During the course of this article I have already praised way too many games for being remarkably well-made considering they had been developed by some single guy, possibly assisted by someone else creating the music. PewPew not only has a brilliantly fitting name for a shooter, but it also manages to outshine its big brand inspiration, obviously being Geometry Wars (as for most games in this category), despite once more having no more than two guys working on it and best of all, it has become freeware since the release of PewPew 2.
The basics are the same as in Geometry Wars if not even further simplified, as your arsenal lacks a smart bomb. The left stick is reserved for movement and the right one shoots in any direction you choose. Controls are tried and true and they work perfectly here. Removing the bomb feature means you also never have to worry about hitting any button or double tapping the screen so you can always stay focused on the sticks. Another incredibly simple, yet effective twist is how you pause the game. Other games would require you to pinpoint a small pause button somewhere on the screen, not only forcing you to use a hand that could otherwise be used for actualy gameplay, but also requiring some precious attention with attention being one of the most valuable virtues in shooters. PewPew simply requires you to not touch the screen. It's as easy as that to put everything to a halt.
There are four distinctively different play modes with Pandemonium resembling Bizarre's role model the closest. Waves of enemies appear inside a square-shaped arena and all you have to worry about is destroying as many of them as you can while staying alive. Every once in a while a shield powerup (effectively an exra life) or a temporary weapon upgrade appears. Enemy variation sorely lacks, but it is still a lot more interesting than Geometry Wars's endless killing spree. Part of this is due to the one and only stage available containing big circles that can be used as cover from what is the second reason why this mode is so much fun: Differently colored cubes bounce around the stage, emitting deadly asteriks upon being destroyed. So what this mode boils down to is quick thinking instead of mindless shooting. Green and yellow cubes shatter into all directions in predictable shapes and cyan cubes drop a deadly thick curtain of asteriks right in the direction they have been attacked from. You need to remember what consequences shooting a certain enemy has and quickly reassess where you might be hiding at any given moment or where you could possibly fly straight through a line of enemies to reach some precious powerup, while eventually ceasing fire.
Dodge This doesn't really play like a shooter. It starts out all nice and quite with you picking up a red box in a big open rectangular stage. As soon as you do, a green circular entity appears and simply moves in a straight line, bouncing off walls, not minding your presence at all. This cycle repeats ad nauseam until the stage is littered with enemies, rendering the chase for the those boxes more and more dangerous. You can't shoot at all, but at least touching an enemy does not only deduce one of your lives, but it also kills said enemy. Sometimes yellow boxes also appear that grant you another life so you need to evaluate whether it is worth the risk to hunt down those items as well or if you want to focus on the red ones, especially given that picking up the red boxes quickly grants more points. Just like in Pandemonium this mode requires a lot of thought and allows for different approaches. You could either play it a bit safer by waiting and analyzing or you might want to take the risky path and speed ahead, relying mostly on your reflexes.
Assault gives back the ability to shoot and thank God it does. This time your craft is trapped inside a peculiarly small square shaped arena with nowhere to hide and lines of enemies constantly spawning. This time there are only two types of enemies, but they are sure to keep you on your toes at all times. The blue ones always spawn in big packs at either wall moving straight to the adjacent wall. The red ones do the same, but they only spawn in packs of one or two, they take more than one hit and they bounce off the walls instead of disappearing. Most of the time the screen is full of enemies turning this into by far the most frantic mode. When walls of enemies close in from the left, the right and from above as you aim for a small opening in an enemy line beneath you all while firing away at those hordes all around, you quickly come to realize where this mode's name came from. It's probably as claustrophobic as shooters can ever get. In another assault on your nervous system you also need to pick up additional shield powerups and combo multipliers regularly in your attempt to rank in a nice score.
Chromatic Conflict possibly has the most interesting premise, yet ends up being the weakest of the bunch. In a vaguely triangle-shaped arena it is once more your duty to shoot as many enemies as possible, though this time most of them are assigned a specific color which results in them only being affected by a weapon of the same color. By flying over one of the six color pads strewn throughout the stage (two blue ones, two red ones and two green ones; no yellow ones, oddly enough) your ship as well as its shots adapt to the respective color. Later on, cyan, purple and white enemies start appearing which require you to hit them twice or thrice, respectively. with different colors. Hitting a cyan enemy with a blut shot for example first turns them green after which they can be disposed off with a green shot. The concept is nice on paper and it also manages to be enjoyable for a short while, but it soon turns out to be too convoluted as you see yourself helplessly stumble through packs of enemies you simply can't hurt or merely strip them of a color, trying to reach that elusive red/green/blue pad.
PewPew's presentation is fantastic for a game with such a setting, especially when comparing its music to the one of Geometry Wars on the iPhone. The music hits the right balance between reminding you of what a frantic game you're playing and trying to soothe you down a bit, alternating between both styles on the fly. It's all electronic as would be expected and it's the same in all modes, but that's really not a bad thing given its quality. The graphics are crisp clear and packed with nice explosion and shot effects. A nice touch is how the walls in Pandemonium vibrate along to the beat of the music. Adding incentive for further gaming sessions are online leaderboards as well as unlockable medals that grant access to new ships. Every highscore for every mode also stores a three-dimensional replay of that game. It's a real treat being able to relive your best and possibly most explosion filled games without any of the stress involved and even being able to swing around and pan the camera as you please.
Other dual-stick shooters like Last Line of Defense try to shine with new ideas and yet others like Meteor Blitz rely more on competent execution. Isotope doesn't tread either path, nor does it aim for the middle ground, instead it achieves to seamlessly introduce new mechanics AND deliver an all-around great experience.
The developers call their game a retro arena shooter with RPG elements and as such it rewards every kill with experience points. Level-ups subsequently earn you skill skill points used to increase your main weapon's damage output, increase your lifebar (yes, there is no need to fear instant deaths here) or add so-called CPU points. These CPU points are required for purchasing various satellites (think other shooters's options) and modules, further increasing your ship's stats. Another welcome side-effect of disposing of enemies (besides the obvious effect of making your surroundings a safer place) is the cash you earn this way, which can be used to buy the aforementioned satellites and modules as well as additional ships and so-called abilities, which act as Isotope's equivalent of an RPG's magic spells; knock enemies back, remove enemy bullets, heal yourself and so on.
Outside of this for a shooter uncommonly deep customization system, creating the good old “just one more level-up; just this one next item” sense of addiction, Isotope's truly unique nature lies in its level design. Unlike rivals like Geometry Wars where you either try and stay alive as long as possible in a single stage, repeating the process again and again, or try to earn medals in confined stages by scoring certain amounts, here you can choose between about three dozens of stages, each with a set starting point and a set route taking you through numerous rooms before you finally get to face a unique boss to end the stage. Each room remains safe until you enter a blue circle, triggering the enemy waves and locking the gates out. This way you can check out a room's layout and check it for possible hideouts to use, before you engage in battle. Anybody not into this kind of progression might be glad to know that there is also a more traditional survival mode available, taking place inside your typical rectangular arena with constantly spawning enemy hordes.
Enemies at first drip with the pesterous odor of counter-productivity. In a game setting out to breathe some fresh air into the videogame world's dead horse genre, you are given nothing but standard cannon fodder to fight against. The deeper you delve into the game, however, the more interesting foes it unleashes. Stationary gun turrets spawn, cog-shaped enemies emit bullets in all directions upon being hit, other enemies leave behind lethal trails like the Tron bikes and the Snake, uhm snakes. Bosses also boast a healthy amount of variety both in visual design and armament, although they admittedly start out too easy. Multi-segmented snakes are torn apart bit by bit. A cute little red dot unleashes a huge laser.
It's easy to dismiss Isotope's artistic design as a bit too closely inspired by Geometry Wars, brimming with cold atmosphere, geometrical figures serving as enemies and an all-electronical soundtrack. That's not doing the game any justice, though. The whole ground is divided into squares, which are being lit up correspondingly by the differently colored enemies traversing them and as you destroy your opponents they shatter apart into a myriad of shrapnels, which also color those ground-squares, resulting in a rainbow spreading farther and farther until it suddenly dies off after an intense battle, leaving you behind in a cold and empty corridor. The music isn't quite as inspired, but its calm tunes nicely fit the mood of this comparatively slow dual-stick shooter. Hitting an enemy is rewarded with a sound reminiscent of glass shattering.
If there is anything to criticize about Isotope, it would have to be one of the most disputed RPG staples: The need for grinding. Whenever you purchase a new ship, it's down to the minimum stats, with no possibility given to transfer another ship's skill points and experience, forcing you to fight a couple of easy battles before attempting the next level on your agenda. At least the survival mode presents a quick way of building up experience.
While it can't entirely shake off the accusal of taking more than just a single note from Geometry Wars, Critical Wave has enough fresh ideas and design choices going for it to carve its own niche and even arguably surpass Bizarre Creations' title. Just whatever you do, make sure to change controls in the advanced options menu ASAP. By standard, controls are set to tilting and auto-aiming, which makes movement slightly unreliable and aiming horribly unreliable, since your craft usually focuses on exactly the one enemy you'd want to hit the least. Standard dual-stick controls luckily work great and thanks to the camera following your motions admirably, your fingers usually don't get in the way of your eyes.
The setting is about as abstract as you'd expect it to be in this particular sub-genre. The usual cubes and diamonds are accompanied by racing-car-insect-hybrids and goggle-eyed circles. While these standard enemies each have different behaviors and stats such as front-shields, shattering into smaller bits or ramming at high-speed when getting up close, they are of a lot less significance than in, say, Geometry Wars. Critical Wave drops the usual endless-battle-structure in favor of stages, with later stages introducing more and more mini-bosses that roam the arena. Long-stretched Asian dragon style worms for example can be torn apart bit by bit, while Magneton-style (the Pokémon Magneton) foes slow down your craft.
Regularly, mines are placed somewhere in the stage, complete with a counter mercilessly ticking down until you've destroyed them. Luckily, if you don't want to aimlessly search for them, you can make use of the auto-pause function already established in PewPew (release the sticks to immediately stop all enemies and bullets in their tracks), and pinch the screen to zoom out and get an overview of the whole battlefield. Another interesting enemy type is the border patrol (you read that right). These metallic diamonds only appear after you've flown through the stage boundaries, making you reappear at the other end of the level, though now you will not only have more enemies to cope with, but you also first have to defeat all border guards to open the borders for transition again.
The most interesting enemy and at the same time the best reason to play Critical Wave, meanwhile, would have to be the bosses. The first big bad guy is nothing but a small sphere with four measly laser turrets attached to it, but with every level the same kind of puny sphere is pimped out with more and more arms, missile turrets, energy cannons and the potential to creep the living hell out of you. Every stage opens with a preview on the boss, pointing out every single weapon it has attached, and soon they grow completely out of proportion, requiring both fast and clever hit and run strikes against whatever segment you feel like needs to be destroyed first to remove the most dangerous turrets. At least, the bosses's attacks also damage standard enemies, increasing the emphasis on the bosses even further.
The bosses only appear once you've defeated enough standard enemies and mini-bosses, giving you a chance to collect credits, with which to fund upgrades. The upgrade feature could use some more meat, though, because as it is, the only viable way of spending your points is to invest them into your main rapid-fire or alternatively into the stronger-at-the-cost-of-speed laser you can always switch to. The extremely short-ranged shockwave, the annoyingly slowly recharging homing missile blast and the ability to cross borders more often simply don't hold a candle to the more traditional upgrades.
Regardless of your choices, Critical Wave is one of those games where later stages become nearly impossible to beat, as the bosses start to litter the entire screen with bullets all while heat-seeking missiles follow your every move and the big lasers are already charging up. Anybody not content with dieing in stage 10 or so, should give the custom mode a go, where loads of options can highly individualize the difficulty. Even complete invincibility and a fully upgraded craft can be chosen here. Unless you activate invincibility – which probably next to nobody will do consistently – another issue remains, however: There doesn't seem to be any indicator for your health. You just take damage and then all out of a sudden your craft starts glowing and then detonates.
Unlike Geometry Wars, Critical Wave doesn't take place in open space, but inside a computer, letting you duke it out against viruses. While this isn't the most original setting, it's at least better than, well, space all over again. The view on the battlefield is slightly panned, making for a neat 3D-effect, and the visuals in general are very crisp and loaded with effects such as explosions and dynamic lighting. Particularly the effect of the background changing whenever a boss appears is setting the mood very nicely. As long as you're only facing standard foes and mini-bosses, the scenery is brightly colored in strong shades of red, green or yellow, but as soon as a boss approaches, everything turns black, with only shots lighting up the surrounding area, as if the sheer size and power of the bosses wasn't already enough to intimidate any player.
While this Korean dual-stick shooter strongly resembles Geometry Wars on the surface, relying on a simple rectangular playing field in which to fight repeatedly spawning abstract enemies, that shine brightly and explode into numerous particles, it still has enough on offer to set it apart and arguably even above the game that inspired it.
For starters, Particle Wars consists of 12 single-player missions, entirely designed beforehand, omitting the randomization often seen in the subgenre. The lack of additional play modes like at least an endless mode is unfortunate, but this decision also ensures the lack of dull moments on your first playthrough. The stages each get crazier with more and more enemies spawning simultaneously and new types of foes constantly being introduced. Geometry Wars has those few scripted moments where for example four black holes open up in the corners. The enemy formations in Particle Wars, though, have all been scripted and all feel well-designed, which is a far cry from some of the unfair moments and from the repetition both found in other dual-stick shooters.
Circles, triangles, squares. None of those standard abstract foes have made it into Particle Wars. Developer Ae Rim Park has instead crafted dozens of enemies of various different forms, ranging from cones and insects to whirls, snakes made of arcs, and other organisms. It's often hard to tell what exactly something is supposed to be, but it never fails being visually appealing and simply interesting to look at. More importantly, enemies also benefit from a large disposal of behaviors, constantly keeping the experience fresh, as previously introduced foes mix up with new ones, requiring you to repeatedly adapt to the surroundings anew. Some enemies move straight from wall to wall, others home in on the player, some protect themselves with small organisms which they also hurl at you, some move in large arcs, bouncing off walls, and so on.
Particle Wars generally deviates quite a bit from the standard presentation of the genre. The bright explosions and the overall abundance of colorful effects are a staple of its kind, but where one would expect the usual electronic beats to be pumping in the background, there simply is no music to be heard here at all. Only eery, atmospheric wind whistling and other ambient sounds. Also, enemy spawning is often accompanied by a loud drum sound, leaving no doubt about the action picking up. The colorful background depicting organs and other organic material further intensifies the overall tense and creepy atmosphere.
If there was one thing to criticize about Particle Wars besides the lack of replay value, it would have to be the rocket item. Every now and then a useful pickup like a shield that damages enemies up-close or a multi-shot appear, but sometimes, you'll get homing missiles which are great in the first few stages, before your standard weapon has been (automatically) upgraded a couple of times. Once it has, though, the missiles suffer from a low rate of fire and not that high a damage output, as it should have. Plus, it lasts for far too long before you finally revert back to your standard weapon.
Some games prove to be both savior and doom to their respective genres, like a pact with the devil or any other evil deity of which you can't foresee the dark consequences it brings along in the near future. Diablo helped promote not only Action-RPGs, but RPGs as a whole, though some would argue that its success was too much to handle for the industry as most Action-RPGs after it would follow suit too closely. Another example is that ever since Bizzare Creations's runaway success with Geometry Wars one has to be glad for every single dual-stick shooter that doesn't feel at least remotely (and largely for the most part) like a Geometry Wars copy. Last Line of Defense manages to be one of those exceptions, both in style and gameplay.
The story - which really is only told on the App Store, but nowhere in the game itself – revolves around a little drone that stays loyal until the end, still defending its home base even though it is the only survivor after an interplanetary war. Apparently the drone as well as the aliens are tiny or some sort of radiation caused the acorns on earth to turn huge as the first stage features an acorn in the upper left of the arena that takes up considerably more space than tanks, missiles, zeppelines and heck, even the home base you are supposed to defend.
In five levels your goal is to keep an eye on your base all while blasting away at the never ceasing stream of enemies. Luckily an update added traditional dual-stick controls to the (expectedly) awful motion controls and the rather low speed of most adversaries guarantees that you are in control pretty much all the time so you can focus on the action. Enemies either go straight for your base or for you, either using heat-seeking missiles or laser guns. A cool aspect to that is that it is very well possible to return from a small trip away from the base only to see some amoeba getting close and firing off missiles at your base, so you sweep in between them, taking down the missiles on the way, similar to bodyguards jumpcatching a bullet to protect their employer or Homer Simpson protecting the mayor by eating his potentially poisoned steak in midair.
The slight Tower Defense element is further intensified through the addition of mines. Purple gems randomly appear on the playing field, ready to be picked up. Afterwards three of them can be turned into a mine that takes down pretty much everything in one hit and it's even not timed, but motion acivated. Since enemies usually come in from set directions with especially big and sturdy targets appearing at certain intervals it quickly becomes mandatory for survival to strategically booby-trap the playing field and to keep away minor enemies from the traps so they don't go to waste. On the shooter end of things other items also spawn every now and then like health packs, threeway guns and wave shots, although they are quite rare and could use some more variety. Unfortunately the enemies also lack variety. The big ones all behave the same (as in, not behaving all that much, but simply moving forward slowly) and the smaller ones tend to blend in to each other too much.
Despite the promising premise and the charming visuals (the light parallax scrolling combined with blurry objects high up in the air like twigs looks especially nice), Last Line of Defense gets repetetive rather quickly, something which arguably could be said for most of its brethren as well. Here, though, it doesn't help that all levels play the same with the same weapons, mostly the same enemies and no playing field specific hazards or physics. Another annoyance is the way mines are placed. Instead of mapping it to a simple tap on the screen or to a double tap, there is a small button next to the right stick which is easy to miss during hectic moments. All in all fans of dual-stick shooters can do a lot worse than with Last Line of Defense and it offers a refreshing take on the genre, ultimately falling a tad flat due to a lack of variety.