Monday, May 11, 2009

VC look: Axelay

Developed by Konami this shooter makes a remarkable attempt at getting away from Gradius and its spin-offs but there are too many bad design decisions to justify picking this game up. Certainly one can expect a low review when I can't get past the first sentence without saying bad things about the game. In fact I'll go as far to say as this game is an absolutely clumsy mess. There are merits to this game so I'll go over them first.

The game alternates between vertically and horizontally scrolling stages(like Konami's own Life Force/Salamander series). The vertical stages make an interesting usage of the Super Nintendo's mode 7 hardware to produce a horizon effect. It's hard to explain but look up a video and it's quite apparent. The horizontal stages consist of the usual trappings the genre is known for. Lots of enemies, bullets, and a variety of objects to crash into. Each stage also ends with a boss, a very big guy with a tiny weakpoint. The stages themselves provide quite a bit of variety in you'll see attributes and particular scenarios in one stage that you won't see in any other, thus lending each area quite a bit of personality. 

The weapon-system is also unique. Rather than collect power-ups before each stage begins you can choose from an eventual eight weapons that are broken down into three groups. The first focuses mostly on firing forward with little range and high damage, the second has great range but minimal damage, and the third consists of missiles to suit your current situation. These weapons are well-balanced and even have the incredibly neat aspect of combination. Through frequent usage of L+R buttons(which switch between weapons) you can have combine certain weapons to gain more firepower on-screen. It's a great little technique that sadly doesn't get enough exploration in the game.Getting hit by an enemy bullet will cost you your currently equipped weapon however. Lose all three weapons and you're stuck with a pea-shooter while yet another hit will take you out instantly. Crashing into objects however will kill you instantly...and this is where the problems start to roll in.

I assume the design philosophy for this game is that the enemy fires bullets to take out your weapons so that'll lead to scenarios where due to your lack of a certain weapon it will take some skill to get out of some truly bad situations that'll kill you outright. I can only assume this because the execution simply doesn't match-up. As these VC reviews progress you'll notice that I tend to bash games developed early in a console generation that attempt too many innovations that don't work well at all. While Konami's earlier SNES effort Gradius III was by-the-numbers it's still a solid game(aside from the agonizing slowdown). Axelay simply tries too hard to do too much and crumbles as a result. Most of the time you're not killed by enemies weakening your defenses and creating openings. Most of the time you're getting killed because you collided with something. It doesn't exactly always have to be your fault either. The game is never 100% clear with what can kill you instantly. A huge laser that spans the length of a screen and was fired by a battle-cruiser will only cost you a weapon but a bit of rock will cost you a life. Sometimes it can even go as far as certain kinds of missiles. How do you tell the difference? Better run into all of them and take notes. In one stage you have to deal with a large flying dual-laser cannon. Now the lasers aren't as threatening as the enemy simply colliding into you. How do you avoid it? Well you can't. Actually what you have to do is get hit by one of the bullets it's conveniently firing at its side and use the brief invincibility period to get away. Sure you lose a weapon but it's better than losing a life. But why would you have or want to lose a weapon anyway? It's simply poor game design. Eventually the levels become a bit better designed to more appropriately match the decisions the developers were trying to make but by then you've already seen much of the game.

It doesn't help that this game just feels absolutely clumsy. If the enemies aren't awkwardly crashing into you(very rarely are there enemies that actively seek you out, you're more likely to get smacked by something simply appearing on-screen) they're crashing into the scenery. Sure this really only happens in one stage but it feels cheap and not well thought-out. Depending on the nature of the wall they may or may not deflect any bullets, making some areas more annoying yet not exactly threatening either, which just makes it really odd. While the game does a good job of offering multiple difficulty levels and even multiple loops after you beat the game you're more likely to run out of patience with the gameplay before taking advantage of these features.

For all of its polish and interesting ideas Axelay simply can't hold it all together when it comes to its game design. It might be worth a shot if you must play every 2D shooter but these days there's so many better options out there I simply don't see the point in spending a serious amount of time with this one.

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