Welcome to the dance of death.
The setting is a steampunk alternate history in which the British have colonized the New World (Mars, obviously) and are being attacked by the Spanish and their Martian allies. Now it is up to the exiled Sir Walter Raleigh and his three Victorian comrades to uncover the mystery of Roanoke and vanquish the Spanish conquistadors.
This fantastic setup lends itself well to Jamestown, a top down bullet hell shoot 'em up (shmup) from Final Form Games. For the uninitiated, bullet-hell games are a subgenre of the old school arcade scrolling shooters that involve dodging a hailstorm of elaborate, screen filling bullet patterns. While old school throwbacks are not uncommon among indie studios, Final Form stands out by focusing on four-player cooperative play and laying down lavishing amounts of polish. The pixel art is meticulously crafted, the orchestral soundtrack is absurdly epic, and the game mechanics bring refreshing ideas to the bullet-hell genre and stand head to head with its peers.
As such, the game is arguably at its best when played with a full party of four. While solo players will find a lot to love as well, the coop simply outshines the singleplayer. This is due the gameplay mechanics that simply mesh together.
At a glance, the game appears to play similar to CAVE's DodonPachi series. Players alternate between multiple modes of fire and take down waves of enemies while weaving through curtains of heavy fire. While the amount of bullets can seem overwhelming the hit-box of your ship is tiny and you will only be destroyed if it directly in the center. Where the game differentiates itself from the typical shmup mold is in the multiple ship designs and coop mechanics.
Players start with the Beam ship, which plays out like a typical CAVE shooter. Standard fire will shoot off a volley of wider angled bullets, while the alternate fire will fire a concentrated beam that does more damage, but slows down the player. As your progress you earn ducats, which can be spent outside of gameplay to unlock the three other ships, among other things. The Gunner ship can direct a secondary cannon in any direction, the Charge ship has a weaker primary but constantly charges balls of energy that travel slowly when released, moving through enemies and continuously damaging them. The final ship, the Bomber, has the weakest primary, but can detonate its bullets for devastating damage, especially when used continuously at melee range. Of the four, the Bomber is the hardest to use and is the only one that can't hold its own in solo play. It is best used in tandem with another player for full effect. In fact, each ship generally works well to balance out the shortcomings of the others, and in coop it definitely shows the focus the devs put on the coop play.
When playing solo you are given the traditional lives and continue system on the arcade. In coop play, when a player is shot down they must either wait to respawn or be resurrected by a team mate by having them pick up the appropriate powerup. If all players go down at the same time, you will lose a continue. This system gives a refreshing respite from the demanding requests of traditional arcade style shmups, and can lead to tense situations where one player dodges a curtains of bullets while the others anxiously wait to respawn, or back and forth situations where players are constantly dieing and being revived. This works well in tandem with Vaunt, the game's other major mechanic.
As enemies are destroyed they released golden bolts which award extra points and fill up the Vaunt bar when collected. When full a player can perform a Vaunt, which creates a temporary bullet canceling shield as well as increasing weapon damage as long they continue to obtain gold. In addition to being essential to navigating the game's trickier sections, a coordinated team can shield each other with Vaunt and power through sections of the game that would only be possible for shmup veterans. Vaunt also forms the focus of the game's scoring system. By continuously keeping the Vaunt bar full players earn a multiplier on any points that they obtain as well as a bonus when the bar empties. As with any good shmup, playing the game for score radically alters the way you play the game and encourages a more risk reward aggressive style of play.
Of course the game does have its faults. While the game's five levels are endlessly replayable to genre fans and high score junkies, more casual players will be put off by the lack of stages, even with the amount of detail packed into them. The same goes for Jamestown's twenty challenge stages. In addition, while the game offers multiple difficulty levels, later stages can only be played on higher difficulty levels, and require you to replay previous levels if you have only completed them on a lower difficulty. While this does encourage mastery of the game, it is sure to bother others. The biggest offender, however, will be its lack of online coop. While it is understandable coming from a small indie studio, and the amount of work it would take to create the flawless netcode needed for a game of this genre, many expect it for a coop focused game.
Final Form have created something wonderful for genre fans and newcomers alike. As someone who has had a hard time getting friends to understand the appeal of the bullet-hell games, Jamestown allowed me to entice others in effortlessly with its coop and absurdly polished production values. That alone is worth it.
"Mars is waiting. Bring your friends."
Jamestown is out now of PC and available for purchase on Steam, Gamersgate, and Direct2Drive for $9.99
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