Throughout the course of video game history, many genres have come into and gone out of the mainstream spotlight. Such is the case of the 2d shooter. Once a staple of the booming arcade scene in the 80's and early 90's, side scrolling and top-down arcade shooters have gone the way of the 2d fighter, and with the advent of 3d gaming and first person shooters, left mainly to the hardcore enthusiast and collector. However every now and again we are treated to a glimpse into the realm of what might have been, a parallel universe in which 2d graphics have evolved with the changing technologies into beautiful, colorful works of hand drawn art. Enter SR-71 Games' latest take on the humbled genre, Steel Saviour.
The storyline of the game revolves around an ancient civilization that managed to tame each of the 4 vital elements: water, fire, energy, and wind. And through their own arrogance, the civilization was cast into ruins when each of the elements up and disappeared, leaving an uninhabitable, barren wasteland in its wake. The main character (who remains nameless, presumably 'you') decides that it's up to him/her to save the world from destruction, and through a mix of a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck, is able to decipher ancient technologies and learn how to operate a steel flying machine that just so happens to be sitting next to a hole in the ground leading to an underground world where each of the vital elements still exist. And throughout each level (each corresponding to an element) you are able to restore said element back to the surface for the remaining society to enjoy - you are the Steel Saviour. And while a genre as generally shallow as a 2d shooter doesn't really need a story to push the game forward, it is interesting and welcome nonetheless.
Gameplay-wise, Steel Saviour doesn't really bring anything revolutionary to the table, though it does set the table rather well. You are a ship maneuvering around the screen while the background slowly drifts by as hordes upon hordes of swirling patterns of enemies take pot shots at you and ultimately fly right past you (if not into you). You have a main cannon weapon, a secondary weapon (that can be used as a shield in exchange for a healthy amount of its ammo), a button to switch between the various secondary weapons, and a "bomb" weapon that clears out a good chunk of the screen, including nearby bullets. As you begin to destroy the hordes of oncoming enemies, a small colored meter at the bottom of the screen will begin to fill, ultimately resulting in a "combo" bonus that continues to grow as you mow down more and more consecutive enemies, yielding big points and better powerups. If you allow too much time to expire between kills, the meter resets. A 2-player offline co-op mode is also available, though at a cost: enemies will take more hits and fire faster.
In terms of difficulty, Steel Saviour is a walk in the park. That is, if the park happened to be Central Park, and you were an 18-year-old cheerleader walking through alone at midnight wearing nothing but a pair of handcuffs and a 'Rape Me' T-shirt. In other words, Steel Saviour is damn tough. Upon starting the game I thought I would play on the hardest difficulty to see what the game had to offer, and within a few tries I found myself falling back on 'normal' mode, and finally coming to rest in the land of ultimate weeniedom on 'easy' where I still manage to get my ass handed to me on a regular basis. Did I mention I can beat Ninja Gaiden on 'hard' mode? Hmm. Not to say that hardcore fans of the genre won't appreciate its incredible challenge but for myself personally, if I wanted to be humiliated like that I would probably turn to Swearing Abusive Jesus instead.
While not a technical achievement by any stretch, Steel Saviour is one gorgeous game. Utilizing some fancy scaling and rotation techniques combined with anti-aliasing and filtering up the ying-yang, 32-bit color and multiple levels of parallax scrolling, it's truly a sight to behold. Add to that some fantastic sound effects and pulse-pounding stereo techno beats, and you've got a tight little package for anyone's PC; yes, even yours.
But each game is not without it's shortcomings, and this is no exception. For starters, there is just so much eye candy on the screen at any given time that it can be difficult to keep track of the location of your ship, and with all of those layers of parallax scrolling, it's sometimes difficult to know which you can safely pass through and which will cause damage to your craft - especially out of the corner of your eye when the action heats up. Furthermore, the game doesn't let Windows know you're busy playing, so things like your screen saver and instant-messaging programs will interfere with the action. Fortunately, however, the game automatically pauses during these instances.
In all, I can't go so far as to say that I recommend Steel Saviour to every gamer - it really is difficult, it does leave you with that "been there, done that" taste in your mouth, and it is relatively short. But fans of the genre aren't going to want to pass this game up: it has solid controls, beautiful graphics, and challenging gameplay that results in a pleasantly rewarding sense of accomplishment when you are able to finally beat that level - if you can. Oh yeah and it's only 20 bones. I gotta admit, it really is nice to see a developer try to rekindle such a great genre.
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