Gradius, R-Type, and Darius were all legendary shooters that were classics in a genre that helped raise an entire generation of gamers. Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer is a horizontal side-scrolling shmup (shoot ’em up) developed by SideQuest Studios that is built in the mold of its predecessors and fortunately is a pleasant return to the days of old. While not without its flaws, this is an experience that can be both insanely frustrating and incredibly rewarding at the same time.
If an engaging storyline with appealing characters is what you are looking for, you are probably in the wrong genre. Essentially what you have here is just an excuse to jump into a spaceship and mow down thousands of enemies. For what it’s worth, you are a mercenary pilot from the planet Conceyta which is being threatened by a dark and mysterious force. It appears to be molding humans and machines together and attempting to take control of civilization. Okay, enough already… now get out there and shoot stuff! For a budget priced PSN title this is probably more than enough of a plot; it continues to develop as you progress although I could have done without the annoyingly humanoid-sounding woman narrating the story during the brief cut scenes between missions.
The weapons in Söldner-X are not the most plentiful but they are more than adequate for the job at hand. The game starts you off blasting through enemies with your run of the mill shmup blaster (a.k.a. Pulse Gun) and a Beam Gun which resembles multiple bolts of lightning being projected forward from your ship. Later on additional weapons get added to your repertoire; rockets that should only be reserved for the biggest of enemies, a flamethrower that is extremely powerful but short in range and does not last long, and the most effective weapon of the bunch, the bow laser. Each weapon has a finite amount of energy which, when depleted, will cause you to lose it. The only exceptions to this rule are the two weapons that are given at the beginning whose respective energies recharge whenever they are not being fired.
A chaining system is in place that accomplishes the developers’ goal of encouraging constant utilization of the different weapons; however it can be a bumpy ride at times. The idea is that a chain power meter will continue to fill up as you destroy foe after foe. Once the meter turns green you are prompted to switch your weapon which then increases your chain level meter. Continue blasting enemies with the same weapon or switch weapons before the power meter turns green and it will be reset. Once your chain level meter increases enough times a random power-up is released to (hopefully) give you what you need at the right time. Chaining certainly discourages the abusing of one particular weapon but it can also be extremely distracting. It is all too easy to take your eye off of your ship to check your meters only to be pummeled by bullets and enemies in that split second. This is especially true in the harder difficulty settings.
There are also an abundance of power-ups which can be unlocked either by destroying certain enemies or executing a successful chain. As you begin to blast your way through wave after wave of enemies a tutorial system guides you through all of the basics of the game and luckily can be turned off or reset at any time. Each level contains five hidden keys that can be unlocked by destroying certain enemies or objects. Collect four out of five keys on each of the four levels and a fifth, much more difficult level is unlocked for your shooting pleasure.
The graphics in Söldner-X are amongst the most pleasing that you will find in the genre. The four main worlds each have their own distinct identities from the bright blue skies and lush nature within the opening level to the dark asteroid-filled space and varying environmental effects within the third and fourth levels respectively. Each level has its own distinct enemies that are thrown at you and they all fit in with the theme that the level is aimed toward. The music is basically techno rubbish that is fun at first but will leave you wishing for the option to import a custom playlist after a few playthroughs.
Make no mistake about it. Söldner-X will challenge you to your wits end. As expected, there are tons of enemies flying and shooting at the ship at the same time but sometimes the amount of obstacles and enemies that need to be dodged just seem downright unfair. The sheer amount of enemies and bullets present are more than challenging enough on their own but the environmental hazards present in some areas just make them utterly impossible to get through without sustaining heavy damage. Combine all of these factors with the moments in which the scrolling will suddenly speed up for no apparent reason and it makes for an utterly frustrating experience at times. Surprisingly, the boss battles are not nearly as difficult as each has predictable patterns that, once learned, can easily be overcome.
One of the biggest flaws of the game is the manner in which some enemies and foreground objects seemingly blend into the background, making them extremely difficult to identify and leading to some very untimely deaths. There are also several moments in which you will want to punch a hole in something because the game respawns you right in the middle of a hazardous rock or other foreground object without the ability to move, thus trapping the ship and causing instant death. These are the kinds of design decisions that turn potentially great titles into average offerings.
Thankfully, Söldner-X contains a number of other features aimed toward keeping gamers coming back for more. There is a two-player offline coop mode which serves to make the game easier but is balanced out by the fact that both players share the same energy bar. So basically if you are playing with someone who is not very skilled you can expect to die constantly no matter how well you play. While it is understandable that SideQuest wanted to stop the coop mode from being beaten too easily, there are other ways in which this could have been approached that would not penalize a player as much for playing with someone less skilled. Unfortunately the title lacks an online coop that would have significantly increased the replay value. However all of the trophy collectors out there will be glad to know that there are several pieces of bling that can be earned through continuous play.
Despite the challenge Söldner-X can be an extremely enjoyable and addictive shooter when all is said and done. The poor design decisions do certainly take away some of the luster from this game. However, even after throwing your controller in sheer frustration and disgust there is still enough here to keep gamers coming back for more (if only just as a pastime between playing more major titles). Those with no determination need not apply as there is no doubt that the level of difficulty may turn off the casual player. For shmup veterans, however, this is a welcome addition to the genre and certainly worth the download.