There are a great many quality action/puzzle games on the PlayStation Network; they are excellent contrasts to the $60 big-budget blockbusters. They offer something simple yet charming, accessible, and oh-so-addictive. They are, in short, great for a rainy day. For the most part, the latest from Beatshapers, StarDrone, fits that label nicely. It really does. But after enjoying the unique gameplay, inspired obstacles, enemies and power-ups, and ultra-smooth, appealing atmosphere, you may cap your first few hours of increasingly challenging entertainment by chucking your controller against the wall. It is a definite risk and in all honesty, I’m surprised my controller survived. That being said, if you’re up for an original game that demands the best of you, definitely give it a try.
The graphics are colorful, sparkly, and quite pretty throughout. It’s one of those games that really shines with a great high-definition TV, and if you happen to have 3D capability, StarDrone takes full advantage. Super Stardust HD went 3D early and if you’re familiar with the softly explosive (not sure I can put those two words together) new dimension in that title, you’ll be interested in StarDrone. The animations are simplistic yet beautiful and the frame rate never skips a beat, even when the action hits high speeds. Personally, I think they could’ve done more with some of the backgrounds but then again, I admit to not having completed all 50 levels. It’s just a bunch of nifty effects and visuals strung together, but that doesn’t detract from the presentation.
Sparkling effects accompany those satisfying visuals, but we do have to deal with some repetitive and occasionally monotonous music. The soundtrack isn’t bad but these days, we have to compare soundtracks to other great downloadable productions, like Shatter. Music has proven to be a huge bonus in downloadable titles and while the soundtrack is indeed solid here, it doesn’t stand out and it tends to get a little irritating when trying to conquer a longer level. The good news is that most levels are shorter and really, those effects take center-stage and make the gameplay enjoyable. The balance between the music and effects is also quite good and in general, the technical elements blend together well and enhance the experience.
So here’s the idea- StarDrone is sort of like an interactive, sci-fi form of pinball. You launch the Drone – as you would a ball – and it will continue on until you finish the level. It can also explode, thereby ending the level immediately and forcing you to retry from the start. This may not sound all that intriguing, but you can let the Drone attach to certain objects that sling it around in a circle. You hit X when in the vicinity of one, and hold it to start the motion; then you release X to send the Drone off in the desired direction. Remember when you were a kid and you had a slingshot? You’d wing it around your head and release the little pebble at a certain point in the rotation? Yeah, kinda like that.
And it goes well beyond that. I’m not referring to the story, as there really isn’t one, unless you count the following: the Drone travels across the galaxy, collecting pieces of Equilibrix so as to restore order to the balance of the universe. Standing in your way are the evil G-Noids, but you can utilize various power-ups, like invisibility, magnet and berserk. So no, as you might expect, the story isn’t a focus. What I’m referring to is your traversal of each level; it isn’t just about slinging off in the right direction. It’s also about traveling quickly along boost pads, nabbing stars fast enough to enter Comet Rush mode (which lets you become invincible for a while), and winging along zip stripes. All the while, you’ll have to avoid deadly spikes and G-Noids that, if encountered too many times, can end your mission.
It’s really a cool idea and it works well. Getting the timing just right on the release point of the Drone, keeping an eye on your surroundings, and steering clear of fatal obstacles demands your attention and keeps you engrossed. During the first 20 levels or so, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and always ready to take on the next challenge. I was all ready to give it a solid 8.0. I felt myself learning the ropes relatively quickly, performing well in certain situations, and trying to beat my best times. The 3D mode is super sweet (and mildly hypnotic) and even in failure, I’d find myself smiling. But then the challenge began to spike and a few of the game’s drawbacks began to become evident. So evident, in fact, that – as I said in the intro – my controller was in definite danger of death.
The problem is that some of the later levels are very long, and there are no checkpoints. Hitting spikes means instant death and that can happen very quickly, and with only the slightest mistake of even the most well-trained fingers. I even got a Trophy called “Epic Fail” after failing a certain mission many times in a row (don’t remember how many it was), and I started to think I was in trouble. Along with zero checkpoints, you really aren’t well-acquainted with the larger maps, because the camera is always zoomed in on the Drone. So you start sort of blind. You can switch to a free-camera mode once the Drone is launched and you do have a handy-dandy map, but that doesn’t quite alleviate the difficulty. I will say the map proved immensely helpful for some of the tougher missions, though.
StarDrone is one of those well-conceived, nicely produced downloadable games with a lot of simple flash and a ton of accessibility…at first, at least. Old-school fans might not have a big problem with the spiking difficulty and besides, those 50 levels will definitely take some time. For only $7.99, you get some serious bang for your buck. But I’m a very patient individual and if I’m ready to break something, there’s a definite level of frustration involved. I must stress, however, that I kept getting better and I never felt cheated. Granted, I flew blind too often and got very near the end before an inadvertent mistake sent me back to the start. But it was always my fault. I never thought the game itself cheated me. There’s something to be said for that and in the end, StarDrone is worth your time.
By the way, this game is compatible with PlayStation Move but I soon realized that it doesn’t really alter the experience much, and certainly doesn’t make anything easier. Just play it with the Dual Shock 3…and have an extra one handy, just in case.
The Good: Slick, pleasing technical presentation. Great visual and sound effects. Original, semi-addictive concept. Inspired, gripping gameplay. High longevity is appreciated.
The Bad: Music can get repetitive. No checkpoints and lengthy missions adds to high difficulty. Some missions feel too long.
The Ugly: “Why is my controller cracking…? …oh, I’m squeezing it to death.”
4/5/2011 Ben Dutka