Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nebulon Review


So it's not exactly like XBLIG was thirsty for another top-down space-themed shooter, but that doesn't mean that one can't be judged on it's own merits and still be loads of fun. I am not entirely sure why it is that indie developers crank these things out like a sausage maker cranks out....sausages, but it's probably because people like them! (ppppshhhht - sound of a beer opening)

The first thing I am going to do is credit the developer, Dark Omen Games. Based on feedback, a new control scheme is being implemented (optional) and re-released. You see, people these days (darn kids!) seem to expect a dual stick control scheme (move ship with one joystick, fire weapon in any direction with other joystick) and Nebulon departed from that recent norm. I'm impressed by the dedication and receptiveness to make a revision - my only concern being how it might impact strategy and gameplay.

See, upon first release, Nebulon intended to use a reticle aiming system. The left joystick controlled movement, but the right joystick was used to aim a reticle, not automatically fire - as a result, moving while firing was much more challenging. Players were forced to move then fire, escaping foes and then turning to take them down from a safer spot. To be honest, it grew on me because it forced a different approach to combat. Will allowing for dual stick controls make it easier? Too easy? We'll see.

On to the fun stuff (wait, that wasn't fun?). Nebulon looks pimp. The actual ship and enemy design are nothing special, and I get slightly urked that so many indie games fall back on simple shapes for characters. However, what makes it look good are the flashy effects and the gooey background. Fun explosions and a unique 'fluidity' to the way characters ripple through background create a gorgeous first impression.

Also noteworthy, the gun is really satisfying. It's not "pew pew pew" and it doesn't have to be a perfect shot - bullets feel heavy and dangerous. Sometimes simple design decisions like this go unnoticed - but add in the aforementioned satisfying explosions and deep SFX, and you've got a cornerstone of a good shooter. The gun just feels good.

"But what about the powerups?!" cries the little gamer in the back row. You'll like them, little fella. There's a simplistic sort of experience system where you collect the remains of enemies and when you have enough you can upgrade your gun. Like many space shooters, staying alive is key to building up your gun's awesomeness, which in turn is really your only chance of staying alive - vicious cycle, but often an expectation of the genre. And you've got a finite number of "bombs" too for those 'desperation' moments.

My issues are primarily with the enemy design. Single blobs combine with other single blobs to form double and triple blobs. I like the combo mechanic, but again I find the simple shapes mundane. Also, these bastards come flying at you at high speeds, and if there are several cruising your way just due to chance, you're really at luck's mercy. Trying to escape to open space often has you running directly at another foe, and the combined speed makes dodging nearly impossible. This lead to some frustrating deaths. Additionally, I found it a bit counter intuitive to wait for blobs to combine, but soon found that single blobs never (rarely?) drop "experience." So there was actually a disadvantage to being quick on the trigger and picking off the little guys before they combine. Not a game-breaker, but a head-scratcher.

Besides that, my only nagging complaint is that if you enter a crowded genre in the indie community, extra effort should be placed on offering something fresh. I didn't really get anything beyond a solid shmup experience - no major risk/reward design decisions beyond the control scheme, and that doesn't have much payoff. Nothing that will lead to more than a couple playthroughs for me personally. It's missing some other common features too, like big bosses and multiplayer - so it might not stack up for players who lean towards those features.

But all and all, fans of the genre should certainly have a look. At 200MP, it's priced well, looks/sounds nice, and is easy to pick up and have fun (aka blowing things up).

1 comment: