence missions, being able to identify enemy from ally and good from evil would better help players accomplish their missions. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that friendly fire capability is always on, with very little to help distinguish what should and should not be shot at.
For instance in the first defence mission, the player is tasked with defending a Stranian transport and assault vessel in mid air combat. With the Vower ships constantly attacking your transport, players will no doubt feel the urge to fire upon everything that moves, and jam down rapid fire to wipe out all traces of the enemy. Only problem with this: since friendly fire is at an unchangeable ON setting (unless you’re in co-op play) you’ll end up doing more damage to your transport ship than the Vower themselves. It’s rather degrading to be told that you failed the mission because you shot at the wrong things. Only really by practicing and learning which units are which will the player be able to pass many of these types of missions.
The game also features a co-operative play system, allowing two players to work together simultaneously to play through the game, either locally or on Xbox Live. However, from what I did notice from it, the gameplay did not change a single iota for it. Traditionally, whenever two players are involved in a single campaign, the difficulty curve is adjusted to create an adequate challenge for multiple players. However, Strania throws that notion out the window, and sticks with the raw formula for the campaign. Although I feel that this is a warranted move. Why? Because regardless of how many players you have playing this game, it’s HARD. Even on normal mode, the difficulty scaling is quite extreme. Survival until later levels without wasting credits will only be experienced by the most hardened and veteran players. In this respect, it does follow the flow of a standard Shoot ’em up quite well.
he basic formula that a shoot ’em up style game like this relies on is making the players loose lives quickly while being in pursuit of a high score. Considering that these types of games were traditionally played on arcade machines in Timezones worldwide, it makes sense why these games would want to be hard. To force players to add credits to get to the end. Now while this is reflective of its arcade origins, Strania is a little more lenient towards the console audience by providing a 4 square health bar. This way, even if the player suffers a hit, their unit won’t be completely destroyed like in old het-fighter shoot ’em ups. Additionally, Mech units can be healed at regular points, under the proviso that the player meet certain ranking requirements. The game also features a ranking system based on player performance, which, at times, will seem almost condescending if you pull off what you thought was a great battle, but turned out to be C rank material. However, again, the ranking and scoreboard is also reflective of the origins of the Shoot ‘Em Up Genre.
However, despite a few of these set-backs in gameplay, I can’t say that I DIDN’T enjoy myself playing this game. The combat was fast paced, the levels were challenging, and for all its flaws, it was still fun to play. As an additional bonus to the game, G.REV is currently also working on a DLC bonus package that will allow players to side with the antagonist, but much more badass looking Vower force in a subsequent act to re-capture Strania. From what has been revealed so far, this will be an entirely new campaign, with completely different levels, enemies, bosses and special effects. The only thing that will really stay the same is the gameplay, and I believe the expansion will be better off for it.
Graphics and Sound
The Japanese origins of the game is immediately clear from the get go. If the player is not tipped off by the anime inspired opening screen and accompanying Japanese Kanji text, then it would most certainly be the general make-up and design of the in game graphics themselves. I personally really like the designs of both the hero Mech units, their weapon designs and even the designs of the enemies. While not exactly the most original designs (humanoid shape of the robots), they edit enough elements to help individualise the series. Having said that, I found that the designs of the main characters themselves to be a bit bland and simplistic. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Gundam, Gurren Lagaan, Evangelion or any other kind of Mech anime, you’ll be able to draw for yourself the type of protagonist design you’d be seeing. On the other hand, the announcement artwork and graphics shown for the Side Vower DLC look far more interesting and have a brighter, more unique and lively design. And given this colourful and lively display, I still ask myself: Who are the bad guys in this story? I mean let’s face it, humanity doesn’t have the BEST track record with other species, in fictional universes or otherwise.
One of the visual aspects I enjoyed the most in playing this is the background animation. The flow of the backgrounds in Shoot ‘Em Up games like Strania often make a large difference to how well it is received. After all, the background is the only thing that will help the player determine the context of the battle they are experiencing. In that respect, the limited graphics capability that exist with the production of arcade games is obvious, but I found that the level of detail providing in a majority of the visuals were highly appealing and sufficient to achieve the afore mentioned contextualisation of situation. There were other visual facets however, in which my feelings are still mixed. In particular I’m referring to special effects and battle effects. While the game IS still fun to play, being able to blast and shoot every which way, sometimes the game suffers for it. This is a problem however for many Shoot ’em up titles. In particular, there is often so much happening on the screen in way of special effects, that it is hard to tell what the player should be doing. To say the screen gets busy is an understatement. This can actually be made WORSE by the addition of an almost identical looking second player unit. The projectiles being fired are very often difficult to see amongst the torrent that the player characters themselves will spew forth, and sudden unexplainable deaths will inevitably occur, much to a player’s frustration. However, I do acknowledge that the game is working off a genre formula that pretty much always ends in this outcome. For what it’s worth, the glowing colouration of the projectiles do make it somewhat easier to see where the player should, and should not be flying.
When looking into the audio, I found that the techno soundtrack really worked well for this game. In fact, the soundtrack was one of its best elements. The pace and pitch were quite appropriate for battle scenes, and the pace and pitch adequately dropped during an event of boss battle to provide a greater sense that it is time for the player to start REALLY playing seriously. “Stellar” would be a good way to describe the nature of the soundtrack. Listening to the fast paced techno and electro beat really provides an “out of this world” feel that is trying to be achieved by the game’s flowing visuals. Additionally, the sound effects were accurately timed, and well selected for use with certain in game items and actions. Without a proper catalogue of sound effects, the game itself would have seemed a degree more lifeless for it.
While the concept of battling giant robots in out space is a very cool concept, I did not feel enough of that notion seeping through in the gameplay. I felt that one could have interchanged the mechs with jets or shuttles or several varieties of large birds with guns attached, and the game would have felt the same. While this may seem like nit picking, I feel that if a game is going to market itself as a mech game, it should involve some degree of unique mech capabilities. Personally, I would have thought that having the chance to customise your mech in colour and with different starting weapon sets before each stage would have worked in the game’s favour.
That said, a selection of different suits with differing stats or weaponry may have also worked. Many different players are comfortable with different play styles, with some preferring melee combat, and up close and personal, others long range precision and others mass heavy destruction. To this end, it may have been beneficial to cater to these different groups with different mechs, rather than relying on power ups to achieve that.
While I still enjoyed playing it, I would not expect it to live up to the standard of other Mech games available for Xbox360 already, such as Dynasty Warriors Gundam, Armored Core and Chrome Hounds. However, I did feel it was more enjoyable that many other standard arcade shoot ’em ups. For what it’s worth, I found that this game is a standout for its genre. That is to say it was actually very good. FOR A SHOOT ‘EM UP. While not exactly what you would consider in the league of Super Meat Boy, Castle Crashers or Limbo on XBLA, if you’re looking for a good quick burst of fun, then Strania is certainly worth a go.
[pro-player width=’530′ height=’253′ type=’video’]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4EC4m73SQk[/pro-player]