On December 14th, 2007, unknown developer SideQuestStudios and equally unheard of publisher EastAsiaSoft released the horizontal shooter (or Shmup if you will) Soldner X: Himmelssturmer for the PC (heretofore referred to as SXH). It enjoyed relative success on niche game websites such as Play-asia.com. The title possessed instant appeal and became a cult classic, even meriting the release of a very handsome limited edition and soundtrack CD.
Almost a year later, on December 4th, 2008, SXH became available for download on the Playstation network. Now this independent title has a chance at some real success and recognition. Is it well deserved? It is worth the $9.99 price of admission? What follows are my initial impressions of this ambitious little game.
Even in today’s high definition market, where so much emphasis is placed on innovation, and a gradual effort toward ease of access for everyone, traditional shooters still enjoy a great deal of attention. The XB360 has the honor of being a particular favorite for recent arcade ports including the essential Ikaruga, Trigger Hearts Excelica, plans for a fresh installment of Cave’s excellent DodonPachi series, and Konami’s newest Gradius parody, the boob-focused Ontomedius G. The PS3, however, lacks such titles from Japan’s shooter giants. Barring a number of modern dual-analog games such as the excellent Everyday shooter, SXH is the second traditional scrolling “shmup” available on Sony’s system (the first being Capcom’s somewhat lackluster 1942 redo). I am happy to say that this exclusive sets an extremely high bar.
As stated earlier, SXH is a horizontal shooter like Gradius or R-Type. Specifically the game gives off a vibe reminiscent of G-Rev’s Dreamcast-ported hardcore favorite Border Down. SideQuest Studio’s game, however, possesses a unique charm that these other titles do not. Going into SXH for the first time, I immediately felt the love that went into it. This is not a professional title, pieced together on a cookie cutter formula. Soldner X is a loving tribute. The game is a shooter made by shooter fans, for shooter fans. This vibe is evident in each and every facet of the game, from the artwork and music, to the unique play mechanics. Any real “shmup” fan owes it to themselves to give SXH a try. This is the game that any one of us would make if we had the resources.
SXH possesses a number of unique play mechanics that separate it from its Eastern cousins. The first thing that any veteran will notice is the presence of a lifebar. Your ship has actual health that depletes as you take damage. You will not die with one hit. This quirk is probably attributable to SXH not being originally developed for arcades like so many other shooters. Of course, just because you will not die in one hit does not mean you will not die at all. Once your lifebar reaches a low point, your ship will enter “berserker” mode. In this state you will take half damage and deal double. After you recover some health via powerups, or beat an area, berserker mode will lift. This mechanic may sound gimmicky at first, but the red flashing on the screen, paired with the pulse-pounding shift in music, and the announcer’s goofy warnings, create exactly the type of fun tension that a real shooter fan lives for.
I was originally concerned with the ease I had in tearing through the first 2 areas without dying once. Then I discovered that title defaults to the Easy setting. After switching to Normal, I am finding the challenge to be that bittersweet combination between manageable and the frustration of a flashy “bullet hell” shooter such as Capcom’s terrifying (but fun) classics Mars Matrix and Giga Wing.
The fundamental focus of SXH lies in it different weapons and wealth of power-ups. From the start you are given a standard machine gun shot and a “beam” weapon that pierces through enemies at the cost of less actual damage. Other shots include the “Bow” weapon which launches a flurry of wide crescent shaped projectiles, massive damage dealing rockets, and the promise of a flame thrower in later stages. Weapons are also capable of overheating and becoming temporarily useless. A bar underneath the lifebar shows that status of your gun as you use it. This forces the player to delicately choose key moments to lay off the trigger.
(The Beam weapon tears through multiple targets, causing cumulative damage)*
SXH’s weapons, however, are minimally effective without the help of the myriad powerups that SXH has to offer. Collecting these goodies, dubbed “Extras” and stacking them on top of one another is the key to combating the massive hordes of enemies on screen. For instance, a particular fun combination I discovered was using the “Armor Breaker” extra, which does bonus damage against heavily protected foes, with the pickup that increases my rate of fire. Other treats include a multi-directional shot, which I have so far gotten to stack up to 3 of, a shockwave bomb, life replenishing green orbs, and a very useful insurance item that guarantees that power-ups in hand will not be lost if you lose a life.
Power-ups will be naturally dropped by enemies and appear in stages, but to truly get enough to become a real death-dealer (aka. actually be able to survive), you will need to master SHX’s true strategic draw; the chain system. By killing enemies with a single type of shot, a chain progress bar on the bottom right corner will fill. Once the bar reaches green, the player has a window of opportunity to switch his weapon. This will fill one level of the chain. At the start of the game, the chain level will be at 2. I have so far reached as high as 6. This process is repeated until the chain is full (ie. 2/2). Once this occurs, the player again has a chance to switch weapons again. This will cash in the completed chain for a generally useful power-up. Careful attention and strategy truly are the name of the game, as the climbing to the next step in a chain may require you to switch weapons in a situation where the gun you are currently using is what you’d deem best for the situation. The player must also be mindful that his gun does not overheat. This causes an automatic weapon switch to allow for a cool down, and will break your chain whether you like it or not.
SHX also features a rather unique co-op two-player mode. The game’s fundamental mechanics largely remain in tact. Where it distinguishes itself from other shooters is that both players share a single lifebar and all power-ups. Each player has their own chain bar, but must be careful not to cash in for a “extra” at the same time, or one of chains will be squandered. This creates a unique sort of cooperative mentality that actually calls for communication. I really enjoyed not having to delegate with my friend as to whose turn it was to grab the next on-screen goodie. With our life and power shared, we really were more driven to work together and even defend one another.
On the presentation front, SXH gets high marks as well. The look is typical fare for a downloadable title. Dreamcast level polygon counts are bolstered up by high definition lighting, color, and textures. The attention to detail, particularly in the backgrounds, is terribly impressive. The futuristic cityscape in the first area possesses multiple levels of parallax scrolling, and made the Fifth Element fan in me squeel with delight. This is all running as a buttery smooth 60 frames per second.
(Multiple layers and bright colors make the opening city stage a real visual thrill)*
Musically the game is also a bit of a treat. Shooters have always possessed a particular flare for memorable tracks. SXH is fairly traditional in that is lies heavy on the techno side of things. Not being a Japanese game, however, affords it a personality all its own. The beats are fast, and create the right sort of “keep on moving” mentality that they should, but they are also uniquely calm and ambient. Particular kudos are in order for the excellent piano portion of the first level’s tune. Overall I found myself pleasantly reminded of Psyvarier 2’s soundtrack, which is a particular favorite of mine.
In conclusion, Soldner X: Himmelssturmer by SideQuestStudios is an excellent title. A group of extremely talented people put a great deal of love into building a challenging, polished, and ultimately fun package. Unique mechanics mesh up well with a system of cleverly hidden unlockables, and an experience system that earns the player multiple continues in order to build a game that practically demands hours of replay. Any “shmup” fan with a PS3 would be foolish to pass on this $10 delight.
* Note: All screenshots are from the original PC version of the game, as I could not find any for the PSN version, which is slightly different. Most notably, the heads-up-display, and all gauges look and are positioned differently