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Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype
Graphics: 8.7
Gameplay: 8.5
Sound: 8.3
Control: 8.6
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 8.4

After enjoying more than a few downloadable gems on the PlayStation Network for a decent expanse of time, we’ve seen a bit of a drought thus far in 2010. And as we all lie in wait for thatgamecompany (Flow, Flower) to reveal their latest, we have to peruse the available PSN titles in the hopes of finding something worth the standard $10-$15 range. Admittedly, the episodic series, Blue Toad Murder Files, is worthwhile in some respect, but we’ve been looking for something that feels…I dunno, classic, I suppose. You know, a game that takes one of the tried-and-true concepts from yesteryear, spruces it up a bit, and allows us to revisit the golden age of gaming in a slightly new way. A bunch of great puzzlers are examples of such experiences, although elite games like echochrome seem to be in a class by themselves. So we were hoping that EastAsiaSoft would provide us with what we crave: an old-school side-scrolling shooter with plenty of pizzazz and a high entertainment value. And you know…we got it.

It’s a fairly large download, clocking in at about 1.5GB, but when you see the wonderfully smooth and refined visuals, you’ll know why. The game isn’t very long but they obviously need a bit of space to portray that slick space world; the special effects are mostly satisfying and colorful, the level design is impressive and even innovative in some special ways, and the bosses would’ve made us grin in delight if they had appeared back in the ol’ days. If you’re too young to remember, side-scrolling starfighting shooters like this were common, and although the gameplay certainly reminds us of that lost age, these bosses would’ve been considered above and beyond. There’s also a nice variety of enemies – some look more like creatures than enemy spaceships – and everything is clear, relatively polished, and pleasant to behold. Oddly enough, I felt that I would often lose track of my ship, as it seemed to get lost in the myriad of visuals, but this is a minor complaint and besides, I got used to it. The bottom line is that for a downloadable title, Soldner-X 2 looks great.

The sound is also good, but not quite as impressive. The voice acting is surprisingly solid (I say “surprisingly” because this genre is notorious for laughable voiceover work), the effects are crisp and diverse, and even the voices over the radio when flying along aren’t too bad. Now, due to its stylish nature, it’s not surprising the developers would include some high-tech electronic music tracks, but although they’re well implemented, there aren’t a ton of available tunes. I wouldn’t say it’s repetitive but I sort of wished to have some kickin’ electro/techno tracks to accompany the more stressful, invigorating parts of each level. It’ll remind you a bit of Shatter’s soundtrack – which is arguably the best we’ve heard in a downloadable product – but it isn’t quite as prominent. I also think some of the weapons could’ve used a bit more “impactful” effect to go along with the destruction but besides that, the game sounds almost exactly as it should.

If you’ve played any side-scrolling shooter of this kind in the past, you likely know what to expect from the gameplay. You zip along and attempt to survive as a constant stream of enemies and dangerous objects move to prematurely end your noble quest. Dozens of foes can populate the screen at once and unlike some of the really old-fashioned titles of this sort, you can move your ship forward and back in addition to up and down, so usually, there is no restriction to where you can move. This means enemies can often get behind you (but you can’t fire backwards, so you gotta maneuver skillfully), and if you want to snag a particular power-up, you might have to dodge a whole lot of opposing fire. And while this is nothing new, the developers toss in a twist: certain parts of levels will require you to squeeze between walls and other obstacles, limiting your scope of movement. You’ll also find the backdrops moving down and up in addition to right to left, which is another nice feature.

If you didn’t play the first title, Soldner-X: Himmelssturmer, you should know that it was almost unbearably unforgiving and certainly didn’t feature this level of slickness and solidarity. This sequel represents a big upgrade because while it remains very challenging, it’s nowhere near as frustrating and being able to start a new level with all your lives is a God-send. Furthermore, there’s far more inventiveness and creativity going on in Soldner-X 2, all of which is noted and appreciated. The gameplay itself is silky smooth and almost never fails, although there were times when I felt convinced I had snagged a power-up when in fact I hadn’t. Everything else works very, very well. The variety of enemies poses a variety of different challenges, the background environments are appealing, the bosses are always challenging and a blast to take down, and this time, the experience is demanding (fun) without being overbearing (not fun). Plus, it really looks great from start to finish.

There are three ships to choose from – you need to unlock one of them – and each have two very different main weapons, easily selectable with the R1 and L1 buttons. You can also pick up a third weapon as you fly along, and you can increase the Power of your equipped weapons by grabbing the Power upgrades that appear when you defeat enemies. Other goodies include chain bonuses, shield, health up, and of course, the different weapons, like a laser that snakes out and drains health from any surrounding foes. The more powerful you become, the more effective your weapons will be, and as was always the case with games like this, you want to carry some momentum into a boss fight, so try not to die before that time. As always, the key is watch all the crap flying towards you rather than the enemies themselves; just hold down the fire button and keep dodging. It may sound ineffective – and sometimes it is – but you do what you must to survive. It’s not easy, but it’s very rewarding.

Really, there’s very little wrong, here. It’s colorful, the presentation is slick and eye-opening, the different weapons are all very cool (although I did think that they all sorta did the same amount of damage), each boss felt unique, and the frenetic pace felt just about right at all times. As usual, length is a concern when dealing with smaller productions and technically, you could finish this one in a couple of hours. However, you do need to find the four unlock keys in each level in order to proceed to the next, and you can see an ending after finishing the first five stages. But there are actually seven stages – you gotta unlock two – and there are also a healthy number of separate challenges that will test your skill and reflexes. Then there are the online score leaderboards; if you want to best your score, you can play and replay the stages, which isn’t an altogether unpleasant prospect. It’s just always fun. Given what you receive for the price, I do heartily recommend it to those who loved these games in the past.

Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype is a beautifully composed and ceaselessly entertaining shooter, one with an old-school feel combined with modern flash. It still feels a little short for $12.99 (the proper price would’ve been $9.99 in my eyes), I wanted the music to hit me a little harder, and there may be a detection issue when your ship goes to haul in a power-up. This is what keeps it from being an elite 9+ title. But that being said, it’s a polished, fun, smile-inducing experience that should be a super way to spend a rainy afternoon, and it’s even more fun with a buddy. Taking it all in perspective, isn’t this all we ask from our worthwhile PSN games?

5/31/2010   Ben Dutka