Any list of great PS2 exclusive titles wouldn't be complete without The Red Star, a two player side scrolling shooter released in 2007. Most gamers have probably never heard of it, but if you missed it the first time, it's now on the iPhone and the PSP via the PSN. Other than the removal of two player support, the game still has its charm -- and issues -- intact.
Reach For the Star
The Red Star takes place in a futuristic Russia known as the United Republics of the Red Star, or URRS. Gamers will
play as one of three Red Star agents, only two of which are initially available. The third character, Maya, is unlocked after completing the game. Whether you go with Makita for her speed, or Kyuzo for power, you'll face hordes of enemy forces in an attempt to stop Imbohl and Troika and the suffering of the people of the Red Star.
The experience is broken up into nineteen chapters, each generally harder than the next. In between, you'll tap through brief updates to the story that presented to you via text. At the end of each chapter, an upgrade screen with multiple options appears so that you can spend your earned points. Points are only earned by your performance on chapters, which are graded or ranked in a typical alphabetical system (A being great, C being average, etc).
But before I get ahead of myself, let's talk about how The Red Star plays. The analog nub is used to move the player while Circle is for your ranged attacks. Square is for melee attacks, X turns up your shield, RT locks onto enemy targets and allows for strafing, the d-pad is used to cycle through ranged weapons, Triangle unleashes your Protocol attack, and the LT is for pivoting. The Protocol attack is a brief, but very powerful attack that can be fired after you build up its meter. Melee attacks are the fastest way to earn a Protocol attack.
For the most part, these controls work well, but there are two annoying caveats to this. One, it can be a battle to get your character to face the right direction. Turning around ninety or 180 degrees should have been a lot smoother, and there are numerous times where I wish I could just get my darn character to turn around while moving. Most boss fights -- and there are generally two or more per chapter -- involve maneuvering around tons of enemy fire. Being able to move smoothly while turning around to get a better shot at the boss is important, but it's not as easy as it should be, making for some very annoying scenarios. The problem isn't just with boss fights either, and it gets more apparent with just regular battles leading up to boss fights as the game goes on.
Second, it can be tough to get your character to lock onto the enemy you're trying to lock onto. For example, many times you'll be facing numerous "melee only" opponents, meaning they have a shield up that permanently blocks ranged attacks. As many times, the game also throws in some enemies or turrets with ranged attacks of their own, and obviously it's those foes that you want to be able to target and take out from a distance. Well, as you might predict, you'll often target the melee enemies who are impervious to ranged attacks, forcing you to keep running and keep tapping RT in an effort to target the right enemies. As intense as some of the battles get in The Red Star, this is a very notable annoyance.
Speaking of annoyances -- and truthfully, The Red Star really doesn't have all that many -- the lack of checkpoints is a real pain in the ass. You can imagine the frustration of getting through 95% of a level, only to just barely die at the final boss and having to start entirely over again as though you were never there. What's worse is, you cannot return to the Upgrade screen after you start a mission. The save takes place after the Upgrade screen, so if you missed out on what could have been a really helpful upgrade or took a chance on an upgrade and didn't like, tough luck. There's only one save spot and you will only see that after you beat a chapter, and at no other time.
Second, each chapter has several great areas that would be perfect for checkpoints, considering most chapters have at least two bosses. Why the heck not give players a checkpoint here and the option to restart the chapter if they want to? It didn't make any sense to me and it makes the game much more of a bear to play through, especially when your demise can be attributed to the iffy targeting and the aggravating 'turning' controls.
So yeah, I have my issues with The Red Star, but overall it's still a very good, if not great, game. For one, I like the blend of third person action with that of a SHMUP, or old school shooter. Combat is nicely balanced between melee attacks and ranged attacks. Each character has a few combos or special attacks too, but these aren't very elaborate and generally, you'll be going through the same button sequences from one enemy to the next. Enemies are varied and will keep you on your toes as they attack with different speeds, HP levels, and varied ranged and melee attacks. Each enemy is briefly profiled upon first encounter too, which is neat and adds some additional substance to The Red Star universe. You can look at each these profiles by pressing Select. The environment will offer challenges too in the form of turrets and moving barriers. There are also a few dozen bosses that will test your mettle.
Other neat gameplay mechanics include the cooldown meters for your ranged attack and shield. There are three guns you buy that you can switch between during play with a tap of the d-pad. Different guns fill up your ranged attack meter at different rates. Furthermore, there are upgrades that slow your rate of heat and speed up your cooldown. Visual and aural cues keep you clued in to the status of your ranged attack meter. If you max it out, which isn't too uncommon, you'll have to go without for several seconds. The same goes for your shields; using these consecutively for too long will cause them to be unusable for several seconds.
The upgrade system is neat too, and gives players a good sense of customization. There are about ten upgrades you can purchase, and each of those categories has three levels (of increasing expense) that can also be purchased. I went with the 'reduced damage' upgrade and maxed it out about as quickly as I could, and that's served me well. I have my eye on several other upgrades though and it's always a joy to see CLEAR at the end of a chapter, indicating new points for new upgrades.
As for presentation, The Red Star is intriguing. I like the mix of camera angles that go from zoomed in, horizontal view to zoomed out top down view and a variety of isometric views in between. Graphically, it's a nice looking game with smooth animations and some neat effects. The environments aren't bad, although they probably won't blow you away. From a sound standpoint, I like the effects, including the screams of the enemy and the cues regarding your cooldown meters. The soundtrack isn't as apparent or constant, but it gets the job done.
With that, let's get to the summary...