The Red Star
“What are you saying? That I can dodge bullets?!”
“No, but you’ll bloody well wish you could.”
Like Juiced and Made Man (formerly Interview with a Made Man), The Red Star is a game which was saved by a fellow publisher following the demise of developer/publisher giant Acclaim in 2005. Based on the comic series by Christian Gossett, it concerns a scenario where Mother Russia becomes the Soviet Republic of the Red Star (S.R.R.S). A splinter group of Republic soldiers break away and form a resistance against the corrupt dark lords who pull the strings, and this is where the game picks up, on board the rebel ship Skyfurnace Konstantinov, coming under attack from Lord Troika’s forces.
The Red Star is something of a lumbering dinosaur of a game in today’s market. There’s hardly any plot exposition (excepting the short mission briefings), little in the way of equipment and inventory, no character development and it is just about as linear as conceivably possible. That said, despite the apparent lack of depth and repetitive nature of the gameplay, I daresay it can be a lot of fun and is a smart, slick and compulsive shooter in a proper old-school manner.
Always outnumbered, usually outgunned.
In a style not unlike early 90’s side-scrolling shooters such as R-Type or Turrican (with more than a few shades of Double Dragon), in The Red Star things get no more complicated than moving your character through the level, taking down foes as you go. You choose to play as one of three characters - there’s Makita the agile sickle-wielding rebel, Kyuzo the tank-like warrior and Maya, the Sorceress Major who becomes unlocked once you have beaten the game. Along the way you’ll meet several different enemy designs of increasing strength, and often you’ll need to employ different tactics to defeat them, such as attacking from behind, closing quickly for melee attacks, etc. Once or twice a level you’ll usually encounter a boss, who tend to be pretty cleverly-designed and will require all of your DualShock dexterity and precision reactions to defeat. Levels are uncluttered and uncomplicated, and pave the way for hordes of enemy soldiers, mechs and tanks to try to best you. Things can get very, very hectic - particularly against the bigger foes, and at times it almost seems as though you will get swamped in the waves of bullets and enemies all seeking you out. It can get very difficult at times, so casual gamers probably need not apply. Remember to keep on your toes and don’t blink!
While no-one would assert that the combat engine rivals the likes of Devil May Cry or God of War, it is actually deeper than I had expected, and I found myself surprised to still be discovering one or two melee and defensive moves after a few hours’ play. What does help keep things fresh is that you can upgrade weapons, equipment and abilities at the end of each level, where you are awarded points for your performance during that level. It’s the little things like this which flesh out what might have been a dull and monotonous shooter, and when repetition threatens to settle in helps keep interest levels from waning.
In another nod to the early-90’s ethos of game design, The Red Star has no qualms at all about throwing hundreds of enemies at you in one level. Your twitch-reactions will be tested right up to - and perhaps beyond - their very limits, and the game cruelly, oh so cruelly, does not give you any checkpoints mid-level, so if you die at any point you must replay the entire level. I’m sure some will see this as lazy design, but given that most levels don’t take more than about ten minutes to complete (and an auto-save is done for you between each level), it maintains the challenge and doesn’t punish you too harshly for mistakes - it’s certainly no Black, so you don’t need to fear replaying half hour sections, or anything approaching that. Levels are bite size and this lends itself perfectly to the concentrated action of the game, making it ideal for quick ten or fifteen minute portions. In fact, considering this, I wonder why it wasn’t also (or perhaps instead of) released on the PSP, given that the fast, intense style of play would seem perfectly suited to a handheld.
Think Final Fight does Turrican does Devil May Cry and you’re not a million miles away from the gameplay in The Red Star. That said, you wouldn’t be all that close, either…
Clearly this is a game built for the fans, as it features characters and events played out in the comics, but unfortunately it makes very little effort to enlighten those unfamiliar with the franchise. Between reading the booklet and playing through the early levels a few times, I was still none the wiser really about the general story, and this was only something a quick trip to Wikipedia helped resolve. It’s something of a missed opportunity on XS Games’ behalf, and it’s a shame they didn’t play up the interesting premise a little more.
Controls are for the most part responsive and intuitive. You lock on with R1, melee attack with square, block with X, shoot weapons with circle and do a special ‘Protocol Attack’ with triangle. Different defensive and agressive moves are available with combinations of pressing the right analogue stick left or right whilst attacking/defending. Your guns overheat and become momentarily unavailable when used too much, and so you will have to strike a neat balance between shooting enemies and hand-to-hand fighting, probably with a bit of defense or evasion thrown in too. My only real minor gripe with the controls is that the lock-on isn’t as responsive as I’d like. Sometimes you’ll have to try a couple of times before you target an enemy, wearas sometimes it will catch onto foes off screen, which can frustrate a little.
To be honest, I don’t feel it’s particularly fair to judge The Red Star’s graphical and aural achievements on the same level as I would with, say, a Sony or Capcom game. Clearly it has been developed on a tiny budget compared to titles by the likes of those mentioned, and whilst it’s unimpressive in both respects, I didn’t find it offensive or sub-par either. The graphics and sound are fair - they do the job well enough, and that’s as much as I feel we should ask from a lower-calibre title like this. Technically things are fine. There are no noticeable frame rate dips, even when things get hectic, and loading is fairly brief.
You stop moving = you die.
Unfortunately I am unable to conclusively comment on what may prove to be one of the game’s best aspects - the two player co-op mode. A generally excellent feature which has been included in far too few PS2 games, I have no doubt this will increase the game’s lifespan exponentially if you play with a similar-skilled friend, but unfortunately I have not been in the position over the last few days to coax a friend over to play a game they’ve never heard of. At the very least, I did [rather lamely] try it on two-player myself, and during most of the first level did not experience any slowdown or any kind of crippling detriments.
What you get with The Red Star is an intense, satisfying, difficult but fun shooting gallery. Whilst it ultimately lacks depth and variety and will never threaten to trouble the bigger players in the genre, it is a lot of fun and can be an [oftentimes insane] test of your gaming abilities. If you crave shooters that hark back to the Golden Age of the likes of Nemesis [aka Gradius] or R-Type, The Red Star is a good place to start.
Six out of ten