The Red Star Review
Whether or not you're fans of the old comic, a game like The Red Star should come with universal entertainment built right in. Take two old-school styles - beat-Ďem-up and shooter - and blend them together, thereby giving the gamer a unique experience, one that's nostalgic and unique at the same time. It seems like a darn good idea, despite the fact one shouldn't be expecting amazing visuals in this new age of flashy graphics and amazing next-gen sound quality. But as a PS2 title, it still has plenty of competition, even though it falls under the incredibly small "arcade action/shooter" genre...if there even is such a genre. After playing for quite a while and getting our fill, it did become clear that the competition shouldn't really be frightened, but The Red Star does have its moments. Let's just hope everyone hasn't upgraded entirely just yet, because if they have, a game like this might lose a lot of its appeal.
The graphics are actually a touch better than we might've expected, as there's plenty of nice color and detail presented in the appropriate futuristic environment. There's even some surprising diversity in many of the levels; the player will find themselves amidst modern ruins, sci-fi bridges and buildings, and even some interesting background effects (like reflective ground surfaces such as ice). Unfortunately, the clarity tends to suffer, even in some of the better-looking locales, and character and enemy design often appears a little muddled. But with the mostly smooth lines and overall solid visual presentation, this is one game that doesn't suffer from a severe lack of graphical capability. Sometimes, you can't quite see enough of your surroundings, but that's more of a gameplay error that a visual one, and besides, you'll be focusing so heavily on the action, the graphics are very secondary.
The sound effects are good, but the soundtrack is far too repetitive and it'll eventually just get in the way. By the later levels, you'll find yourself wishing for a way to turn off the music entirely, which is never a good thing. But then again, we rarely find great soundtracks in games such as this one, so it's not a debilitating issue. The effects do pick up some of that slack, too, as there's nice variety, clear impact sounds, and a healthy assortment of enemy battle cries. Unlike some of the earlier arcade-style games, The Red Star exhibits greater accuracy and resonance, superior to what we used to expect from old-fashioned shooters. But there is no voice acting, and with the very weak soundtrack, the sound effects by themselves can't make "Sound" a great scorable category. Again, though, much like the graphics, the primary focus of this title centers squarely on the gameplay, so that - almost by itself - will determine if this one is worthy of a purchase.
As we mentioned before, the gameplay is a mix of shooting - both horizontal and vertical - and melee combat, which immediately makes for an intriguing concept. Each of the three characters available have their own strengths and weaknesses, and beginners might want to start with the classic "tank" character, Kyuzo. He's slower and not quite as diverse as the other two, but he can withstand more hits and has better strength, which offers an immediate advantage for those just getting used to the style. But you can also select Makita, who trades strength and defense for speed and agility, or later, you can give Maya Antares a shot, who uses powerful magic. However, you'll have to work to unlock her; she's not available at the start of the game. The good news? You'll approach the game very differently with each character, primarily because you're not limited to just shooting or just melee attacks. We must repeat- this is a mix.
You can attack up-close-and-personal with whichever weapon your character has at his or her disposal, or you can fire away from afar with your equipped gun. You'll soon find that many of the normal enemy encounters are typically best approached with melee attacks, and most bosses can only be defeated with gunfire. But most of the time, you do have the option, which adds a whole other dimension to what is normally very straightforward and simplistic gameplay. Then they throw in some relentless enemies, ranging from common sword-wielding foot soldiers to massive bosses in the form of tanks, helicopters, and giant robots loaded down with crushing firepower. At that point, you know you're poised on the precipice of something special, looking over a vast landscape of possibilities that tickles your old-school veteran nerve. Unfortunately, the developers don't quite run far enough with the idea.
The good stuff is evident. Besides the singular gameplay style, which certainly works on just about every level (despite some small hitches outlined soon), there are a few other bonuses to be found. You'll be rated on each section upon completion, and that rating will dictate the amount of points you receive, which can then be spent on upgrades for your character. You can purchase new guns and weapons - or upgrades to your current ones - along with defense and strength enhancements, providing a bit more strategy in The Red Star. Furthermore, you'll really need these upgrades, as your enemies will become more powerful and more specific in their abilities as you progress. Some are immune to ranged attacks from your guns, some target you from afar, and some even have shields that you have to break through. Your character can also guard, even though you won't be able to stop projectiles. Finally, the player travels along a linear path, but it does change from horizontal to vertical, so that offers a nice change of pace.
See? The good is pretty obvious; most players will notice all the pluses immediately. But on the other hand, it's also easy to spot the significant drawbacks. First and foremost is the fact that this game has no checkpoint system. You must fully complete each stage before the auto-save feature kicks in, and if you die, you have to start all over from the beginning. Later on, this not only becomes frustrating; it becomes downright infuriating. This is because the levels get very long near the end, and if you spend nearly a half-hour bashing away, only to die at the final boss, you'll probably want to crush your controller with a steel boot. It's a major problem, and it could easily have been avoided with just a few checkpoints spread around the stages. You do find health pick-ups, but the placing is erratic, leaving you desperately battling for survival during super-long stretches of action. Sure, there is some logic behind the positions of these health pick-ups (they typically appear after boss fights or other major encounters), but they're not spaced evenly enough.
The pacing is also a little bizarre. It took us several tries to beat the first boss - even though it could've just been due to the learning curve - but after that, we didn't die again until the sixth stage. And then, something popped up that seemed extraordinarily difficult, and stuck out in sharp contrast to the rest of the level. On top of this, as you never really know what might arrive in the next stage, you can never be sure which upgrade will prove to be the best purchase. It's more like trial-and error, but due to the auto-save system, you can't really go back and buy something new after completing a previous stage. In all, the game doesn't take long to beat, but it will only happen once you've suppressed the malicious urge to break expensive gaming equipment, and even then, it won't take longer than five or six hours. These shortcomings combine to form a sizable wall, and that wall serves to stop the game in its tracks...and it was on track to being something special.
The Red Star has a lot going for it, but due to the preceding problems, it falls well short of its ambitious goal. The complete lack of an interesting story, lackluster menu presentation, and spiking and erratic difficulty (along with no checkpoints) can make for an extremely tedious experience. However, the player can derive a great deal of entertainment from the combat, which features solid control despite some questionable collision detection. The game also features a Co-op mode, which is a huge benefit because games like this are always more fun with a friend. You'll likely enjoy yourself throughout much of the game, if you take the time to try it, and it just might be worth the $20 budget price tag. At the very least, it's probably worth a weekend rental, especially if you've got a buddy who wants to play Co-Op. But as an overall game, some originality coupled with old-school classic fun doesn't quite cut the mustard in this incomplete production.
7/9/2007 Ben Dutka