Resogun

Review in Brief
Game: A retro-style shmup marrying 2D gameplay with 3D graphics along with a couple new gimmicks.
Good: Simple, intuitive, accessible controls; beautiful graphics; a few interesting gimmicks.
Bad: Too little content; too much repetition without any customization or strategy; poor information visualization; flawed co-op mode; no clear objective.
Verdict: Nowadays, an average shmup is a below-average game.
Rating: 5/10 – “Playable – nothing special about it.”
Recommendation: Not for the original price, unless you’re a diehard shmup fan.

“An average shmup, but a below-average game.”

As I mentioned in my previous review for Contrast, I generally break low-budget downloadable games (Nintendo’s eStore, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, and Sony’s PlayStation Network) into three broad categories that, in my experience, encompass most such releases. Some are concept games, built on one interesting gameplay mechanic to see what it can do, like Fez. Others are simple, artistic games that focus on tone or story over gameplay, like Limbo and Braid. The third category is for games that attempt to revive old genres that can no longer bolster full-price releases. Two such genres are traditional 2D platformers and shoot-’em-up games, and each genre has seen a bit of a resurgence through these new delivery avenues through games like Mega Man 9 and Geometry Wars.

Resogun belongs in this third category. The game is a fairly prototypical shmup with a couple little twists that, while interesting, do not really fundamentally change the gameplay or strategy of the game. You generally get what you’re expecting in Resogun, and that means that you probably already know whether you’d like it or not. If you have a soft spot for retro-style games in general or shmups in particular, you’ll likely enjoy Resogun. If you don’t, you should definitely pass on it. If you’re like me, though, you’re somewhere in the middle: you might enjoy that style of game, but you don’t automatically love every particular instance of the style. If that’s you, then I’d still recommend passing on Resogun. It doesn’t have much content, the gameplay is overly simplistic even for an already-simple genre, and while the game’s gimmicks are interesting, they aren’t sufficient to set the game apart from the crowded downloadable space. It’s certainly not worth $15.

Unless, of course, you were fortunate enough to download the game for free during December like I was. But if you got it for free, why take my word for it?

The Game
Resogun is a somewhat retro-style 2D shmup (shoot-’em-up) – the graphics are in 3D, but the gameplay is only in 2D. On each level, you pilot a ship, moving it in four dimensions and shooting either left or right. Levels themselves wrap around themselves, so each level is like a slice of a big cylinder around which you move. Enemies spawn in different locations, and your goal is to shoot them down. Throughout the game, you’ll also be asked to rescue humans that are freed as you defeat certain enemies, delivering them to safe zones in exchange for prizes. Three ships are available to choose from, each with subtly different tendencies and different weapon styles. Each of the levels if broken up into three phases concluding in a boss fight. If you beat the level without losing all your lives, you move on to the next one.

Total, there are five levels and four difficulty levels. Each level is locked until you beat the previous level on that difficulty level. Higher difficulty levels add additional weapons to the enemies. The game also supplies online co-op modes, wherein you can team up with a friend or random ally over the internet, and online leaderboards to compare your high scores to others’ from around the world.

The Good
As mentioned above, based solely on an objective description of Resogun – a retro-style shmup with a couple interesting gimmicks – you can probably already tell if you’d be interested. The game excels relative to other shmups in a couple specific areas, though, which may help convince you if you’re on the fence.

Simple, Accessible Controls
In game design, the term ‘degrees of freedom’ can be used to describe the number of different ways in which the player can control the action at any given time. For example, in the original Super Mario Bros., the player originally has three degrees of freedom: left or right movement, movement speed, and jumping. We can further elaborate these degrees of freedom into categories: Boolean options (jump or not jump), discrete options (left or right), and continuous options (running speed). Most modern games have a couple dozen degrees of freedom when all the different combinations are considered, and the degrees of freedom are highly prone to contextual changes. These elaborate control mechanisms facilitate deep strategy, dynamic gameplay, and complex strategies, but they can present a significant learning curve.

Resogun has exactly six degrees of freedom: movement up or down, movement left or right, firing left or right, firing a bomb, firing a charged attack, or firing a boost. Three are continuous (speed as well as direction) and three are Boolean. Overall, that’s one of the simplest control schemes I’ve seen for a continuous game; discrete games, like RPGs, may have fewer, but that is because the gameplay is not dictated strictly by the literal controls. What that means is that the game is extremely easy to pick up and start playing immediately, and I would not hesitate to recommend trying it even to novice gamers. There’s very little learning curve at all in the controls, and if the game did a better job of explaining its gameplay mechanics, there would be essentially no learning curve at all altogether.

Beautiful
In my opinion, the major enhancement in shmups since their downloadable resurgence has been in their visual attractiveness. The gameplay hasn’t changed fundamentally, but they’ve gotten iteratively more and more visually appealing. Resogun continues that trajectory, and for a downloadable game, does a great job of showing what the PlayStation 4 can do in a purely fictitious setting. It doesn’t tell us anything about the realism the console can deliver, but it certainly paints an attractive picture.

Running at full HD and 60 frames per second pretty reliably, Resogun is smooth, flowing, and natural throughout. Generally I judge graphics not on their own merits, but rather on their ability to facilitate a good gameplay experience, but in this game they are appealing enough on their own to comment on their success in both areas. The graphic detail and complexity of the game surpasses that of Geometry Wars and other recent successful shmup revivals, but it also consistently allows the player to be able to easily discern what is going on. It’s easy to track incoming bullets and move around them, to predict enemy ship movement, and to understand where your shots are going to land. Overall, the game is absolutely gorgeous.

A Few Interesting Gimmicks
What set Resogun apart – or, at least, tries to – are three gimmicks that subtly change the typical format of the shmup genre. First, there is the game’s level structure, easily its most significant alteration. While most shmups are sidescrollers, with the player traveling from the beginning to the end of the level and enemies popping up at scripted locations, Resogun connects the end of the level to the beginning to form a ring. So, rather than progressing linearly from left to right until you reach the end of the level, you instead move back and forth around the level until you’ve defeated all the enemies. The twist has some interesting applications. Sometimes, you’ll speed through a couple rows of enemies, luring them into following you and firing backward at them. Other times, there are enemies that are weaker from one side, suggesting that you circle around the other way to catch their weak points. Overall, however, this gimmick only makes a relatively small impact on the actual gameplay: it’s still a somewhat straightforward shmup with just a little more flexibility in the area.

The second gimmick is (supposedly) the game’s primary objective. Rather than just surviving the levels, your goal is to rescue the remaining humans: the instructions are blared to you at the start of each level. In each level, several humans are inside boxes. To free them, you must destroy specific enemies. Once freed, you must pick them up before they get abducted or killed by enemies, and then take them to a ship to carry them to safety. Successfully doing so grants you a reward, such as extra points, extra lives, or extra bombs. The gimmick gives the player something to do besides just trying to survive the levels and destroy all the enemies, although the major problem here is that it isn’t actually required. While the game says that saving the remaining humans is the main goal, you can succeed just fine without ever bothering to do so: all it does is lower your score, not prevent your progression.

The third gimmick is the online co-op mode. Basically, you can team up with another player to tackle a level. Gameplay remains identical in online co-op and there is no communication between the players. Ultimately, I find the online co-op disappointing for these reasons: there are no additional strategies or mechanics built directly into co-op, and the lack of a built-in means of communication between the players limits the opportunity to devise new strategies of your own. Plus, the levels are not altered for co-op play, meaning that lower difficulties become comically easy when an ally is present, and higher difficulties feel impossible in single-player mode because they are constructed with co-op in mind. But I digress – this is supposed to be the ‘positive’ section, and the fact that Resogun has online co-op at all is something of a positive.

The Bad
There are three kinds of problems with Resogun. First, it simply isn’t a very large game, and doesn’t supply enough content to keep you busy for more than a couple hours. Second, it has some inherent design flaws that make it a somewhat mediocre entry into the genre in general. Third, however, and an issue that the game likely could not have overcome without changing its price, the industry (in my humble opinion) is simply too competitive right now to support a $15 shmup. When $15 also buys games like Contrast, Brothers, and Journey, it’s hard to justify the price unless you’re a massive fan of the genre.

Small
The biggest flaw, in my opinion, with Resogun is that it’s unforgivably small. One of the strengths of shmup games is that it’s not difficult to generate lots of new content: a new level is simply a listing of new enemies to spawn at new locations and in new patterns, and if your enemies are well-designed and interesting, they ought to lend themselves to lots of challenging and different combinations. In the case of Resogun, the entire game is comprised of five levels and four difficulty levels. The additional difficulty levels make subtle changes to the enemies on each of the five levels, including adding extra weapons and stronger armor, but the changes aren’t really sufficient to consider it a twenty-level game. Each level is comprised of three “phases”, but the individual phases are merely artificial boundaries around different portions of the level; they don’t actually change the approach at all. At the end of each level is a boss battle, meaning that the game has only five bosses. The bosses do get a little harder on higher difficulty levels with additional weapons or strategies, but again, not different enough to really distinguish them as different bosses altogether.

In addition to the five levels, there are three ships to choose from, each auspiciously with different dynamics. Unfortunately, the summarization screen describes only three metrics for measuring the ships’ abilities, and none touch on the most important one – the style of weapons upgrades. One ship, for example, upgrades to having lots of seeking weapons, while another upgrades to short-range high-power weapons. The summary doesn’t describe these things, though, and perhaps that’s because that although they make a significant difference to how the game looks, they don’t really change the strategy. You’re still just firing at the nearest enemies, sometimes fleeing while firing backwards and sometimes firing at enemies from behind. Which weapons you have might impact how successful you are, but they don’t really change the inherent strategy.

Overall, the biggest thing that Resogun needed was more content. Simply more levels, however, wouldn’t have sufficed because even the few levels it has are very…

Repetitive
The other major problem with Resogun is that it’s very repetitive. To a certain extent, this is an element of the genre, and it’s silly to criticize a potato for being a root, but I’ve played shmups that manage to break their own repetition. They do it through interesting and customizable combinations of weapons, enemy sets that demand different strategies, and bosses that actually have real progression and phases. Resogun lacks all of these things. Almost all of gameplay is simply choosing which direction to fly and which direction to shoot, but these decisions are not made strategically so much as they are just made based on which direction had more enemies. There are rare moments where strategy comes into play, such as knowing to use a bomb when an enormous quantity of enemies appears all at once, but the vast majority of the gameplay is repetitive and without any real strategy.

The seemingly small size of the game is exacerbated by this repetition. To attempt to put this succinctly, there are not really any identifiable different parts of the levels. Very rarely did I, upon replaying a level, hit a set of enemies or a strategy that I recalled specifically from earlier play-throughs. It all kind of runs together because the play style remains consistent throughout. I played all five levels at least once on every difficulty level, and multiple times on the lower difficulty levels to test out the different ships, and I presently can only recall a couple significant events in the levels. The bosses can be interesting, but again, with only five of them, they make up too small a portion of the game to really think of them as core changes to the gameplay mechanics.

Other shmups change up the inherent repetition of the genre in a few different ways. They might throw enemies in unique combinations that demand new strategic approaches, but Resogun never does that. They might find ways that the simple controls can be used in interesting combinations, but Resogun never does that either. Perhaps most significantly, they might provide opportunities for customization or improvement to your ship to accentuate certain strategies, but Resogun never even comes close to that. Your weapons are upgradeable, but only linearly without any customization. Worse, the upgrades seem somewhat scripted: there are later boss battles that seem to expect your ship to be upgraded, suggesting that upgrades are practically automatically given as you progress, limiting even the customization of successfully obtaining them. This is exacerbated by the fact that you get to keep your weapons if you die (whether losing one life or all your lives), and if you choose to jump straight into the fourth level, it starts you off with all the upgrades you would have gotten in the first three levels. Overall, it strips out any semblance of customization or variation from a genre that sorely needed it.

Poor Information Visualization
While the above two criticisms are missed opportunities to make the game better, the following three are things that the game did outright poorly. The first, and in my opinion by far the most egregious, is the game’s terrible information visualization and accessibility. To put it simply, the game does a terrible job of keeping the player informed of what they need to know to play the game well.

This starts with rescuing humans in the game. As mentioned, you start each level with several humans in boxes around the level, and the game says that your primary goal is to rescue them. They are also referred to as icons along the top of the screen. During the game, humans will be freed from their boxes and start to run around the bottom of the field. Your goal is to grab them and take them to a safe spot before they are destroyed by the enemy. However, the game doesn’t give you the information you need to do this well. First, it does not make it clear when a human may be freed; the instruction booklet says it’s when you destroy a “green” enemy, but I’ll be damned if I ever saw an enemy with a uniquely-identifying color. Even if it’s there, it’s not easy to see during the fast-paced game. Then, the only indication that a human has been freed is a thin line on the screen and a change to the icon on top; so, if you miss the line and don’t glance at the icon often, you’ll likely never know. Why the game doesn’t alert you is beyond me.

Beyond just not adequately alerting you when humans are freed, though, the game doesn’t do a great job of alerting you as to anything regarding humans. It doesn’t let you know how close they are to being freed or where the freed human is. It lets you know when a human is being abducted and thus is about to be lost, but there are many times when a human is lost without ever receiving that warning, and the game gives no indication of why that human was lost and what you could have done to stop it. As far as I can tell, humans could actually be lost without ever being freed in the first place, but the game doesn’t give any indication as to why or when that happens, either.

Beyond that entire system being generally broken, the game doesn’t give you information about other areas as well. The most common alert that the game gives is “Keeper detected”, but nowhere in the game or the instruction booklet does it actually tell you what a keeper is, what function it serves, and why you should care. You can pick up shields in the game, but the game never explains what function the shield serves. Do they prevent all damage or reduce damage? Do they expire after a certain time period, after a certain number of hits, or both? There is no meter or visualization showing remaining shield strength, so it’s hard to know what they actually do. Similarly, one of the functions for your ship is a “boost”, a significant speed increase that runs out over time. However, the meter for the boost is invisible unless it’s charging, so until you’ve used it a few times you aren’t fully aware of how much boost you have or how long it takes to recharge it. To succeed at the game, it would be helpful to have answers to all of these questions, and yet the game does not give any of this information.

Uninspiring and Broken Co-op Mode
As mentioned above, one of Resogun‘s gimmicks is an online co-op mode. The inclusion is interesting, but it has two significant flaws that prevent it from really contributing to the game’s bottom line. First, as described above, the co-op mode is simply just two players playing the same level simultaneously. There is no communication between the players, the level difficulty does not rise to reflect the presence of two players, and there are few real strategies that the players can adopt to succeed. The value and intrigue of co-op modes are the ability to work with a real human, formulate strategies, and tackle a challenge together. The co-op in Resogun doesn’t actually instantiate any of the reasons co-op is interesting in the first place.

The bigger flaw in the co-op, however, is how Resogun handles lag. In most games, if a player lags, it looks like their behavior is a little unpredictable and strange. You’ll see them teleport around, you’ll see a long series of actions executed simultaneously, or you’ll see them freeze in place for seconds at a time. It’s not ideal, but lag never is: the important thing is that one player’s lag does not overly interfere with other players’ experience. The opposite is true in Resogun. If one player is lagging, the entire game as a whole lags. That means that playing with even a tiny bit of lag creates an incredibly frustrating pace. Even if the game is only freezing for a tenth of a second every second, that is more than enough to drastically disrupt the flow and feel of the game. If Resogun used the same approach to lag that most games use, odds are the players would never even notice such slight lag, but instead, even the slightest little difficulty in connection is exacerbated dramatically.

What’s the Goal?
The strange flaw in Resogun is that, ultimately, I have no idea what the goal of the game is, either at a high level for the game as a whole or at a low level on individual stages. At the low level, the game starts every stage by saying that your goal is to save the remaining humans. However, you can succeed at every level while saving absolutely no humans. You earn points and power-ups by saving them, but you don’t have to do it at all. If that’s the case, how can the game say that saving the humans is the goal? Instead, the goal seems to be surviving to the end of the level, which means that one of the game’s three gimmicks really isn’t core to the game at all. It also sets the player up to fail; early on, I sold out to save every human and died several times in the process. As I got to know the game better, I started to learn I’d never lose by failing to save humans, but I could lose by dying while trying to save humans, so there was no real point in going out of my way to do so if there was any threat at all. It’s somewhat similar to the tendency in the Call of Duty franchise to reward the player for simply running to the next waypoint rather than shooting at any enemies; the game’s stated goal does not align with the game’s practical goal.

At a higher level, I’m also not sure what the overall objective of the game as a whole is. Is it to beat the game? The game’s too short to really make that a viable objective, and the fact that you can jump straight into any level on any difficulty after beating it once suggests that the game isn’t intended to be played linearly a la Star Fox 64. Is the goal to get a high score? It bills itself as an arcade game, after all, so it’s safe to say that that’s probably the objective: high scores are listed for each difficulty on the level select screen. But is getting the high score really a sufficient motivator for a game as a whole? In my opinion, no. It’s fine for an arcade where you’re competing against a small, captive audience of other patrons and achieving the high score is actually a reasonable prospect, but when you’re put up against the entire world, a wildly small fraction of people will ever stand any chance of making those leaderboards. So, ultimately, you’re trying to best your own high score. That goal is only sufficient if the game is inherently fun to play on its own in the absence of a goal, and in the case of Resogun, it’s not.

The Verdict
Ultimately, we can think of Resogun in two different ways. First, we can think of it in terms of it in comparison to other shmups, and second, we can think of it as an instance of a shmup in the broader context of modern gaming libraries. Under the first consideration, Resogun is a decent game. It has a couple gimmicks to set it apart from every other shmup in the world, and it’s a downright beautiful game on its own. There are some significant flaws as well. Overall, it’s a rather average shmup when you consider the strengths and flaws together.

But ultimately, even if those flaws had not been present and those strengths had been better-leveraged, I remain unconvinced that a game in the shmup genre can still command a $15 price tag. That’s not meant as a negative; it’s similar to saying I am unconvinced that a bag of potato chips can be worth $15. I love chips, but value in the food industry is such that chips just aren’t going to compete with a hamburger at the same price, and similarly a simplistic, retro-style shmup isn’t going to compete with interesting concept games or compelling artistic games at the same price. So, while the game isn’t necessarily bad, it isn’t worth $15. To put this in a different perspective, in terms of the gameplay alone, the game is no deeper or more compelling than what you get out of many of the better-selling iPhone and Android games out there, and those rarely top $3. The graphics of Resogun are worth a couple more dollars, but it doesn’t come close to justifying the $15 price tag.

My Recommendation
Not worth the original price, but worth the download when available for PS+ subscribers or if the price drops significantly.

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