Aug 9, 2012

Review: Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony

Jamestown, released June 2011 from Final Form Games.

Bullet hell shooters, now here's a genre of games that puzzle me.  In these games you control a small craft typically armed with ridiculous firepower faced against scrolling levels chock full of enemies firing swarms of bullets at you, pretty much covering the entire screen in death.  Its your job to find your way through the levels without taking a single hit, preferably while also killing as many enemies and picking up points as possible in the process for a high score.  Why would one expose oneself to such sadistic punishment ?  The answer is of course, because its incredibly satisfying to beat them.  Really, that moment when you've failed over and over, but finally get through a level after several minutes of one hundred percent complete concentration and adrenaline.. That's why.

These games typically come from Japan and are most popular there, but they also have a lot of fans across the globe.  Not surprising then that most of these games are Japanese and rarely translated and distributed worldwide.

What a blessing it is to have fans of these games form small indie companies such as Final Form Games then, based in the US, Philadephia.  In june 2011 their first game was released, Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony.  A western bullet hell shooter, these are kinda rare, but is it any good ? What's good about it ?  Lets find out!

To start us off, we can listen to the soundtrack of the game while reading through this all!

The entire soundtrack composed by Francisco Cerda can be listened to and purchased if so desired, here.  I think you'll agree, Jamestown features a great soundtrack to go with the carnage.  It also goes well with the presentation and, shockingly, story of the game.  Yep, there's a story to go with Jamestown, a lovingly bizarre one, of course.  In an alternate timeline than ours, there's a terrible war raging between England and Spain, on Mars (of course).  And the spanish have allied with the steam punk martians, those bastards.  So your pilot heads there to whoop spaniard and martian arse, basically.  There's more story than that involved, but lets not forget what we're here to do now, namely shooting things while trying to not get shot back.

All games should have at least one of these things. *nods*

Lets dig into the core then, the gameplay and its mechanics!  You start the game off with one craft to control, with three more available from the shoppe (in game currency earned from playing based on how well you're doing, not RL dosh).  As you'd expect, these four craft operate wildly different from one another.  You starter ship is a good all round ship with decent speed and firepower. Then there's one thats slower but fires more powerful rounds, another that instead of carrying bombs as secondary weapons has a second cannon that can be controlled to fire in any direction, and finally a ship that lacks bombs but instead fires rounds you can manually detonate to deal high area damage.  I'll be honest here, I mostly do my runs with the allround or slow but powerful crafts! They are all fun to play with but the more advanced ships can be very hard to use effectively, especially when your main focus while playing is avoiding bullets.  Also available is a DLC which includes three more ships (and a mysterious fourth one) to crashland with, if the original cast isn't enough.

There's a wide range of ships to choose from then that behave differently, but one mechanic they all share is the Vaunt system.  Vaunt is a limited use powerup players build up by collecting cogs that drop from all enemies when killed.  Once you have enough Vaunt, it can be activated for a very brief shield that will stop all enemy bullets but it will also power up your weapons to roughly twice strength and start depleting your Vaunt meter.  Vaunt can be maintained by picking up cogs while its active and its possible to keep it going a fairly long time when you get better at managing it.  Vaunt can also be cancelled before running out for another short duration shield if needed at the cost of all remaining Vaunt meter.  It is a very nice mechanic that encourages reckless maneuvers to pick up point increasing cog drops, but it replaces the more normal ship power up systems bullet hell shooters typically feature.  I kind of miss having regular power ups to strive for, but Vaunt works well on its own and an important plus is that when you mess up and lose a life, you are not automatically completely screwed since you lost all your powerups.

On the first level things look manageable at least for a few seconds.

The game has five difficulty levels that affect the number of shots enemies fire and their speed.  At its lowest setting, enemy bullets travel rather slow and one can usually casually play through the levels without running out of lives/continues.  Already on the next setting things get much more hectic, and the fourth one which is all I have unlocked so far for most of the levels, things really get crazy!  At its top difficulty, I imagine this game will measure up against some of the hardest bullet hell games out there.  You can play each unlocked level in any pace you like, start from the beginning and follow the story between the levels and stop wherever you like to continue later, or you can play Gauntlet mode, in which you start level one and play the first few levels on easiest levels, or the whole game on the harder ones and your score gets summed up at the end, should you get through it all.  There's also a separate set of usually short challenges you can try, on the theme of surviving for X seconds, passing through all the ring checkpoints on a course or score attacks challenges.  Overall, I'd say theres something for players of all skill levels and experience here, big fan of that.  I do think the game is too short however, it only has five levels.  Its fun to replay them on different difficulty and retrying for higher scores, but it is still a very short game.

Jamestown is clearly meant to be enjoyed in company with some friends, too.  It supports local co-op multiplayer for up to four players that can join easily playing any combination of mice/keyboards/gamepads.  I haven't been able to get someone to play this with me unfortunately so I can't comment on how well the multiplayer works, but I assume as in all multiplayer coop games, the fun goes up exponentially with the number of friends you got playing!  Its understandable that there's no online multiplayer featured, this game published as their first release from a three person indie developer studio and all, but its still sorely missed.  I reckon this game's an instant hit to play when theres friends over, however.

Bullets, bullets everywhere!

Jamestown's visual presentation is built from pixellated hand drawn sprites and artwork that works really well for the setting of the game with its colourful 1619 low tech meets steam punk approach, it has a certain charm to it.  It also captures the retro style gameplay bullet hell shooters are, and despite some art being just a bit too low resolution pixellated (this a term even?) for my personal tastes, everything still looks clean during gameplay when the bullet showers hit and cogs fly everywhere.

In summary, I feel I got my money's worth for the indie pricing.  The game is heckloads of fun to play even if you're forever alone like me, and I have a strong feeling its a great game to play with friends over.  Solid art for the game, good soundtrack, neat steampunkish setting all add up to a quality old school shooter game.  However! The game is very short, expect to run out of things to do after a fairly short time unless you like rerunning 5 levels over to improve scores.  That all said, I still find Jamestown to be a really good title, well worth having for the tenner or so it will set you back on Steam or D2D.

8 / 10

Down the line, the post review look back:

A number of players have reported Jamestown running in slide-show framerates whenever lots of bullets are fired on screen.  Lo and behold, upon firing Jamestown up again, I too notice a severe drop in framerates whenever there's a lot of stuff happening on screen.  A possible solution offered is to change the CPU affinity for the process through CTRL+ALT+DEL->Task Manager, however doing that provided no help for me.  There is no word on a fix for this issue. Make sure you pack a fast CPU if you're buying this game, or there might be trouble.

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