Strania – Side Vower
There’s something concerning the ruthless, unforgiving impenetrability of bullet-hell shooters that draws me in. Perhaps it’s nostalgia left over from the Commodore 64 days, when the Game Over screen was an expected and regular sight. Regardless, the 360 has had a few decent schumps. The legendary Ikaruga arrived as a downloadable title, Deathsmiles was a spectacular ecstasy of mind-melting action, and one that tested my tolerance with its bra-busting depiction of young girls, and Strania – reviewed this year – really cranked the difficulty up.
Not being an admirer of Strania’s audio or visual design, the crux mechanics won me over, showing that having no hope of completing a game isn’t always a shameless affair. It’s clear that my bullet-hell abilities aren’t up to scratch; but still, numerous hours were put into the game, reaching further with every endeavour and playthrough.
This DLC lets you star as the enemy force, playing through the game in reverse. A similar length to the first campaign, it offers two new characters, five levels, an alternative army of robots to crush and a different music score. Trouble is, entrance into the other side of the story was bizarrely hidden.
Loading the game brought up the routine title screen. Enter the story, and identical options become available. Everything is the same. Exiting, I scoured through the options and other menus hunting how to trigger the DLC. Where the hell was it? Then my eyes drifted to the bottom corner of the screen – you need to press the right-trigger. One press of RT and the backdrop flipped to illustrate the Vower army.
One of my original concerns with Strania was the colourful Gundam aesthetic. The darker, mean-spirited attitudes of older anime have always been more appealing, with the enduring outbreak of cutesy teen-angst becoming increasingly cringe worthy. The two new characters fall foul of this, indistinguishable from all other stereotypical characters. Pardoning this – as they’re only witnessed in the menu – I leapt into a mech and soared out into the war.
This immediately made up for the character design, as the forest terrain below rushing by gives a sense of momentum and depth. The DLC wastes no time in getting you into the conflict. Some voiceover work between the short bridges would have added an audio layer to the story. Nothing prolonged or drawn out, but one or two lines intermittently would provide meaning to the two opposing forces and what drives them in this war. Especially if it had a moment’s thought; reflecting on how both sides of a conflict will always believe they’re right, or dealing with those flickers of scepticism.
The core of the game is untouched, the gameplay remaining the same. Your mech can be equipped with up to three weapons; two armed and one in reserve. Cycling through them is done in real-time and effective, allowing you to store a third weapon for a boss or close encounter. To collect a new weapon you merely move into it, a coloured arrow visibly displaying which arm it will attach to. It’s an idea that’s both functional and well implemented.
The mecha move with a fluid grace, as the camera occasionally swoops in to provide an intimate view in certain sections. Still, more experimentation with the camera would have provided diversity; it cries out for a Space Harrier moment.
The melodic themes remain similar, with the blend of beats and guitar performed in a distinctly Japanese way. At the beginning of one boss the harmonies shifted to a dark tone, a synthesiser rumbling underneath. At last – I thought – a darker element, but it didn’t last long before the guitar put the boot back in. The score isn’t bad, it’s just uninspired, and with the visual style it’s understandable why people would pass this by.
So to add variation to the opposing force, you’re now able to upgrade the red weaponry. The Laser can be levelled up to blast through enemy mecha, and the Side and Reflect weapons can be used defensively. Due to the speed of the carnage on-screen, it’s not always apparent which weapon is better suited for the situation, with some sections designed with the expectation that you know which weapon to bring.
With the launch of the DLC an update has been provided, making the game easier for the less experienced. Some of the achievements can’t be earned by altering the difficulty, but now lives and continues can be increased further, allowing everyone a chance to reach the later levels. Using achievements as a way of rewarding hardcore players without appearing to ‘dumb down’ the difficulty is a sound idea. Even with full armour, extra lives and continues, this is not an easy crusade to win.
Upon ultimately making it to the final battle on my last continue it was a frenzied fight for triumph. Victorious, a screen appeared asking me to try again on a harder difficulty. A nasty trick from the 16-bit era of gaming, it was more provoking to be presented with such a screen now than ever before.
Well priced, this DLC is a must for anyone that enjoyed Strania, offering what is essentially an alternative version of the original game. And for those that skipped the game the first time round due to the cover artwork or retro appearance, now is the time to give it a try.