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July 10, 2014

Resogun: A Reprieve and Lament

I’d like to think that I’ve got a pretty good handle on the gaming canon, but there many, many, many titles that are lost on me.  And it’s not just titles, either; there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that I’ve got no experience in entire genres.  Case in point: shmups.  I think that the first one I ever really played was Ikaruga…the one on the Xbox 360.  I suppose in a sense you could say that Sin and Punishment: Star Successor counts, but that just came out a couple of years ago.  It really says a lot about me when the first time I see notable shmups like Gradius is through an episode of Game Grumps.

So on the subject of Resogun, I can’t say that I had any extreme interest in it.  I don’t have any attachment to shmups, so it’s only natural that I don’t go out of my way to play one for myself.  Little wonder, then, that a copy of it has been sitting inside my PS4, largely untouched by me and my brother.  But a couple of weeks back, I gave it a shot. 

What did I think of it?  Well…

Okay, maybe not in those exact terms.  But yeah, it’s good.  But in order to talk about it, you have to understand where I’m coming from on this.  Scary as it may be, you need to see what’s going on in my head.  So let’s go.  And be sure to watch your step.

Let’s start with the basic setup.  You are -- as these things tend to go, I think -- an ace pilot making your way through futuristic cities.  (The aesthetic reminds me a lot of Transistor, which I approve of, though I’m iffy about being able to make the comparison.)  Geometric enemies will charge and fire at you from both sides, forcing you to survive as best you can.  The twists on the shmup formula, as I understand it, come in three flavors. 

One:  instead of moving on a scrolling path from left to right/bottom to top, you move through a 2D plane that wraps around to make a cylindrical “arena” of sorts.  Two: because of that arena, it’s not necessarily about making it through the level; it’s about surviving waves -- or “Phases”, as the game calls them -- so you can earn the right to make the stage’s boss appear.  Three: there’s a massive wrinkle in the combat with the mission objective given each time you start a stage.


As someone who read all of NO articles on the game prior to release, that came as a surprise to me.  I mean, let’s be real: shmups are hard enough just by way of them asking you to survive hordes of space invaders, right?  Why complicate the formula?  But as the game started in earnest, I had no time to ponder such questions.  I just had to “save the last humans”, so I went all in to try and do that amidst the alien hordes.

You’ve got a decent suite of tools at your disposal.  You use the right stick to shoot left or right (not up or down, or in any other direction), so you can cover both sides of your ship.  You’ll pretty much need to by the end of the first minute; setting aside the fact that things can get pretty hairy, your ship can only take one hit before it explodes in a burst of pixilated flame.  Luckily, you’ve got tools to counteract that.  Use L1 and you can boost across the stage -- but it also acts as your dodge button, even if it’s got a notable recharge time.  

Pull R2, and you can launch a screen-clearing bomb…well, it’s more of a two-pronged shockwave, but it has the same effect.  The R1 button, meanwhile, is your Overdrive attack; if you’ve got the meter charged, you can slow time to a crawl and unleash a torrent of energy that temporarily replaces your standard shot.  In a nutshell, you have pretty much everything you need to clear a phase; in that sense, Resogun kind of reminds me of a character action game like Metal Gear Rising or The Wonderful 101; enemies campaign to make sure you have a bad time, but judicious use of your skill set will see you through any offense.  That’s something to appreciate.

And yet…at first, I wasn’t really feeling the game.

Hard to believe considering all of that, right?  But hear me out on this.

There’s a lot of stuff you have to pay attention to in Resogun, more so than the standard character action game.  It leads to sensory overload at the outset (or throughout a session with it, if you’re not the sort of gamer adjusted to an assault from every angle).  More specifically, it led to me being confused in all the wrong ways; the game -- and the PS4 controller -- will exclaim things like “KEEPERS DETECTED” and “MULTIPLIER UP” regularly. 

Multipliers I can understand, but on my first session I asked “Wait, what’s a Keeper?”  I didn’t get an answer for a while, because I ended up avoiding and often completely missing them as they made their trek off-screen.  As it turns out, the game works like this: Keepers appear at certain points in a stage, as signaled by their green auras.  Shoot them dead, and you free one of the humans caged up.  If you fail, then the human is lost.  But even if you succeed, you still have to physically fly your ship over to the human that landed on the ground, pick them up, and cart them over to a transporter without dying to save them.  Simple enough…though at first, it wasn’t clear just where these freed humans were amidst the virtual storm on-screen.

The “save the last humans” element creates a wrinkle in the gameplay, but even now I’m not 100% sold on the mechanic.   Setting aside the fact that it fuses a shmup with impromptu escort missions, sometimes it seems like they’re more trouble than they’re worth.  Sure, saving them gives you points, power-ups, or even extra lives, but you’re putting yourself at extreme risk by trying to play savior. 

And failing to save them threatens to be way too easy; invaders can still abduct and/or kill them, and if you’re reckless with your bombs, they’ll get wrecked in kind.  Much to my horror, I found that while trying to save a human scrambling across the ground, you can actually shoot them…which means that if you’re getting rid of a grounded foe and one of your lasers passes through as they explode, you can hit the human. And send them tumbling off the level to their doom.

Not surprisingly, I heard the line “HUMAN LOST” a lot more often than I would have preferred.

I’m also not too keen on the points aspect.  Yeah, sure, it’s practically fused to the genre (and arcade games, no question), and this is coming more from a personal place than an objective one, but…well, I can’t say I see the point.  Yeah, getting a high score and uploading it to PSN is something that can add some staying power and give players something to aspire towards, but I would have thought that playing and enjoying the game was its own reward.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just an out of the way thing, but the game goes out of its way to push points as the gospel.  Example: activating Overdrive is, according to the game, something I should use when there are tons of enemies on-screen so I can get lots of points.  And my response to that is “No, no it isn’t.”  I use Overdrive to save my ass.  I don’t care about points, because I’m likely to get a healthy amount as long as I, you know, don’t die.

Points aren’t a feature that matter to me, but the game does its best to make them matter -- much to my dismay.  What you get from saving humans is random; you can get things like shields, bombs, or lives, but it’s just as likely -- maybe more -- for you to get points and nothing else.  Given how frenzied and difficult the game can be, then why would that ever be a reward I’d want?  I mean, I’m getting points along with each successful rescue, aren’t I?  How are extra points going to help me survive -- especially since, as far as I can tell, getting more points doesn’t give you an extra life?  If the game’s trying to be like the arcade games of old, then it seems like a strange omission.

If it sounds like I’m dumping hate on the game, let me say right now that my complaints don’t lower the game’s standing or overall quality in my eyes.  It really is fantastic.  I wouldn’t say it’s a game that justifies the purchase of a PS4, considering that A) it’s not quite a revolutionary step forward, B) it could have appeared on the PS3, graphics aside, and C) much like Infamous: Second Son, I suspect Resogun could have been just as easily called Particle Effects: The Game considering how lavish the level-clear effects can get.  But I’ll gladly play this game again over Second Son and Watch Dogs.  And indeed, I already have.

At first I wasn’t really feeling Resogun.  But shortly after I started -- likely before I even reached the second stage -- I started to feel it.  After a certain point, everything started to click; one moment of realization after another led me to blend all the individual systems together, and to accept the game as a whole instead of just trying (and failing) to reconcile its parts.  To put it simply, I got lost in the flow. 

And when that happened, the game turned into something very close to magical.

Like I said, you have all the tools you need to survive, and succeed as well.  It’s just a matter of using them when the time is right.  And once you do -- once you figure out the timing, and the way those mechanics were meant to be used -- then what starts out as a seemingly-simple shmup turns into something more.  That in itself is praiseworthy, but it goes further than that.  See, the reason why you learn how to use those mechanics is because there’s a need to learn, and a need to use them.  The game’s difficulty is something you’re bound to feel, whether it’s from the outset or the murderfest that is Stage 5.  The challenge creates tension; you’re always on the edge, given that one hit -- one moment of inattention -- can make you go down in flames. 

I know that earlier in the post I gave the “save the last humans” mechanic some guff (because an unfortunate side effect is that the CPU voice keeps on babbling), but in the grand scheme of things it not only works, but I’m actually thankful it’s in the game.  Setting aside the fact that it feels great to actually be a genuine force of good in a video game again, it adds a layer of depth -- a self-imposed challenge, as well as a test of your morality without adding a full-on Karma system.  Are you willing to drop everything and blast past walls of enemies just to save one human on the other side of the map?  Or will you prioritize your safety at the cost of the power-ups they offer you, as well as a shot at end-of-level bonuses?  If you decide to save them, you get more than just bonuses; you get to feel the pressure of knowing that there are people that are counting on you.  And if you ask me, managing to save every human in a stage is its own reward.

It’s strange for me to think of it in such terms, but I really can’t think of anything else: as it stands, I consider Resogun to be one of the best PS4 games to date.  That’s…kind of troubling, considering that it was a free download for PS Plus users.  But it comes together a lot better than a lot of other games released so far.  It offers up something more, even if it is in a distinctly-smaller package. 

The visuals are good.  The gameplay is on-point.  The lasting appeal is in full force, whether you’re chasing a high score or just looking to clear the hardest stages the games have to offer (thank God for infinite continues).  The music is damn near infectious, to the point where I suspect the Stage 2 theme is what made me get so entranced by the game at large.  All in all, there’s a lot to love.

But that just highlights a bigger problem at hand.

Speaking personally, I’m at odds with Resogun.  You know me; I’m a guy who thinks games can have (and have had) good stories, and they should aspire to include them more regularly.  Likewise, I think that games across the board should work to reach their full potential, no matter the front; that is, the days when we were limited by technology -- by hulking arcade cabinets -- have long since passed, and we have the chance to both reach for and ask for an approach on endless possibilities.  But here I am, saying that what’s effectively an arcade game is the best the PS4’s got to offer so far.  Is that something to be excited about, or concerned about?

These days, it’s getting harder and harder to divorce the creative side of the industry (of games, and movies, and more) from the business side.  The latter has started to seriously affect the former in the case of games, but to what end?  What does it say about the industry when games that should be the biggest and best we’ve ever gotten actually act like they’re stepping backward, and regressing to levels of quality seen at the start of the last generation?  What does it say about others -- about me -- when I’m more excited to play a space shooter than the copy of Killzone: Shadow Fall that my friend’s left in my care for weeks now?

And again, I have to lament the ass-backwards nature of the industry.  The small stuff -- whether it’s by smaller companies, whether it’s a downloadable release, or whether it’s one of the increasingly-praiseworthy indie brand -- has consistently shown quality.  It’s probably no stretch to say that the quality has gotten even better.  They’re showing the growth and skill and innovation that gamers are looking for…so why aren’t they center-stage instead of the big-budget releases?  If Resogun (or something like it) had on average the same resources as, say, Uncharted 4, then what would that mean for the industry?

Well, in all fairness, it could run the risk of turning a straightforward game into a bloated mess.  Absolute power absolutely corrupts, and all that.  Smart use of resources can make for an awesome product (see: BioShock Infinite), but the lack of it can bring out the best in a creator.  That’s a given.  But even if the industry and the relationships therein are -- to some extent -- fine as they are, there’s still one thing on my mind.  It’s something that’s been brought up by others elsewhere, Jim Sterling well among them.

What happened to all the games in the middle ground?

I know they’re still out there -- there’s a One Piece game due out pretty soon, for one -- but this still feels like a point of concern.  Like, maybe I’m reaching on this, but shouldn’t there be more games between indie/downloadable titles and bank-busting triple-A releases?  Why does it seem like entire genres have evaporated -- called “obsolete” or “unprofitable” by company executives (survival horror comes to mind, and Squeenix has only just realized that they need to make quality JRPGs again after Bravery Default), but no small number of downloadable titles have proven that there’s a demand?  When did the gulf get this large?  How did things get this bad?

Maybe this generation would be in better shape at its outset if the gulf wasn’t so huge.  As Jim Sterling once argued in a Jimquisition video or two, there need to be smaller releases between the big stuff so that gamers get some use from their spiffy new consoles.  And speaking from an artistic standpoint, it’s the chance to explore new ideas and such without having to risk a hundred million billion dollars.  There are niches that people will support, and itches that need to be scratched -- so why not tend to them?  How much longer are we going to be at the mercy of an industry with so much potential, but seems almost adamant in getting it wrong?  And how long is it going to be before a big crash forces change?

Valid questions, I’d wager.  But on the other hand…

I’m pretty freaking glad that a game like Resogun exists, no matter its faults, and regardless of its “size”.  It’s unique, it’s challenging, it’s rewarding, it’s stylish, and most of all, it’s fun.  It’s true that it does cast a negative light on its competitors and the industry in general, but individual titles like this mean something.  They’re as much a part of the gaming canon as any other.  I can’t help but pray for the day that a smaller title gets the respect -- or at least numbers -- of the average Call of Duty release, but until then, being able to point to a single release and say “This.  Do more of this” is something that puts a smile on my face.

Screw the industry.  Resogun’s a hell of a game, and I want to play it again.

Among other awesome things.


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