Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype
If there’s one genre in all of videogaming that is balancing dangerously on the edge of extinction, it’s the side-scrolling shoot-‘em-up (affectionately nicknamed industry-wide as ‘shmup’). Back in the day (i.e. the 16-bit era), 2D games were the rule, not the exception, so it was a given that certain companies like Konami and Irem would release a shmup or two amidst the slew of more mainstream offerings. Generally challenging and don’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen-for-a-second frenzied, these twitchy, projectile-spraying action-fests have seen their already small niche narrowed significantly in recent console generations, which is why it’s so surprising to see developer SideQuest Studios focus so intensely and specifically on creating shmup titles. But focused they are, and the result is Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype – a PSN exclusive with gorgeous presentation, foot-tappin’ music and classic, challenging shmup gameplay, tempered by an excellent dynamically-changing difficulty system.
Final Prototype is actually the sequel to the 2007 Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer – a game viewed by many as good, but a bit too unforgiving in the difficulty department. Himmelsstürmer also had the annoying problem of background and foreground elements blending into the on-screen clutter of enemies and projectiles, often resulting in cheap deaths. Thankfully, with Final Prototype, SideQuest has fixed all of these issues. Now it’s remarkably easy to differentiate between the different on-screen elements, and if you begin to play poorly, the game will remove its proverbial boot heel from your throat, easing up on the number and complexity of projectiles (conversely, if you begin to play better, the game will ramp up the on-screen chaos). The end result is a game that is less frustrating and just plain more fun to play than its predecessor.
Final Prototype trumps Himmelsstürmer in terms of longevity as well. Featuring an experience system that allows you to unlock new weapons and features as you shoot down more and more bad guys, the game coaxes you to keep coming back, even after finding all the hidden Secret Keys and blasting through each of the seven satisfying levels. On top of that, you can also try your hand at the wide selection of Challenges – side goals that come in a wide variety of difficulties with an even wider variety of rewards (additional credits, spacecraft, trophies, etc). Of course there’s always the tried and true I’m-gonna-get-the-highest-score-possible-and-upload-it-to-the-online-leaderboards reason to keep playing, and if all of that doesn’t keep you coming back then the excellent 2-player co-op likely will (though, sadly only local multiplayer is supported).
As Himmelsstürmer vets are already aware of, SideQuest definitely knows how to craft a beautiful-looking game. All of Final Prototype‘s stages are filled to the brim with high-definition eye candy, whether it’s the sleek player-controlled spacecrafts, hypnotizing backgrounds or colorful web of enemy lasers. The ships and backgrounds appear to all have been modeled in 3D, but due to the speed and nature of the 2D side-scrolling gameplay, the game gives the illusion of having some incredibly complex (and visual stunning) parallax scrolling. Final Prototype’s soundtrack is fantastic as well, featuring a pleasing trace/house-esque suite of songs that is occasionally broken up by ambient tunes that could have been directly ripped from Vangelis’s Blade Runner score. Essentially, this is one of the best-presented titles on PSN, with the only downside being the game’s gargantuan 1.5 gigabyte download size.
If there’s anything negative that can be said about Final Prototype, it’s that the game goes out with a bit of a whimper. Sure, the final level is challenging and there are plenty of new baddies to shoot down, but the environment is clichéd and the final boss is the most uninteresting in the game. It really is a shame because the game flies so high up to that point; if SideQuest had crafted a worthy, climactic final encounter, this would have been arguably the best shmup of the last few generations. As it stands, it’s a brilliant little spitfire of a game, and one of the PSN’s best exclusive titles. If you ever had a blast (pun intended) playing games such as Gradius or R-Type, consider Final Prototype a no-brainer purchase. Even if your shoot-‘em-up experience is limited to Contra or Metal Slug, I still highly recommend giving this game a shot (again, gratuitous pun intended). Let’s hope that SideQuest Studios’s Final Prototype isn’t actually… well… final.