Allow me to preface this review with a few things. Firstly I'm not doing filler in this review to avoid talking about the game this first paragraph has a legitimate reason to be here and allow you the reader to be informed about this.
Secondly allow me to apologise to the games developer firstly for taking so damn long to get this request fulfilled and get this review out, the reason for this delay might become more apparent in this review.
Also I wish to apologise for my slight incompetence of thinking I'd broken the game when it was simple a slightly strange mechanic I'd run into.
Finally allow me to say I hate tower defence games, its rare I find a tower defence game I can and will play the last one being Plants vs Zombies, I have tried as such to be as unbiased either way as I can in writing this review. Also I will be rambling a bit so the more extreme of these will be marked by the text going all Blue so you can avoid it.
Name: STRACO Episode 1
So I got a request in my inbox to review this game. Initially I began as I do with most reviews and looked at it on the marketplace. I saw it and didn't expect much honestly, I thought I'd probably slog through it and be able to throw out a review. Well as it turns out it took me two maybe two and a half hours to finish this game, and by finish I mean the main campaign there is also a sort of horde wave based shooter mode with 5 rounds and an infinite mode to extend your play.
The reason I thought it was going to be an easy review and wouldn't be that great game wise was simply the name. What is it with developers putting part or episode in the title for games now ? Seriously I don't think of Half Life episode 1 and 2 when I see that, I think of Half Life Episode 3, you know the frustration and long wait. In indie games this frustration is worse because there's no certainty the story will get concluded at all, I have an indie game from early on in XBLIG's life cycle on my hard drive, its marked episode one, there has been no sequel to it. This is a friendly request to developers please start doing something more original name wise if you want to release multi-part games. If you really want go the Zone of Enders route and call the first game "the First Runner" or "Pilot 1" something a bit more original than episode or part, heck you could even call it "the First Wave".
Honestly looking at STRACO Episode 1 on the marketplace it really doesn't do the game justice, no user reviews / rating on it. An ok if strangely retro bit of cover art and some screenshots in game that still don't do it much justice. The one bit of the market listing that seems to be reflect the game is the actual description.
When I went into the game however I was immediately wowed ........by the menu, that's right the menu screen impressed me. Its actually very well designed, functional and enjoyable to navigate yet it also ends up being different to a standard menu, which I very much appreciate. It's actually very in keeping with the games sci-fi style.
yes that really is what the menu looks like and it really is a radial one.
The menu is even nice to navigate and looks better in motion, so here it is actually in motion for you.
That's one really well designed menu. Oh but it doesn't stop there. this is an indie game and possible the first console game for a long while to have graphics options. No I'm not joking, this is a console game with options to customise the graphics to an extent to fit your liking more.
Honestly I can already feel this game gearing up to go onto Greenlight as some of the options PC players like are already there really and it would need a little work but not much to create a PC ready options selection.
So by this point you're probably shouting at this review going "But what's the game about ? What do you do in it ?" Well to take from the marketplace description "STRACO is a hybrid twin stick shooter and tower defence game." Yes I did just say the word that strikes horror into most gamers hearts around XBLIG titles, I said hybrid, unlike most other hybrids however this game seemingly sacrifices nothing from either genre. The game really is like an updated version of the SNES game Desert Strike but made better, then with a huge deep tower defence game added on. Oh and by deep I'm some-one who enjoys playing MOBA games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, so when I say even I got a little lost in its depths you know its deep.
So before I begin praising it more I want to get the negatives out the way, there are some, well two, and a bit.
Firstly the music, while people unfamiliar with Kevin MacLeod will find the music very enjoyable me personally as someone who's been through and used that site a lot, it was a little annoying to hear the music used here. The problem is not the music, its good enough, it does its job, maybe not superbly but it fits, the problem is the rest of the game seems so polished that having royalty free music in it just seemed to stick out. My advise the the developer is once you've got all the episodes out and if you've made some money from the XBLIG releases get a musician or some-one to do a bit of original music if you plan a PC release of this.
The second one and this is going to end up going blue text quickly is that the game limits you and tries to stop you abusing mechanics to gain too much cash and to power level as such. There are a few spots in the game where the determined person can grind it out but it is very much grinding. Look developers I get it, you know players will cheat and you want them to experience the game the way you planned, the problem is its our play experience, we're mostly mature enough to be able to take the decision to break the game and power through it ourselves and accept the consequences. The reason this came up was initially I thought I'd broken the game as I re-entered a previous level only to have a negative cash figure, this was deliberate to try and prevent people carrying on upgrading. The slight problem I have with this is you essentially aren't replaying the level you're starting the level with the turrets upgraded to the end of level point. I can see the reason for this in one respect as it's to maintain the high score board and the integrity of that, its just a shame that the scores couldn't be separated somehow with an overall campaign run not taking into account replayed level scores. I'm no programmer though so if this is even possible I don't know, maybe a score attack mode or something would work for replaying levels or something without upgrades carrying over such as in campaign.
Yes this would be more work as the developer would need to have a certain standard level of upgrades set for each score attack level by default but it would help out I feel.
One final little annoyance which is more me than anything is I ended up spending upgrades in the campaign on vehicles I only had for one level. the problem was I didn't know they were just for one level so when I lost the vehicles I really did feel like I'd wasted the upgrades. I'm sure this problem is one which will be worked out down the line in subsequent episodes though as I'm guessing from the amount of upgrades I managed that progress might carry over (Which if the developer can do I applaud already as more games should allow this)
Wow that negatives section ran on longer than I'd planned. I was getting them out of the way because I normally tend to give bad games the positives first and as this is a good game, I felt it worth getting the negative aspects out of the way to begin with. STRACO Episode 1 is a very well made game, a campaign that took me 2-2.5 hours to finish is nothing to the passed over lightly, especially as this is episode one. Which is part of the reason for my earlier rant about episodes as this game clocked in as one of the longer games I've played for 80 Microsoft points ($1). The only ones that have lasted longer and not due to re playability have been Minecraft clones and they turned into a grind. STRACO however didn't seem to turn into a grind and kept itself mostly fresh by varying up missions. Ok I will say some of the tower defence sections and the amount of enemy waves stayed a little longer than I enjoyed and did start to bore me however again I don't like tower defence games normally so people who do may love this. When you're not doing the tower defence sections you're often doing a variety of other objectives such ash attacking enemy positions or chasing down specific enemies, or even running from the enemy.
Graphically the game is a 2D top down shooter, the environments do seem quite well designed and do look nice as do the explosions which can be customised. The best aspect of the games art it must be said is in the animations with each unit type being animated differently and very smoothly. Infantry seem to walk along and sway slightly; giant mechs take big lumbering steps and armoured motor cycles nip about the place.
What compliments and completes the games art is the controls and handling of the units. The controls in the game are very much standard twin stick shooter and are very responsive with it.The true genius is that every vehicle feels and handles differently, different vehicles handle better or worse depending on the terrain they're on (except the helicopters because they fly obviously). you might find yourself dashing round on a combat motorcycle only to come off the road and be reduced to a crawl. Each vehicle has its own characteristics, some have better armour and can have shields while others have better turning circles and faster movement speed. Due to this handling it reinforces the fact you are in a different vehicle.
Story wise the campaign is pretty good, well I say pretty good it feels almost like playing an episode of GI Joe. There's a clear evil villain, there's you the clear kind of good guys. The story is interesting enough and while the humour is groan worthy mostly, you feel you're groaning along with everyone rather than groaning at the game. Little things just really push it such as jokes about zombies or interactions with other characters. The story does end on a sort of cliff hanger but after about 2 and a half hours of gameplay the well designed finale mission really did feel like a good end out to episode 1 so I'm not going to bash the game for ending how it did.
Oh and because being an idiot I let my Xbox Live expire I'm posting my campaign score here as I would have beaten the entire top score list online if I had.
Yes I really did get that score and no I didn't grind out any of the places I could have done
I said the game was deep and honestly it really is, you can use the observation / information mode mode to gain details on the enemies attacking, their armour values, weapons strength etc. Its then up to you having been got this information to sort out the defences needed. Selecting the right weapon for the enemy type is part of it but so is upgrading the right stats with some enemies hammering tower health and others being stopped by armour, this also applies to the tower weapon too. With 5 weapon types and two "support" functions and only one being able to be applied per tower it really does add strategy to the game as to if you can afford to put a harvester out to collect more money or if you need all the firepower with you. I have no doubt that true fans of the tower defence genre would be able to find hours of enjoyment here alone figuring out the best compositions and approaches. Then for those like me its perfectly possible to finish Normal mode without needing to go in too deep and the twin stick shooting section works very well.
Verdict: I recommend people get this game. It's very good value for money as over 2 hours of campaign for 80 microsoft points then with the added on infinite tower defence and 5 wave horde mode thing. It's a step above most of the twin stick shooters you'll find on XBLIG as you have the wave based survival with upgrading your character, you Also have the infinite tower defence mode too along with the campaign that's a very good offering. Go buy it now.
I really do hope the developer carries on this series and makes it so saves do carry over through the episodes (as tough as that may be it will really be good to see done) I really can see this game being completed story wise and then a few improvements made such as the music and a few more graphics options then the game will be a great fit on PC via something like Greenlight. Heck considering the length of episode 1 depending on how many more episodes make up the full saga as such I can see it doing well on steam. Even with just one more episode that's a near 5 hour campaign, more episodes say 3 or 4 total could bring it to a rather amazing length normally only seen with indie game RPGs. Priced accordingly and possibly another rethink of the games cover art (Think kind of cheesy GI Joe meets Transformers style) and this game will be easily at home. Also hopefully it won't need a huge amount of graphical power to run so it might well be a hit more with those with portable lower powered laptops or even a few tablet hybrid things that can run steam (Just not actual tablets as this game needs the ability to use a controller really).
despite its faults its definitely getting a recommendation as this is $1 for over 2 hours of campaign and more beyond that. This is better value than going to seen a action film as you're paying about 1/10th the cost for the same length. This also isn't like a $1 mobile game with lots of extra content you have to pay for this is a game in its own right without freemium costs added on.