The last few months of retail releases have had a number of surprise arrivals for fans of small titles and niche offerings. For example, the kissing RPG Chulip had been lost in limbo for quite some time before suddenly appearing on shelves. Brave: The Search for Spirit Dancer has made its way stateside against the common consensus, and the subject of this review, The Red Star, had been missing in action after making a strong impression on a demo disk and a brief appearance at past E3s. Can Duke Nukem Forever be far behind? We may never know the answer to that question, but one thing I can say with confidence is that despite numerous delays and narrowly avoiding the axe, The Red Star (if not the others) was well worth the wait.
Weakly telling an incomprehensible story which I assume relates to the comic book it was based on, The Red Star's dramatic efforts amount to being less than a footnote. Although I may not say this often, in this particular case the merits of the plot have absolutely no bearing on the quality of the gameplay. The sole reason to get into The Red Star is its intense action.
Perfectly balancing melee brawling and the sort of old-school shooting that usually involves flying spaceships through alien armadas, the development team has actually been quite successful in melding the "shmup" and "beat-‘em-up" genres into something that possesses a progressive intelligence in design, while maintaining strong roots in the past.
The game offers third-person action with two characters to choose from, and a third accessible after completion. Each character comes equipped with a small set of physical attacks and combos in addition to guns, a crowd-clearing super move, and most interestingly, a shield. Wading through hordes of Soviet-themed enemies is a joy for players who like to revel in constant action. Although it's quite clear from the sparse graphics and lack of bells and whistles that the development team didn't have a large budget, I can easily see past the exterior into the cleverness that obviously went into The Red Star's formula.
With a good variety of enemy types, players are constantly required to switch up their tactics on-the-fly. Some opponents are invulnerable to gunfire, some must be kept at a distance, and some have particular patterns or weaknesses that require more than simple button mashing to overcome. By introducing new types and cycling through them in each level, the developers make sure to keep brains engaged by evaluating the combat situation moment-to-moment. The shield mentioned earlier adds a nice layer of depth (giving the player invulnerability for a fleet moment) and a gun heat gauge stops mindless blasting. Although the pieces may not be very complex, they fit and function beautifully.
Going further, the game enriches the experience by constantly surprising the player with boss encounters that completely shift gears into the high-octane "shmup" genre mentioned earlier. Similar to bullet-hell shooters like Mars Matrix or Ikaruga, The Red Star explodes in these sequences and demands the sort of twitch-gaming reflexes and Zen-like concentration that's usually reserved for a mean arcade cabinet when you're down to your last quarter. With strategic fighting and shooting in copious amounts, this game is an adrenaline junkie's dream.
My only criticism of The Red Star is that it can become fairly difficult in the later stages, and even moreso for people used to the gentler levels of challenge that many games have adopted recently. With no mid-level checkpoints, it can become frustrating to die at a boss and have to cover the same territory multiple times before making progress. Including difficulty settings or at least offering players the chance to go back into previous levels and power-up before the nastier sections would have helped smooth out the ride. I actually had to restart my entire game four levels from the end because I had upgraded my character inefficiently and couldn't make it through—a wee bit of tweaking could have prevented that disappointing roadblock.
Although enhanced graphics and special effects would have improved the game cosmetically, there's no denying that the mechanics are dialed-in and the developers have some damned good heads on their shoulders. Add in the fact that it retails for a rock-bottom $20 brand-new, and The Red Star and becomes the next surprise hit that's on every B-list hound's radar. Despite its rocky road to retail, I sincerely hope that The Red Star counts as a win for the developers and lets them produce another title—I'd love to see what they'd create on a bigger budget.