Review: Strania: The Stella Machine (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Straina: The Stella Machine
Genre: Shooter
Developer: G.Rev
Publisher: G.Rev
Release Date: 03/30/11

While G.Rev has been around for nearly a decade at this point, their exposure to American audiences is exceptionally minimal, at best. Aside from releasing a bunch of Japanese-only shooters of various sorts, their only notable US release was Wartech: Senko No Ronde, a weird fighting game/shooter hybrid that Ubisoft brought stateside to generally anemic response. G.Rev has continued plugging along in Japan, however, releasing various revisions of Senko No Ronde in arcades and on the Xbox 360, along with a few other shooters here and there for good measure. Strania: The Stella Machine is their newest effort, and the first released simultaneously in the US and Japan for the company, as it’s an Xbox Live Arcade title rather than a disc release. Strania also has the distinction of being another odd Japanese shooter released for the 360 stateside, though unlike something like Deathsmiles, its weirdness is more mechanical and less conceptual. With online play, leaderboards, and plenty of giant mech shooting action, Strania is more or less a guaranteed sale for shooter fans of all types, but while it has some neat concepts that make it delightful for genre fans, it also has some odd design choices that might make it harder to recommend to more casual fans of the genre, unfortunately.

Strania might have a story buried somewhere within the game, but it does absolutely nothing to present it beyond the simple “you are good, they are bad, kill them” presentation one comes to expect from the genre along with a few “protect this” or “kill that” missions. As such, let’s talk about what you can do with the game instead. The game offers a fairly standard shooter campaign for one or two players, on and offline, as well as some online leaderboards, multiple difficulty levels, and so on. You can also choose which of the two pilots you wish to play as when playing alone, though this is purely for aesthetic purposes. Aside from the above, however, there’s not really anything else to do with the game; you don’t get branching pathways to explore, multiple characters to play as, different game modes to play with, or anything but the basic shooter elements one would expect. While this is fine, as shooters appeal to their fans based on their gameplay over anything else, considering the fact that you can acquire games like R-Type Dimensions and King of Fighters Sky Stage with these sorts of elements on the XBLA service for the same price as Strania, and the fact that this game indicates in its main menu that DLC will be available later, presumably at cost, it’s something of a letdown as a result. It’s not that the game needs additional modes so much as it is that more recent shooters available on the XBLA service and otherwise DO have them, for the same price, leaving this as somewhat of a letdown in that regard.

Strania uses fully 3D visuals for the game action, and for the most part, they look pretty solid. The 3D isn’t especially high-tech, as such, and while it’s very clean looking, some of the ship and mech models are more angular than others, making the visuals look a little out of date. The game makes good use of its tech, however, by constantly changing the display angles, rotating the camera in various directions to give you overhead shots, behind the back shots, and all sorts of other cinematic angles for dramatic effect, which isn’t so frequently used in shooters that it’s not impressive here. The ship designs and environments are also nice looking, as are the various weapon special effects that frequently pop up as you play. The in game music is very nice, though this is honestly like a rule for shooters, to the point where it’s more impressive (though not in a good way) when one DOESN’T sound good. Interestingly, the music is very reminiscent of the soundtrack from Assault Suit Leynos, AKA Target Earth, on the Sega Genesis, which is interesting, though it’s unlikely that this has anything to do with anything. The various sound effects are clean and appropriately powerful and, when needed, futuristic, to the level that a futuristic sci-fi shooter featuring spaceships and mechanized suits would need to be entertaining. There’s no voice work in the game to speak of, but you likely won’t miss it one way or the other, to be honest.

Anyone who’s played an upward scrolling shooter in their life will have a pretty good idea of how Strania works. You’ve given an overhead perspective, and with the exception of some camera angle changes at some points, the screen is consistently scrolling upward. Enemies enter the screen, you shoot them, repeat as needed until the boss arrives, shoot the boss down, and move on to the next stage, where you repeat the process. The A button handles the shooting, and you can either rapidly press it or hold it down to attack, depending on the weapons you’re using. The stick and D-pad allow you to move your craft around as needed to dodge bullets or move into position to attack, as you need. Shooting down enemies earns you points, and some enemies drop power-ups, which you can collect to change or upgrade your weaponry, depending on the situation. The game uses a life bar system to represent lives, with each health bar representing one hit you can take from any enemy or bullet, and when you run out of health, it’s Game Over until you choose to continue, if you want. At its base level, Strania isn’t a particularly hard game to understand, and shooter fans should be able to get down to business almost immediately, though if you’re not especially well versed with such games, the game does give you a small tutorial when starting off that should explain to you how to play, as well as a Training Mode to get the concepts down pat.

Strania differs from its peers with its weapon change system. Your mech can be equipped with up to three weapons at any one time, with one held in each hand and a third held in reserve. By pressing the B button, you’ll switch which hand holds which weapon, as well as sub in the weapon in reserve. On a base level, this means that you can swap in different weapons depending on the situation, but the game makes great use of this by providing a large amount of weapons to work with, depending on the situation and your play style. You’ll find wide area, rapid fire Vulcan guns, lasers, missiles, rockets, bombs, reflecting shots, swords, and other different tools to work with, allowing you to customize your loadout as you see fit, so if you want to go into battle with a laser and a rocket launcher, or with twin swords, go nuts. When new weapons pop up, you can simply align the weapon onto the side of the mech you want to change out, then move into the weapon and, boom, you’ve got a new toy. You can also collect the same weapon multiple times to upgrade the performance of the presently equipped weapon, depending on how you want to handle the situation, so if you like your Vulcan gun, upgrade it and go nuts. The game also has an OD meter that charges as you shoot down enemies, and when it charges to full, you can unleash it with a press of the X button. Doing so covers you in a temporary force field that protects you from damage and damages enemies, allowing you to survive assaults from enemies and counterattack, which can be very useful in later stages, when bullets are flying everywhere.

You can pretty much plow through the main game in about an hour from start to finish, but chances are good that you likely won’t be able to do this thing unless you’re a skilled shooter player, as even on the Normal difficulty setting the game isn’t a cakewalk. You can earn additional continues by playing the game over and over, similar to how Ikaruga handled the situation, at least, so you can theoretically build up enough continues to complete the game depending on how good you are or how many continues you need. The game also supports on and offline play for two players simultaneously, allowing you to bring a friend into the game to help you take on the enemy forces if you’re looking for some help. You’ve also got three difficulty levels to choose from, leaderboards to post a score to, and Achievements to unlock to keep you going, if nothing else, and the main menu, as noted, offers an option to download DLC for the game, so the possibility of new weapons, levels, mechs and other things to play with could keep you coming back as well. For fans of shooters, however, Strania is likely to be worth playing even without DLC added to the game, as it’s a solid shooter all around in both concept and execution, by and large.

That said, aside from the fact that the game feels a bit limited in its execution at points, what with the limited amount of game modes and absence of an obvious storyline, the game also has some other issues to consider. For one thing, the game is basically a Japanese game with some occasional English instructions displayed here and there, which means that there are a few instances of Japanese text popping up on-screen that isn’t going to make sense to, or matter to, players. This is compounded somewhat by some occasionally iffy translations, like the translation of the “Why’d You Go?” Achievement, which kind of seems like a literal translation instead of a natural one. But, fine, the language issues aren’t likely to impede your play any and they don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. What may matter, however, is how the game handles the continue mechanic. Instead of simply allowing the player to continue from where they died, the game dumps the player back to a checkpoint just prior to that death, which might mean that, for example, you might bring a boss down to near death, die, and then get dumped back at the beginning of that boss fight to start all over again. If you’re a terrible player, this is going to be exceptionally frustrating, but even if you’re skilled at shooters it’s still mildly annoying having to repeat a section regardless, and while more skilled players aren’t likely to consider this a deal breaker, someone who, frankly, sucks at shooters is immediately going to be put off by this thing the first time they get stuck at a boss that they simply cannot kill in the up to five lives provided to them.

Strania: The Stella Machine is a fun, if mildly limited, shooter that’s likely to appeal to genre fans, but the mildly limited nature of the game coupled with some other small issues might make it a hard sell for casual shooter fans. The game looks nice and makes good use of some interesting visual tricks, and the music and sound effects are generally great all around. The gameplay is incredibly simple to understand and work with, and the ability to switch out weapon sets as needed combined with the large variety of weapons available in the game makes for some solid strategy in a game one might not expect such a thing from. The game offers fun on and offline play for two players, so you can go at it with friends or alone as you wish, and with multiple difficulty levels, online leaderboards, and the promise of DLC somewhere down the line, those who appreciate the game will likely have reason to come back to it further down the line. However, the game has no storyline to speak of and a small selection of gameplay modes, and some odd elements to the translation from Japanese to English make the game feel rushed in some respects. Further, the fact that the game uses checkpoints for its continue system instead of allowing the player to start from where they ate it might frustrate players, especially less skilled players who simply can’t make it through a boss fight without continuing, making it harder to recommend for casual fans. For shooter fans of at least decent skill level, however, Strania is a good investment, as it’s a fun and interesting shooter with plenty of challenge and some neat elements, and while it might not be for everyone, if you’re a genre fan, it’s a good addition to your game library.

The Scores:
Game Modes: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Strania: The Stella Machine is going to be a worthwhile acquisition for anyone who counts themselves a fan of shooters, and while it’s not going to jump out at casual fans or those with no experience in the genre, genre fans should have fun with it. The game looks solid and makes use of some nice camera tricks, and it sounds great in all respects. The game is simple to play but offers some nice additions, such as a weapon change system and a large variety of weapons to work with, to make it more than just another shooter. The game offers online leaderboards, multiple difficulty levels, and on and offline multiplayer to bring players back, and the promise of DLC at some point is an added bonus. However, there’s no storyline of note, and the game has little beyond the expected gameplay modes to work with. Further, the translation of the game seems somewhat sloppy in places, and the continue mechanic uses checkpoints instead of starting you where you left off, which is likely to annoy skilled players and frustrate unskilled ones. For those of at least decent skill at shooters, however, Strania is a good purchase that is fun and challenging, and anyone who likes shooters can safely download it and have a blast.

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