Review: Sigma Star Saga (Game Boy Advance)

Sigma Star Saga
Developer: WayForward
Publisher: Namco
Genre: 2D Side-Scrolling Shooter/ RPG hybrid
Release Date: 08/17/05

We all know my two favorite genres in gaming are RPG and 2-D shooters. Last year my vote for Game of the Year was Gradius V. The year before that, I raved over Ikaruga. And before that, there were games like Mars Matris, Radiant Silver Run, the original R-Type, Gunbird, and on and on. I love 2D shooters. I will spend hours on Metal Slug and still be as wide eyed and addicted to it today as I was when I first got the game so many years ago.

And then there’s RPG’s. I Did 411mania and IP’s Top 30 RPG countdown last year, and that genre is a very close second for me in terms of fanboy level fanaticism. But in the end, RPG’s rarely if ever require hand to eye co-ordination. Especially Turn-Based RPG’s. And in the end, I find REAL shooters (not this pansy FPS crap) to be a much greater challenge than any RPG’s I’ve played.

So when I learned about six months ago that Namco was going to published an RPG where all the battles were 2D shooter battles, well…let’s just say the IP Games clubhouse needed a thorough cleaning from my inability to contain my joy.

The real question running through my brain like a gerbil on a habitrail was this: Could the two genres co-exist properly? How could they balance the two out and keep fans of both wildly different genres happy? Or would one in fact overpower the other.

The truth is, the game is a 2D shooter with RPG elements instead of an RPG with 2D shooter elements. I’d say the game is 65% shooter/35% RPG. The game’s RPG map wandering and experience system, all revolve around the shooting stages, and the random battles are so plentiful, you’ll be flying almost, if not MORE than you are walking.

The Question at the end of the day is “Is the game any bloody good?” And that’s what we’re here to find out.

Let’s Review

1. Story

The main character of Sigma Star Saga is Ian Wrecker. Ian is the last survivor of the Sigma Squadron, which is a group of fighter pilots. 60 years ago, an alien race named the Krill invaded Earth, boiled the oceans, and nearly destroyed the planet. Now they have returned. Ian managed to destroy a giant alien battleship, but at the cost of his partner’s lives.

Ian was then chosen by his commander office to spy on the Krill. With a fake history set up for him as a traitor to the Earth and jettisoned into space, Ian is forcibly enlisted by the Krill and begins working as a double agent, letting the United Earth Defense Force know what the Krill are up to.

During this time, Ian is linked with the Krill parasite, which allows him to speak Krillian and also fly their organic spaceships through a neural interface. Ian is also teamed up with a Krill female named Psyme, who makes Ice Queens look positively warm and cuddly.

As well, the more Ian becomes accepted and trusted by the aliens he has infiltrated, the more he learns that things aren’t as black and white as he thought. And that maybe…just maybe, he was working for the bad guys.

Sigma Star Story has easily the best story ever written for a 2D shooter. And even for an RPG, it’s amazingly good. None of the characters are cheap stereotypes. The dialogue is believable and well written. And unlike horribly over-rated games like Beyond Good and Evil that give you one nonsensical plot twist after another like something out of a badly done episode of Crash TV (Copyright Vince Russo), SSS never gives you an outright “So and so are good” and then changes back with little to no reason or depth behind the shift. Instead Sigma Star stays very low key throughout the entire game, with subtle comments and gray areas that leave it to you, the gamer, to decide which side you feel is right. And with 4 possible endings, you do actually influence the outcome of the war with your in game choices. SSS doesn’t leave you with a contrived or over the top ending or plot mish-mash. It instead focuses on the simple fact that in war, there are only winners and losers; not good and bad.

There’s really nothing I can say negative about the story. And although the plot does take away from me blowing things up in my ship, it really is quite good. My only complaint is that the plot involves a lot of running around space stations and back tracking with no XP gain, so it becomes a time waster. I’d rather have just had the plot be long and enjoyable cut scenes. But that’s just me.

In the end, SSS has one of the best plots out for any system currently available. I generally do not like Sci-Fi stories, but Sigma Star kept me highly entertained and curious a to what was going to happen next. If you like intrigue and even a touch of Sci-Fi blended with Noir, you’ll be quite happy sitting through this game. Even when you’re not shooting monsters down in your spacecraft.

Story Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

Being that Sigma Star is a GBA game, it’s not likely to wow anyone graphically. That being said though, SSS is visually impressive for what it manages to pull off on with Nintendo’s portable processors.

There are a lot of different enemies throughout SSS, which many specific to one of the 8 worlds you will encounter. Some are your generic spaceships and giant monsters shooting out lasers from their mouths, but all are well rendered and look better than a lot of the shooters I’ve played on the PS1, and even quite a few that I own for the Dreamcast.

There’s also the mini and end bosses of each world. These are all quite nicely done, and some are even pretty original for the shooter genre. However most fall into shooter cliche. But we’re grading of visual appeal in this category, not originality. That comes later. And SSS destroys R-Type III (another recent 2D shooter for the GBA release) graphically.

The character designs in SSS are decent as well. Again, we’re not talking anything revolutionary, even for the GBA. But we do have some nice head shots of every character with lines in the game.

The background layouts of the game are my favorite visual aspect of SSS. They are highly detailed and even though you’ll be seeing the same few level designs to the point where you literally will memorize time, they’re still very well done and deserve some acknowledgement.

Overall, Sigma Star Saga is pretty to look at, although if you spend too much time critiquing the graphics, you will die a terrible, terrible death. The graphics are good, but nothing to write home about. Better than serviceable or mediocre, but there are better looking shooters and GBA games out there.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

3. Sound

I just need to blurt this out right now to finally get it out of my brain: Most of the music from the Forest Planet (Stage 1) in this game sounds like it was ripped from the 8 Man After OVA DVD.

Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the score to SSS. The music is catchy and sticks in your head, but doesn’t overwhelm or distract. In a game like a shooter, this is of vital importance. Your ears need to be tuned to the sound of bullets or lasers not the background tunes.

There’s no voice acting per say in S3, but there are tiny sound bites like a girl laughing to represent Psyme or grunts of “SIR!” amongst the Krill. This is neither bad nor good, just informing you that Sigma Star lack voice acting.

Sound effects are mediocre. They’re not bad. They’re just very much in the same vein as every other shooter out there. Some shooting sounds, some monster sounds, and some explosions. It’s what you get. And in spades. Really, if you’ve even played ONE shooter, you know what I’m talking about here.

Sound we have an excellent score, no voice acting, and mediocre sound effects. Really, for a shooter, I’ve always found Sound to be the least important aspect of the genre. WayForward had done a good job here though. Even if I do think the 8 Man After guys have a potential lawsuit brewing…

Sound Rating: 7/10

4. Control & Gameplay

Although the game is billed as a RPG/Shooter hybrid, the focus is primarily on the Shooter aspects. In the shooter battles, you earn experience by destroying enemies and collecting the blue globes they leave behind. No globes = no experience. As you gain more and more experience, you will find your ship can withstand more damage and also dish more out. Usually when you come to a world for the first time, you’ll be just trying to stay alive. By the time you leave that world, you should have gained at least 10 levels and are now dispatching those same enemies with ease. Each level does give a noticeable power-up, especially when you compare to playing the same random battle when you’re level 1 and when you’re level 31, which should occur when you go back to the Forest Planet in Chapter 3.

Outside of the shooting battles, you have a top down map in which you guide Wrecker across the world. Here you will occasionally shoot monsters, but you gain no experience from these. Instead you may randomly be awarded a health power up or a “Smart Bomb,” which destroys all enemies on the screen in shooter mode. These come in very handy when you journey to a world for the first time and give you a nice XP reward to boost your levels. Other than that though, the map meandering is really as “RPG” as the game gets outside of leveling up.

There’s also the random battle aspect of this game. I, as a rule, loathe random RPG battles. It’s a cheap way to elongate the play time of the game and generally irritate most gamers, unless you’re of the munchkin/power gaming variety. In SSS however, I don’t mind them as much. If only because I love shooter battles. However, due to the very tiny amount of random levels that the game chooses from for you, you will find yourself playing the same battle DOZENS of times. And the only thing changing is the ship you end up driving.

Ah yes, you caught that didn’t you. Different ships. You see, not only are their random battles, but in each battle, your craft will be chosen for you. The game explains this by saying the ships are organic and sentient and they summon you to pilot them when in danger. I can live with that. I can even live with the random ships because it really hones your skill as a shooter gamer, and forces you to adapt to a slower or more hair trigger plane.

However, after an hour of this game, you will have it indomitably stamped into your brain that fat things or tall things suck and should be destroyed. And god forbid something be fat AND tall. This is one true hate of Sigma Star. Not the demeaning of bigger people. I agree with that completely. What I hate is entering a random battle in a level I know, and I mean KNOW is designed for a small ship and ONLY a small ship (due to my having played the bloody level 25 times before in previous random battles) and being stuck with what I call “The Retarded Whale with Down Syndrome” ship. It’s slow. It’s weak. It maneuvers like an anvil. And there is no way it will be able to fit into certain parts of certain levels due to its sides. Meaning death is a certainty. And of course this thankfully rare combination occurs when you’re about half an hour away from the very rare save points in the game, meaning you’re about to lose some gameplay time. Not enough to make you jump up and down on the GBA hoping to grind it and the cart to dust, but just enough to annoy the crap out of you and defuse all enjoyment you’ve been having to that point.

And yes, this will happen to you several times throughout the game. And it proves that in theory the random battles + random ships was an excellent idea, but when the rare combo of doom occurs, it merely serves to inspire homicidal rage.

Aside from this massive annoyance, the game handles beautifully. The controls on all the ships (Save the Retarded Whale and its two slightly smaller and slightly faster behemoth cousins) are tight and respond beautifully. There’s one specific ship that moves at the drop of a hat. For long time shooter fans, this will quickly become your favorite. For people new to the genre, you’ll probably hate how quickly and extreme it responds to your slightest touch.

I’m not going to go through each of the craft options, but all are quite unique and less than 2 hours into the game you’ll be able to differentiate them and how good they are just by sight. Then you two will be swearing at the giant ships and will be able to understand my pain.

Overall the game plays beautifully. It’s merely the combo of levels designed only for the smaller ships while getting tagged with the large ships that makes you wonder how much this game got playtested. The RPG elements are a great idea in the shooter stages, but the man exploration merely serves to drag the game down. Except when your character is rewarded with a power up or a wonderful new weapon or bullet type for your craft. Sigma Star Saga isn’t up to the levels of the console or Arcade shooters, but it is quite good in its own right, and the problems this game does suffer from are merely annoying rather than completely disruptive.

Control & Gameplay Rating: 7/10

5. Replayability
This is actually tricky here. For hardcore shooter fans, there’s a ton of Replayability. After all the consummate shooter fan replays a 2D shooter countless times. Not to get all the endings. Not to unlock 100% of everything. But to simply get better at the game. A hardcore shooter fan makes up their own rules. How far can they get without continues! Using the worst weapon set or ship in the game. Getting a higher score. Things like that. And with 4 endings this is going to give a shooter fan even more reason to come back and play through Sigma. Then there’s the 10,000 possible weapon combinations. Yes. You read that right. Ten. Thousand. With 28 types each of cannons, bullets, and impacts, this may be a shooter fan’s dream come true. Well, aside from the random ships.

But in the end, the game is still going to be 95% the same.

For an RPG’er, the Replayability is a little different. You have the four endings, but you will have to play through the game four times in order to see them all. And I don’t think many straight RPG fans have the patience or skill to sit through 20 hours of shooting even ONCE, much less four times. But for the rare crossbreed fan like myself, the option is happily available.

I’m going to say Sigma Star Saga has average replay value for an RPG fan, as there are longer game with more less linear gameplay than this. For Shooter fans, this gives you a lot more options than you are used to. So I’d say it’d be a 9 for replay value if only because it’s MUCH longer than most shooters and offers more options (if not difficulty).

So let’s average it out and call it good, okay?

Replayability Rating: 7/10

6. Balance

And if ever there was an Achilles heel for this game, this would be it. Shooters are supposed to be hard. In fact, they’re almost universally considered the hardest genre. However in SSS, there is either no challenge whatsoever or there are battles you can only cheese your way out of.

Let me explain. The hardest battles you will have in the game are the first and last stages in each chapter respectively. The first battle is because your ship is woefully underpowered for the chapter. If SSS played anything like a normal shooter, this would be no problem. You’d just dodge a lot. However, the only way to end a level is this game, is to kill a certain number of enemies. So in this case, you’ll be using a lot of smart bombs to clear the stage. The last battle of the stage is hard only because it’s so long. The law of averages catches up to you here.

However the bosses (and randomly occurring minibosses) are so easy, it’s pathetic. I’d be willing to wager that these are the easiest bosses in all of shooterdom. I realize the shooter aspects are a bit dumbed down for the stereotypical RPG gamer, but no 2D shooter fan is going to find challenge in this game, save for when you first come to a world. That or well the “your ship is too big for the level you are on” screw up occurs.

My biggest problem are the lack of save spots. Having minimal save spots or ones only in certain locations was fine back in say…the days of 8 bit or 16 bit gaming. Now there’s no reason for that kind of crap. Especially when there’s generally 3 save spots to a world, and all are amazingly far apart from each other. When you are given one of those random big ships, you’re going to be hit. There’s no way around it. And it would be nice to be able to save more frequently rather than lose an hour of gameplay simply because the random ship you were given can’t make it past the floating bluffs in a level.

Really, this is one of the worst shooters ever in terms of balance. The game is a cakewalk. I realize that this is probably to get new people (mainly RPG’ers) to embraced the all but defunct (in the US) 2D shooter genre. But it would have been nice to have a difficulty setting like in other action RPGS like Dark Alliance. I’m afraid the easiness of this game may turn off shooter fans, yet it will still probably be too difficult for the non-shooter fans.

SSS would have greatly balanced from having the first stage of each world being lighter and easier to get gamers used to what is to come, rather than have it being the hardest stage of the entire chapter. A nice gradual climb towards harder gameplay would probably keep more people interested in the game longer than they will be.

And more save spots damn it. Nothing annoys me more than having to back track in an RPG or god help me a SHOOTER to save my game. Especially when most shooters have an autosave option.

The rest of the review may be glowing, but this one bit can and probably will break the game for most people.

Balance Rating: 3/10

7. Originality

I can’t think of any other RPG/Shooter Hybrids at all. There’s tons of 2D Action RPG’s I can think of, but truly Sigma Star Saga is the first of its kind and does a pretty darn good job of blending two genres together. Sure it’s heavier on the Shooter aspects than the RPG ones, but the Shooter element had to be the more dominant, if only because that’s the battle gameplay. The story is well scripted and does on excellent job of keeping RPG fans entertained, even if they’re more used to picking an option out of a menu than darting and weaving.

Sigma Star Saga is one of the few games I can say is amazingly original in this day and age. Sure it rehashes some recycled bits from the shooter genre, but it’s hard not considering everything that’s been put out for this line of gaming since Asteroids. Aside from clinging to a few trappings, SSS proves that originality is far from dead. it’s truly an Occam’s Razor in action.

Originality Rating: 9/10

8. Addictiveness

This is a toughie. There were points were I would be very VERY into this game, forsaking pretty much everything else because I had been sucked in. Then I got a giant ship of lemming like doom and would watch 45 minutes of gameplay go up in smoke simply because there was so save spot anywhere near by. And that would disgust me so much, I’d turn the game off for the day and loathe the thought of going back to it. I developed a very strong love/hate relationship with SSS, and I’m a shooter fanatic. God knows that for people who aren’t as crazy about the genre as me, that the relationship fostered was probably more hate/hate. Especially with the ol’ turn based RPG aficionados.

I can’t believe how much better the game would score in a few categories if only the random battles and save spots had been thought out a bit more. But in the end some bad planning really does spoil the fun value of SSS in a lot of ways. NO ONE likes to replay an hour of gaming simply because they couldn’t get to a save spot. It’s a game killer. And SSS has this in spades. It’s too bad too, because aside from this one gigantic flaw o’ doom, the rest of the game sinks its claws into you and won’t let go.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

Hmm. This is hard. Shooters are pretty underwhelming in terms of sales here in the US. It’s not a very popular genre. While one can say there are a good deal of shooter fans who also play RPG’s, the reverse is less true. A lot of RPG gamers are not shooter fans. And your average casual RPG-aholic will be lacking the skills to play even this, which is a very dumbed down shooter. That’s not a knock on RPG’s or RPG fans. Hell, I love RPG’s. But turn based and tactical RPG’s are NOT games that hone your joystick skills. Action RPG’s yes, but not in the same way at all.

WayForward has done an amazing job of blending the two genres together. The real question is whether or not the two fanbases can blend together. And somehow, I just don’t see a Treasure fan being able to resist beating the tar out of a SquareEnix Squall/Tidus slash fan fiction writer.

For the rest of you, this really is “Baby’s First 2D shooter.” It’s much longer than most shooters, and it’s also easier. So this is probably the game that will help one decided if this is the genre they want to really start paying attention to or not.

I enjoy this game a lot (aside from certain annoyances…), but I’m probably in the distinct minority.

Appeal Factor: 4/10

10. Miscellaneous

I love shooters. Just keep on making them, and I will keep on buying them. And I am very happy to have a 20 hour shooter. Especially one I have to play 4 times to beat, with two endings only unlockable in New Game+ mode. I’m just ecstatic to have seen WayForward attempt this game genre combination. Sure there are some flaws, and some game killing flaws, but this was a first attempt. And a fine attempt it was.

The overall package is something I’d highly recommend to people looking to see if they would enjoy shooters. You’re getting 20 hours of gameplay for thirty bucks here, instead of shilling out that same kind of money for a game that lasts 1-5 hours like most shooters. it’s easier for a newbie to the genre to justify the gameplay length with SSS than with say…the vastly superior Gradius V that should be owned by everyone with a PS2.

Sigma Star does pale compared to most shooters, especially ones that you can find still today for the PS2 or Dreamcast. But in a drought of shooters this year, it’s more than enjoyed.

I’m hoping that this game does cause a lot of people to branch out and try a new genre, especially one as rewarding and challenging as 2D shooters, but it probably won’t.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores:

Story: 8/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 7/10
Control & Gameplay: 7/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 3/10
Originality: 9/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal: 4/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10

Overall Score: 63/100

Short Attention Span Summary
Sigma Star Saga is neither a great RPG, nor a good shooter. However it is an above average mix of the two genres. An excellent first attempt, this fusion of my two favorite genres can only get better with each passing attempt. I really hope this is not a one shot by WayForward, as I would love to see more Shooter RPG’s. Where Jade Empire was an overrated RPG with some simplified shooter levels, SSS is a Simplified shooter with some RPG elements. I’d still recommend this over Jade Empire any day (even though I gave Jade Empire a 7) for shooter fans, but even they may be disappointed.