It's funny how many different types of gamers are out there these days. For example, I work with a guy who won't play anything but fighting games and/or "shmups," the bullet hell 2-D shooters that are as popular as ever in Japan, but not so much here. His love for the genre that gave us classics like Gradius, R-Type, Lifeforce and The Last Guardian runs deep, so deep in fact that he has taken to importing components with which to build arcade pads to his own specifications. He recently bought an Xbox 360, not for Gears of War or Mass Effect, but for Deathsmiles, a somewhat obscure Japanese "shmup" that hits our shores in a few weeks. So when I told him I was reviewing Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype for the PS3, he was instantly jealous. And he has good reason to be; this is the best PSN game since last's year's masterpiece, Shatter, and the best "shmup" I've played in more than a few years.
Soldner-X 2 plays almost identically to most of the other games in the genre. You pilot a tiny spacecraft that must make its way past literally thousands of enemies, dodging shots, returning fire and collecting power ups. This is an eons-old game design, but the brilliance is in the details. The first showstopper is the presentation. The environments, though static, look wonderfully detailed as they race by behind you. The enemy ships, from the lowliest one-hit kill to the screen-filling bosses, all look amazingly detailed. Where some of this genre's games rely on a handful of enemies with only color changes to set them apart, Soldner-X 2's developers have lovingly created a massive army of foes, none of which are any less than exciting.
What is most exciting about the presentation, though, is just how much action the game manages to squish onto a TV screen. Scores and multipliers fly across the screen, coupled with your heads-up display, numerous enemies and all of their energy blasts and guess what? I never saw any slowdown or framerate issues. Not. Even. Once. For as cool as the game looks in action, you'll be floored by just how much can and will be going on at once.
One of the trademarks of the Japanese "shmup" is an insane level of difficulty, usually enough to turn off all but the most hardcore of fans. Soldner-X 2 keeps that spirit in mind, but makes some concessions for those of us who aren't quite as hardcore. Your ship can take damage, which can be fixed by collecting power ups. This is in stark contrast to the one-hit kills of some of the most popular Japanese titles, and the wiggle room is more than appreciated. Don't get me wrong; this isn't a cakewalk by any means. But at least when I died, I didn't feel like I stood no chance against my enemies. It actually motivated me to learn patterns and do better the next time. My co-worker my scoff at the more fair difficulty level, but it feels like a perfect fit for less hardcore shooter enthusiasts.
I mentioned the game's bosses a minute ago, but they are so detailed and impressive they deserve their own paragraph. Even the early bosses are massive and require precision timing, and as you progress through the game, they only get bigger, cooler and more fun to fight. "Shmups" live and die on their bosses, I'm told, and Soldner-X 2 comes through with flying colors.
If I have one complaint with the overall package, it is how you progress through to later levels. As you get your feet wet, you might notice certain yellow circles appearing from the wreckage of downed enemy ships. Each level contains a number of these "keys," all of which must be collected to open later levels. I'm of the mind to kill every enemy that pops up, but even with that goal I missed a few of the keys here and there, requiring me to play the levels over again, sometimes a few times each. No doubt some will foam at the mouth in anticipation of this challenge, but it was just kind of an annoyance for me personally.
Soldner-X 2 isn't a perfect game, but it can be a lot of fun and even a stepping stone for those looking to hop into the genre. It doesn't quite live up to the PSN legacy of Shatter, but it does hold its own and, bottom line, it's a lot of fun to play. If your NES is in a closet and you don't have access to Lifeforce, consider Soldner-X 2 to fill that bullet hell gap. You won't regret it.
In The End, This Game Hath Been Rated: 92%.