Friday, January 8, 2010

XBL Indie Games Review - Square Off

Earlier this week I said my first review would be of the game Square Off. Not wanting to disappoint so early in my amateur blogging career, I've put countless (read: five) hours of gameplay and a steady supply of caffeine and cursing at the TV into what is my first review.

Square Off is a twin-stick shooter from the development team at Gnomic Studios. Like most twin-stick shooters, you play the role of the one man army against an alien invasion. You can make it an up-to-four man army locally. Sadly there's no online play so you're limited to who you can get on your couch, but global leaderboards give you something to shoot for in 1, 2, 3, AND 4 player modes. And if you're tired of cooperating you can always hit the Deathmatch mode and shoot each other.

Single-player consists of 6 different stages with 5 rounds in each stage. Shoot enough aliens and UFOs and you go to the next round, each round needing you to lay waste to more aliens than the last. The fifth round in each stage is a sort of "boss fight" with a larger UFO and a lot more little guys trying to kill you while you try to lay waste to said giant saucer. The first five stages have the same boss while the sixth stage has a different, larger, and more challenging boss. After you beat the first five rounds on any stage you're given the option to go to the next stage or just stay where you are and try to survive through an endless horde of aliens, something that comes in handy when trying for the leaderboards.

One of the first things you'll notice when firing up Square Off is the the professional look and feel of it, something that has gotten a lot better with the Indie Games selections lately but still needs some work. This really shouldn't be a "positive" as much as it should be a "requirement" but hey, some things need to be said. Anyway, the look of the game reminds one of the same style Behemoth uses in games like Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid, and this is definitely meant as praise. The Saturday morning cartoon look of the game gives it a not-so-serious polish that keeps you smiling as you pop a relentless alien horde in the face with an arsenal of guns and explosives. The aliens and your box-like heroes have their own facial expressions about it as well, changing with the action. Charm like that makes gamers like me happy and, as a result, eager for other entries from the game's developers. The only gripe I had with the design was some of the objects on the stage either blocked view or weren't obvious as walls.

The sound doesn't fall short either. Though hearing the same effects over and over can get a bit repetitive ("pew pew pew squish squish squish beep beep beep BOOM squiiiiiish") as they do in any shooter, the high quality of the sounds makes it feel less like grinding teeth and more like your standard arcade game's repetition. The music is well done also, though admittedly the first stage's tune and the transitions between each round set you up for a game full of funk only to deliver a very un-lifting ambient soundtrack in the background. The songs fit well with the background of the stage (caves are nice and moody, last stage sounds like an epic orchestra, etc.) and are great tunes in themselves but, ironically, the locale plays second fiddle to the action and, as such, the songs seem slightly out of place and a little too quiet for the action.

With most indie games and especially with shooters it's all about the gameplay, though. Luckily, Square Off delivers on this front just as well as any other. The solid tried-and-true twin-stick mechanics of left stick move and right stick aim are present and well executed. Right trigger or bumper shoots, left trigger or bumper switches through your acquired weaponry, and...that's it. The face buttons either show your remaining health/ammo (Y button) or make various goofy noises (X, A, and B buttons), giving you something to do and goof off with when waiting for the next onslaught or taunt your opponents in Deathmatch mode. You move slower when you aim (not when you shoot) so dodging might need you to lay off that right stick for a bit. You can collect different weapons from destroyed UFOs and power-ups (a helmet or a faster jetpack) or health from crates laying around. In multiplayer, fallen comrades are occasionally in the crates, popping out with half health. The only addition I feel they need is a way to cycle backward through weapons, as both left bumper and trigger cycle the same way. Otherwise, tight controls and a proven setup provide you with what you need in a skill-based shooter.

The pacing of the game, while a little slower than most twin-stick shooters, felt good for what the game is: a survival based shooter. The gameplay never feels too hectic which gives you plenty of time to think and shoot your way out of nearly any situation. Unfortunately, the occasional cheap kill occurs from a UFO flying twice the speed you can diving right toward you and trapping you against the wall with no way out. A little easier to avoid with the normal ones that spawn throughout the stage but nigh impossible to avoid if it's the stage's gargantuan boss. Some of the stages could actually be a little smaller, as going through a large area with literally nothing to shoot slows the game's excitement down to a crawl for those few moments.

Local cooperative multiplayer was a blast, as always, and yielded both epic firefights and funny taunts and situations as any good game should do. I only tried a little of the Deathmatch mode, but it seemed like a mode I'd have a blast with...if I could get three others to join. With only the two of us (and one admittedly not very skilled with twin-stick shooters) it felt a little slow, but that's usually the norm for any shooter.

The only other complaint I had was very minor but still an annoyance: No visible score during gameplay. The only way to know your score is to wait until after you die or complete the level. I didn't mind while trying to finish the game but I found myself wishing I could see how close I was to other scores on the leaderboard when I was hitting Round 11 or so on my second time playing through.

All in all, a once-through with single-player gameplay lasts roughly an hour with one death on the last boss. However, the game was fun enough for me to go back through both on my own a couple times and with a friend, and I've found myself loading it up to see how far I could get after the fifth round on various stages and climb up the leaderboards. For three bucks, this gem of a survival-based shooter is worth it for twin-stick fans and anyone who can get someone else to play through with them, and hopefully a sign of things to come from the Indie Games on XBox Live.

Square Off is available on the 360's XBox Live Games Marketplace for 240 Microsoft Points. Game was played to completion in single-player, almost beaten in multiplayer, and messed around with to try and earn some higher scores. X, B, and A were pressed a lot during multiplayer, and the phrase "get out of me" was said to a few UFOs.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, nice review! Extremely thorough and also very fair :)

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