Sentinel Returns is unlike any game I've ever played. The only game that comes close to being similar is the original Populous. The reason for this is only in terms of the advancement of levels, namely, being able to skip levels depending on how well you accomplish your mission. I won't rehash the information contained in the description but I will expand on it. First and foremost, Sentinel Returns is a game with no middle ground -- you'll either love it or hate it. For gamers who like their puzzles neat and tidy with recognizable objects and environments, Sentinel Returns will seem very alien. Trees look like abstract elongated spikes, the Robot Host appears to be nothing more than an abstract, two piece sculpture and boulders appear as pulsating blocks.
The most obvious problem with Sentinel Returns lies in the paucity of directions contained in the very small manual. But since the game seems so alien in its depiction of an other worldly plane of existence, the lack of guidance is no doubt a planned concept by the designers. The secret to playing is subtly hidden in plain sight on the "in-game controls" page of the manual and boils down to the three steps delineated therein. One, create boulder(s) to gain height, two, create a robot to set on top of the boulder(s), and three, transfer your entity into the robot and destroy the objects created in steps one and two to absorb more energy. Repeat the three steps until you are higher than the Sentinel that guards the level you're on and absorb it, thus completing the level. Sounds easy and somewhat boring, right? It is until you factor in the changing nature of the abstract terrain and environments, the scarcity of hiding places from the Sentinel's energy-sapping 28-degree wide scanner and the tension filled race to achieve higher ground. Concurrently, you must avoid his cloned Sentries, create your own trees to tactically block his energy-stealing gaze and absorb the energy from the pre-existing trees scattered haphazardly within the environment to gain additional energy.
The energy pool represents your "score" but in all likelihood the action will be too intense to worry about it. The important issue to know is that each of the six objects in the game has an assigned energy value ranging from 1 to 4 units of energy (i.e., trees and Meany (1 unit of energy), boulder (2 units), Sentry and Robot Host (3 units) and Sentinel (4 units)). Each level begins with ten units of energy and there is a rare 15-unit rich Golden Robot Host that occasionally makes an appearance. The function of using the random hyper-space jump option is difficult to master yet very important to successful completion of the higher levels. It also provides the only way to jump to the next level once the Sentinel is destroyed.
Sentinel Returns certainly won't appeal to everyone. But for the gamer who likes challenges, the offbeat king-of-the-hill experience offered by the game is, well, absorbing. Throw in a killer soundtrack (if somewhat limited) composed by Halloween moviemaker John Carpenter as an added bonus and Sentinel Returns, with its apparent simplicity of game play, becomes an addictive force.
Graphics: Abstract geometric shapes make up the objects found within the game. Terrain is necessarily blocky to allow movement through the placement of boulders and provides environmental surroundings such as mountains and valleys from which to hide or storm the Sentinel's position. Five environments (earth, air, fire, water and void) provide some relief from the geometric environment but if you're looking for aesthetically pleasing objects and surroundings, you won't find them here.
Sound: Being a huge fan of director/composer John Carpenter, I admit to some prejudice in this category. The musical score is extremely fitting for the on-screen action and, in fact, enhances the experience considerably, especially when you are absorbed in the fight to reach the highest ground. It would have been nice if there had been more musical selections, however.
Enjoyment: Upon first playing Sentinel Returns, I viewed the game as a waste of time. However, once I understood the subtle nuances of game play and approached it as a unique challenge, the intensity level continued to rise until I was chomping at the bit to play "just one more level". With a small amount of patience and open-mindedness regarding game play and the visual aspects of the game, one can slowly build an appreciation for the finer qualities of this seemingly simple game. This is one instance where the old adage "easy to learn, difficult to master" rings true.
Replay Value: Over 600 levels, plus randomly generated bonus levels, give the game a strong replay value. A word of advice: save often, at least once per level attained.
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