- Format: Xbox One (version reviewed), PC
- Unleashed: Out Now (PC), August 26th (Xbox One)
- Publisher: Headup Games
- Developer: Elder Games
- Players: 1
- Site: http://www.headupgames.com
- Game code provided by the publisher
Solar Shifter Ex is notable for two reasons. Firstly, the ship that you control is named the ‘Phase Shifter’, so called because it can ‘shift’ (i.e. teleport) to different spots in the screen. This means that, used correctly, you can bypass solid lines of bullets/lasers (as well as any enemies in your path) completely unharmed. Secondly the developer, Elder Games, is actually just one guy; Ede Tarsoly. It’s heartening to see that even in 2016, a one-man project can go multiformat (it’s already been available on PC for a while). Once you finish nodding in approval at these elements and look elsewhere, however, the game begins to flounder.
The first achievement that you earn is titled “Welcome to bullet hell!”, which should tell you a lot about what Tarsoly set out to do. It is, as you might now expect, pretty ruthless from the beginning. All the pieces are there to form the picture of a traditional bullet hell shooter. It auto scrolls bottom to top (despite some camera work on the backgrounds to sometimes give a different impression). Enemies appear from various angles, always following the same pre-programmed routes and attacks. Projectiles come thick and fast, and you’re usually lucky if you have a whole second to react. A screen crammed full of bullets, lasers, explosions and enemies is not unusual. It’s certainly an experience to engorge the nostalgia gland of anybody who laments the lack of such games nowadays.
It’s not quite so simple as saying “if you like those sorts of games you should give this a go, case closed, let’s go down the pub”. There are several design details that need consideration first, not all necessarily welcome ones for genre fans. Death and restarts, for example, is a bit of an odd mixed bag. Your ship has a health bar, meaning one hit isn’t (usually) instant death unless you crash into an enemy. There are no ‘lives’, however; die, and you simply get kicked back to the last checkpoint.
Yes, there are checkpoints. Although the game is split up into eighteen missions over eight areas, the regular(ish) checkpoints make it feel like one continuous level. That’s not a bad thing of itself, though. Even with the ‘hangar’ that you return to between missions, where you can upgrade your guns with credits harvested from fallen enemies, it still gives the impression of one continuous journey. This impression is neither reinforced nor hampered by the story which is, well… paper-thin and scrappily told. But so what? You don’t play a game like this for the writing.
What you do play it for is dealing out and avoiding laser death. In this respect Solar Shifter Ex is, at its best, a fun reminder of a certain corner of the nineties. There are no smart bombs here but those are for wimps, right? Without a screen-clearing get out clause, you need to have your wits about you constantly (or, more likely, keep dying until you learn attack patterns). Making it alive out of a particularly tricky section brings both relief and a sense of achievement. The key to success, you soon realise, is to concern yourself with being where the bullets aren’t first and landing hits of your own second.
Unfortunately this led us to discover that – intentionally or otherwise – there are multiple occasions where you can survive by doing literally nothing at all. Regularly – more often than not, perhaps – there is a specific spot on the screen where, if you stay perfectly still, you can avoid all damage for ten seconds or so before you need to move. At most, you’ll just need to hold down the fire button to destroy enemies who start to get close. This kills the bullet hell feel of the game and, sometimes, seems to be the only way to progress.
What hints at this being intentional is the appearance, a few times in the game, of two seemingly indestructible ships that fire continuous streams of instant-death lasers that create a mini, moving grid. The only way to survive these sections is to ensure that you’re in the correct part of the screen at all times, through a combination of careful movement and well-timed shifting. They’re okay (if out of keeping with the rest of the game) until the final appearance during what is, incidentally, the most annoying part of the game. The final stretch is a survival gauntlet that soon becomes tedious, with checkpoints that are just far enough apart to be frustrating.
It may not be the game it could’ve been, and frame-rate issues are not uncommon, but it still has its moments. For example we may be easily pleased, but we greatly appreciate the handful of times that we were given control of an alien ship instead, laying waste to the defending forces and their cities. How dare you defy us, puny humans, bwahahahahaha!!
The shifting element is ultimately underdeveloped and mishandled, and the whole ‘stay in a safe space’ thing, regardless of how intentional it is, looms over the experience casting an omnipresent shadow. Still, if you like the idea of an unapologetically difficult shooter, you may well get five hours worth of entertainment out of this.