Genre: Shoot ’em Up
Release Date: 04/24/2013
Every few years we have a Dreamcast revival with multiple small developers putting out games for the system all at once, only to then have the system lie dormant for a few more years. The last big resurgence started in late 2008 with Wind and Water Puzzle Battles and went throughout all of 2009 with titles like Dux, Last Hope: Pink Bullets, Rush Rush Rally Racing and Irides: Master of Blocks. Between the end of 2009 and now, the Dreamcast went silent save for two games: Fast Striker and Gun Lord. Now however, the cycle stars anew as the release of Sturmwind is merely the first of many Dreamcast releases for 2013. Other Dreamcast titles planned for a 2013 release include Dux 1.5, Redux, Neo XYX, and Pier Solar and the Great Architects. There are three other potential Dreamcast games for this year: Ghost Blade, which simply won’t make it out, Age of the Beast, which is supposed to come out every year for a decade now, but never does, and Leona’s Tricky Adventures, whose Dreamcast version appears to be cancelled this year.
Sturmwind was been a long time coming though. Originally announced in 2010 for a Q2 2011, release, the game was delayed for two years, mainly by the publisher. Last year, I did an interview with Roland Graf about the game where it really sounded like it was coming out in 2012, but here we are a little over a year later and the game has finally made it into my hands. Although a Deluxe Version was released with a soundtrack, model ship, stuffed octopus (The World 4 Boss Krakor) and more, I opted to purchase the regular edition. All I really wanted was the game. Still, for those interested in a pretty swank swag filled version for the game, head on over to Play-Asia.com and pick it up. Publisher redspotgames also has Sturmwind for sale, but only in Euros and the conversion has it far more expensive there than at Play-Asia.com.
So, enough of the history of indie Dreamcast releases and Sturmwind in general. You want to know how the game PLAYS, right? Well, I’m happy to say quite well. When I first put Sturmwind into my Dreamcast, I played it for two straight hours. I just couldn’t put it down. The game offers two core modes. The first is Normal Mode, where you play through four different worlds, each comprising of four levels. The game saves your progress so if you die on say, 2-3, you can start a new game on that level, with all your ships and weapons intact. Arcade Mode features only six levels of the game, but there aren’t any continues or saves. It’s a straight run to see how good you are. I found Arcade Mode to be far easier than Normal Mode. With Normal Mode, I would die every few stages (more on WHY later on), but I made it through to the end of Normal Mode on my first try. I’m guessing it’s because I had spent so much time in Arcade Mode first that I had some of the levels memorized and also learned from my previous mistakes. Still, it really does feel like the is a huge disparity between the two modes in terms of challenge.
Besides these two modes, the game also offers some interesting options, chief of which are trophies. Earning trophies just aren’t for measuring your e-penis though; earning trophies unlocks things like art galleries for you to peruse. The unlock system is done somewhat nonsensically though. You have bronze, silver and gold trophies(five of each) ala a Playstation 3 game, and you have to have X number of trophies in order to unlock certain items. For example, you need three bronze trophies to unlock the first gallery and then a silver and three bronze to unlock the second. Now at one point I had five bronze and a silver and Gallery 2 just wouldn’t unlock. That’s when I realized the graphic meant I needed THREE silver and three bronze not, the three bronze and a single silver as it appeared, so be careful with that if you pick up the game. The game also offers high scores and the ability to post said scores to the web via a twenty digit password. I haven’t bothered to upload my scores as honestly, I don’t care, but for those that want internet bragging rights, you have that option with Sturmwind. The game also offers three difficulty settings, but you’ll want to play on normal and hard to earn trophies and thus unlock the art galleries.
There’s definitely a story going on in Sturmwind, but unfortunately it is only in German. There is an opening cut scene and during the game a young woman’s portrait will show up as she says things to you I can’t comprehend. Look, I speak English, Japanese, French, and a little Mandarin -I don’t have room in my head for ANOTHER LANGUAGE. I was disappointed that there wasn’t an English audio track (or even subtitles) so that I could understand what EXACTLY was going on. Even if you don’t speak German, the crux of the game is that you are blowing up aliens. LOTS of aliens. Don’t expect this to be a “bullet hell” style game like Ikaruga. No, Sturmwind is more akin to Gradius or R-Type, where the speed of the game in all respects is slower and more methodical. You’ll play through each level, earning points and killing aliens. Generally there is a mini boss at the end of each stage and then on the four level of each world (1-4, 2-4, etc), you’ll have a big end boss to take down. The big bosses have a three minute time clock, so pay attention to that, especially if you’re trying for high scores.
Visually Sturmwind looks amazing and a case could easily be made for the graphics to be on par with any horizontal scrolling shooter I’ve seen released for a modern console. Soldner-X? It looks shabby compared to Sturmwind. The game is just incredibly detailed, especially the background images. There were times I died simply because I was trying to take in all the different images going across my screen, a definite shoot ’em up no-no. That said, the game is occasionally hit with slowdown, although thankfully said slowdown is primarily contained to the background images. I have been hit with it gameplay wise, although far less frequently. I did take minor issue with a few aspects of the graphics. I noticed that like the original Last Hope, it’s hard to see the actual enemy firepower at times, which will get you killed. As well, some of those bullets coming at you appear to be on the background rather than in the actual realm of gameplay so again, that can get you killed. Another aspect of the visuals that will lead to player death is that sometimes that are walls or obstacles that will kill you if you touch them. Sometimes the game will let you know with a yellow flashing “DANGER” graphic, but other times, it’s trial and error (usually error) that will let you know what will kill you and what is simply a background image. This is somewhat disappointing, but at least once you learn the stage layout you’ll know what you can and cannot touch and prepare accordingly. For the most part, the visually are truly breathtaking and at times, I had trouble believing I was playing a Dreamcast game.
The audio of Sturmwind is equally well done. Although I can’t understand a word of what my fraulein is saying, she delivers her lines with emotion and believability. The in-game sound effects for the three types of firepower your ship has, and all the little enemies in the game just really make the whole affair come alive. The soundtrack to Sturmwind is so awesome, there are times I wish I had sprung for the Deluxe Edition and snagged that CD of all the music that 505 put together for the game. Just a great job all around.
Now it’s gameplay time. Sturmwind is a bit hard to describe to bear with me. You control your ship via the D-pad or analog stick. You shoot your regular weapon via the A button and hold down the X button to create a super powerful beam shot. Don’t hold it down too long or you’ll lose that weapon option! B is your smart button shot. These are all fairly standard controls, right? Well, things get interesting when you realize you have three different weapons to choose from, all of which play differently. Lightblitz, the blue colored weapon, shoots from above and below your ship and forms kind of a V shaped. It’s the weakest in terms of damage in space, but the most powerful in the water stages. It’s also the fastest firing, so if you’re a whiz with the d-pad and can move your ship rapidly, you’ll actually increase the amount of firepower on the screen to the point where it looks like the spread gun from Contra. The red weapon, Nordwest at first seems similar, but stronger and slower to Lightblitz until you realize you can rotate the weapon by holding down the A button. This is really helpful in certain situations when you are beset on all sides. Finally we have the green Rudel which is a powerful and wide straightforward shot. It lacks the range and spread of the other weapons, but when you just want to plow ahead, Rudel is your choice. Now, you can cycle these weapons so they fire behind your ship instead of in front of it by pressing the left shoulder button and you cycle through the weapons by pressing the right shoulder. You will get confused a bit at first, but only for a short while when you first try out the game.
Taking damage is odd. If you get hit by enemy firepower or collide with something, you don’t die. You lose whatever weapon you had active. So if you are nailed while using Rudel, you will instantly switch to Lightblitz and only have that and Nordwest left. Once you lose all three, the ship is destroyed and you lose a life. Now, there are regular power-ups that will go floating across the screen as you reign havoc on the enemy. These power-ups with start as extra points, but if you shoot it, it will turn to a L, N and R power-up flashing in the colour of the respective weapon. If you pick up a power-up for a weapon you are missing, you get it back, essentially extending your ship’s life span, but if you pick up a power-up for a weapon you already have, you gain a drone (up to two) to give your ship even more spread and firepower. So you have to decide, which is more important to you – the drone or the extra life span. Decisions, decisions. You can also adjust whether your drones are shooting in front of you or behind you via the Y button. Again, you will probably have a time where you hit Y when you meant to hit L and vice versa. It’s all part of learning the controls.
Besides the aforementioned slowdown and visual issues, the only thing I can really see hurting you gameplay-wise is that the game’s resolution. It’s set for 640×480, but on two different TVs (one a 28 inch screen and the other is a 55 inch plasma), I found the very bottom of the game is cut off. There is a screen adjust option, but also that does is let you move the visual up or down. So you have the option of missing the very top or the very bottom. That’s kind of sucky. As well, even though you are stuck within the confines of what shows on your screen, the enemy is not. So an enemy can fire from off screen or a power-up can go off screen and then come back. This may frustrate some when you are shot by a bullet that came from an off-screen enemy, but you learn to adjust. My advice is simply to not stay close to any border of the screen. Aside from these issues mostly visual based issues that WILL get you killed when you first experience Sturmwind, the game is nicely balanced, featured a slowly increasing difficulty curve and if reflexes can’t get you through a stage, rote memorization will.
All in all, Sturmwind is a really fun game. I had a hard time putting it down and I’ve played it a few times while writing this review. It’s a gorgeous looking shooter with some fun mechanics and a brilliant soundtrack. Obviously it’s not for everyone though. Shoot ’em ups are a niche genre at best these days and convincing your average gamer to shill out forty bucks for a brand new Dreamcast game is easier said than done. Hell, most gamers probably don’t even have a Dreamcast these days and are completely unaware there are several new releases for the system scheduled this year. It’s even harder to convince them to pay a whopping $130 for the Deluxe Edition. I mean, I pick up every new Dreamcast release that comes out (or get review copies) and even I couldn’t justify the DE of Sturmwind. So obviously the number of gamers who actually pick this up worldwide will probably be a few hundred to maybe (if we are lucky) a few thousand. Sure Sturmwind won’t be setting any sales records, but those that do pick it up will be lucky enough to experience what is certain to be one of the best shoot ’em ups released this year. Honestly, it’s the best of 2013 so far and we’re a third done. My hope is that if you own a Dreamcast and you read this review, you strongly consider picking up Sturmwind. It’s a really fun game and we have at least three other shoot ’em ups and a RPG coming out for Sega’s last system this year. Not bad for a console that has supposedly been dead for a decade, eh?
When all is said and done, I’m quite happy with Sturmwind. It’s a better made game than most current-gen releases and is easily the best shoot ’em up released in 2013 so far. I’m impressed with what Duranik was able to do graphically with the Dreamcast and really find the gameplay compelling. I also realize that Sturmwind is NOT for the average gamer for a multitude of reasons and that the game has a few hiccups here and there, but I still have to recommend it to every shoot ’em up fan that still owns a Dreamcast. If the 2013 releases for the Dreamcast are even half as good as the bevy we got in 2009, it’s going to be a great year for people who own the console.
Short Attention Span Summary
Sturmwind is the first of at least five games for the Sega Dreamcast scheduled to be released in 2013 and it’s going to be hard to top this one. Sturmwind is by far the best shoot ’em up released this year so far and I’m still blown away by how amazing the game looks and plays. Visually, Sturmwind is on par with any shooter I’ve seen released for current gen systems and the three different weapon systems really make the game stand out from the pack. If you are a fan of shoot ’em ups and you own a Dreamcast, you owe it to yourself to hunt a copy of this down from either redspotgames or Play-Asia.com. You won’t regret it.