Square-Enix normally isn’t a company you think of when it comes to taking chances. They’re best known for RPG’s, primarily Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. However they’ve definitely taken some chances within that genre with games ranging from Rings of Fate for the PSX to the upcoming Lord of Vermillion II.
When it comes to actually making or publishing games outside this genre, they’ve just started to get their feet wet thanks to the purchase of Taito and Eidos. Still, that’s using subsidiaries to test out other genres and not fully using the S-E brand. Right now the two biggest examples of Square publishing a non-RPG are Nanashi no Game, an awesome horror adventure game which will never see the light of day in the US, and now Thexder Neo. This latter is a PSP exclusive traditional shooter released earlier this month that incorporates a fighter jet/mech transformation option similar to the old Robotech games.
Many of you probably aren’t familiar with the Thexder series, as it was primarily a PC series, although there was a NES release of the first game. The series was originally done by Game Arts and I have to admit, it’s an odd choice to revive as it was never very popular in the first place due to its roots as a PC shooter rather than being released for arcades or consoles. So is Thexder Neo worth your ten dollars and room on your PSP’s memory, or was this a misfire by a company who you normally wouldn’t think of when it comes to shoot ’em ups?
You have two modes of play: The first is Single Player, where you run through stages until you die, with the twofold goal of surviving as long as you can and racking up a high score. There’s two difficulty settings, but other than that, it’s pretty straightforward with what you get.
The second is online mode, but to be honest, the reason it has taken me so long to get this review done is because I have tried literally a hundred times to find someone online to play against, and there has yet to be anyone. Even if I make a room of my own and just leave my PSP on for half an hour or so, nothing happens. That’s really sad. I finally had to try it out against MYSELF using both my PSP 1000 and my PSP 3000. Here you just play against people to see who has the best time. You “win” by being the first to destroy three flags. Again, that’s all there is to it.
Thexder Neo is about as bare bones as you can get and as a long time shooter fan, it is especially depressing to see that Zereo put time and effort into an online mode…and then no one uses it. Single Player is very straight forward and a bit dull to play after a few times as the game lacks most of the qualities that make traditional shoot ’em ups appealing in the first place. Even for ten dollars, this is a bit of a bust here. When one mode is fairly boring and the other is all but unusable, you won’t really be getting much use out of your purchase here.
Modes Rating: Bad
Square-Enix is known for having extremely high production values with sound and visuals. Sadly, this isn’t the case here. The best looking thing here is the title screen. Neither your mech-jet, the backgrounds or all your potential enemies have much detail to them. Everything is kept very generic and plain. Don’t get me wrong, what’s here is certainly serviceable or acceptable, but nothing really goes beyond that. I mean, compare this game to Robotech: The Macross Saga for the Game Boy Advance. It’s basically superior in every way, especially visuals and character design, and that game is nearly a decade old.
Enemies aren’t even enemies per say, but are roadblocks in design and appearance. They take the form of things ranging from exploding walls to lava-like pits or saw blades. Enemies are pretty uninspired and it’s hard to get excited about any of them, especially as the ones that actually move just home in on you and butt up against you, draining your power. There’s no challenge or hand-to-eye co-ordination needed.
Again, I was a bit disappointed by the minimal effort put into the visuals. The game is by no means ugly, but there are multiple shooters available for the PSP, all with superior graphics if that’s what your primary concern is.
Graphics Rating: Mediocre
Again, considering this bears the Square-Enix branding, the music is a bit disappointing. There isn’t a lot of variety to the score, and the tracks aren’t particularly catchy. Now with most traditional shooters, this is understandable as any little distraction equals death in these games. As that isn’t the case here, you would think the music would be up to S-E’s usual standards. Alas, the only really strong musical track is the one on the title screen.
Sound effects are like the rest of this game: forgettable and below average. The one you’ll hear the most is your laser. There’s also sounds for your shield firing up or your mech jumping, but other than that, there’s not much here. I totally understand a ten dollar game being pretty lackluster compared to a full high budget release, but really, you can get Everyday Shooter or Soldner-X for the same cost and again, they do everything in a far superior manner than this game.
There’s barely anything here to talk about aurally. Like the rest of the game, it appears that Zereo put the minimum effort in to this production.
Sound Rating: Poor
4. Control and Gameplay
There is a lot of debate within the shooter community as to whether the Thexder series is even a shooter. Many make a strong claim for this to be a platformer and I don’t disagree. None of the usual shooter trappings are here. The game is not about crazy hand to eye co-ordination. The game lacks any over the top difficulty. The game lacks precise hair trigger controls. Hell, the only real thing Thexder Neo has in common with a “true” shooter like Gradius or R-Type is that you are piloting a ship. Other than that, I wouldn’t be using the shooter genre for this game if Square-Enix themselves didn’t classify it as such.
The basic flow of the game is that you have to get your jet-mech through a maze. You have a life bar that slowly goes down as you are hit or use powers like shields or your laser. You can collect health orbs from certain specific enemies and you can also raise your health by collecting upgrades or between levels when the game calculates how you performed on the previous level. You die when your energy level hits zero. If you’re playing on Easy, you can continue. If you’re playing on normal, it’s start over time.
However, describing the gameflow and actually playing the game are two very different beasts. If I have to classify this game as a traditional shooter, than Thexder Neo is easily the worst shooter I have ever played. Piloting in jet mode is sluggish at best. It’s akin to driving a tank with how slow your vehicle turns. Dodging or maneuvering is all but impossible and for long time shooter fans (Bullet Hell or normal side/vertical scrollers alike), playing this game will only lead to long bouts of profanity due to how imprecise and laggy everything feels. Even turning is a massive burden due to how large the arcs your ship will take are. It’s just not very well done or fun.
Mech controls are slightly better, but not by much. Your mech only fires directly in front of you, although if you hold down the R button you can move left or right while firing. You’ll definitely find yourself using this mode unless you absolutely have to be in jet mode (due to the size of a passageway for example) due to the fact you can actually aim or stop moving here.
Button placement is also ass-backwards, but thankfully you can rearrange these into something saner. The X button, which is almost universally the “attack” button in most games, regardless of genres is a jump button in this. You laser is the O button and Triangle toggles the transformation between modes. Shields are the Square button and although these drain power from your energy bar, it also blocks damage. Of course, as getting hit drains your life much as shields do, what’s the point, right? Well, in later stages, it’s worth using, but in the first two stages, using the shields might actually do more harm than good. This is insane.
You probably won’t get past stage two or three your first few times playing, as the game is merely memorizing the best way through each maze and remember not to jam on the laser button like you would in a real shooter.
With horrible controls, sluggish gameplay and a lack of all the things that actually make a shooter worth experiencing, Thexder Neo really isn’t a game worth your time.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Poor
Single Player mode will be boring after a half a dozen attempts through it simply due to the control issues and the lackluster visuals. Online Mode might as well not be on there as I’m the only person ever on it, and Cthulhu knows I won’t be after I finish this review.
The only real reason to come back to this game is to try and outdo your high score in Single Player, and that gets old pretty quickly, especially after you’ve figured out the mazes. There’s just so little substance or quality here, that most gamers will put this down permanently after an hour or two. No one is playing this two weeks after its release. Hell no one was playing this a week into its release if online mode is any indication. There are dozens of better ways to spend ten dollars in the PSP Store. Go for those.
Replayability Rating: Bad
Due to the control issues and the poor maneuverability your ship/mech has in this game, you would think the game would feel wildly unbalanced. In fact, due to the game’s relative ease and shallowness, the two negative issues actually balance out in a weird sort of way. The only real challenges are remembering not to constantly use your guy and in memorizing the map so you can get the highest score in the shortest amount of time. Usually dodging would be part of this equation as well, but it’s simply not possible in Thexder Neo, hence the shields as your major defensive tool.
As I said earlier, most people will just make it to the second or third stage before their life runs out. The only real obstacle is conserving your energy. Like everything else in the game, that makes TN pretty dull, but at least it’s not horrible broken.
Balance Rating: Mediocre
Well, as the series has been dormant for fifteen years, the series might feel fresh and original to people who haven’t experienced it before. This particular entry seems to be more of a puzzle/platformer hybrid than a real shooter, but regardless of how you want to classify it, it’s lackluster in all respects. Still, there is something to be said for the fact this is a game where you WILL die and that it’s more about prolonging the inevitable. Sure, this has been done before multiple times, and certainly it’s been done by far superior games, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen a game where your very life is racing against the clock, so I can say Thexder Neo at least has THAT going for it.
A fourteen year gap between games is enough to let this feel fresh even to those that are familiar with the series. Moreover it means that the vast majority of gamers are unfamiliar with the franchise name and will buy it based on a Square-Enix pedigree rather than knowing that the series was never critically acclaimed nor actually enjoyed by shooter enthusiasts.
Originality Rating: Mediocre
I have to tell you, after an hour with this game, I was pretty bored with single player mode. I kept trying to see if each progressive stage would provide any real change, but I never encountered any. It was always the same enemies and the same basic level design. I can’t begin to tell you how boring that gets.
Of course, it didn’t help that I spent HOURS trying to find people to play against online and never did. That means even if you somehow LOVE the game, you’ll still be stuck with solo mode and thus only get to use half the game. Whoopie.
Even if you were the mostly blindly loyal Square-Enix fan or a person who will play any shooter, no matter how bad it is, you still won’t spend more than a few hours with this game before putting it down forever. It’s no wonder it’s a Herculean task to find someone to play against.
9. Appeal Factor
I honestly can’t think of who is really going to enjoy this game. As a puzzle game, the controls are poor and it’s more rote memorization than anything. As a platformer, it’s mediocre at best. As a traditional shooter, this is a sin against nature. I really wanted to like this game. I really did, but it was so god awful boring, unimaginative and poorly done, that it was a chore each time I tried to play this. It also didn’t help that the online mode was nonexistent due to no one being on no matter what time or what day I checked it.
The only people that are going to enjoy this are people who have fond memories of the original Thexder. I understand that every game is SOMEONE’s favourite, but the potential audience for this turkey is next to nothing. Spend your ten dollars in a wiser fashion than this.
Appeal Factor: Dreadful
I’m going to take this time to bring up a severe issue I have with the current state of gaming that has pissed me off since Phantasy Star Online for the Sega Dreamcast. If you devote more than a fraction of your game to online play then you are doing both it and your audience a massive disservice. Part of the fun of video games is going back and being able to play it when ever you want. Sure you might have to blow into that NES cart or buy a new battery for your Sega Saturn’s internal memory, but you can STILL PLAY THEM. Can I still play Phantasy Star Online? Not without being part of a very niche community that still maintains servers and 56K modem play. When a server goes down for the last time or a publisher no longer supports the online portion of a game, you basically have a pile of garbage on your hands.
Thexder Neo is a perfect example of why online gaming can be such a horrible idea due to poor implementation. At the very start, due to no one ever being online or having made a room (save for me), you lose half the potential content. This game is only two weeks old and NO ONE IS PLAYING IT. Granted this isn’t as bad as other games with online play, but this still leaves 50 percent of the game’s content unaccessible save for luck or actually setting up a play time with friends who might have purchased this. This simply isn’t cool.
Due to this little snafu and the boring sub-par experience that is single player mode, Thexder Neo isn’t worth playing even if it was free. This is a game to avoid at all costs, and to also hold up as a shining examples of the dangers of gearing a game too much towards online play.
Miscellaneous Rating: Worthless
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Appeal Factor: Dreadful
FINAL SCORE: PRETTY POOR GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Even at ten dollars, Thexder Neo is not worth your time. Single player mode is boring, uninspired and has as much in common with a real shooter like Ikaruga or Gradius V as a pachinko game. The controls are sluggish and steering in jet mode is harder than driving in that old M-1 Abrams tank simulator I used to have for the Sega Genesis. Online mode consists of fifty percent of the game’s content, but as NO ONE has been online every time I’ve checked since the game has been released two weeks ago, it might have well have not been included. There are numerous other games in the PSP store to spend (or even waste) ten dollars on. Sorry Square, but your money and time would have been better spent localizing “The Game With No Name” for the Nintendo DS instead of this.