Titles from Gaijin Games' Bit.Trip series were originally members of an exclusive club that sought to legitimize Nintendo's ill-fated WiiWare service. Since Bit.Trip's 2009 debut, Beat, Runner, Core, and Void have slowly made their way over to Steam, and now, nearly three years after its WiiWare debut, Bit.Trip Fate is finally available for the PC.
If you're new to the series, Bit.Trip games spread a low-fidelity visual consistency across several different genres, but the core gameplay is always in flux. Beat, for example, was not unlike Pong while Runner tried to oblige ideas established by the endless runners omnipresent on mobile devices. Bit.Trip games are less like versions of established genres and more akin to interpretations of them. It's like Gaijin Games waves the correct badge to get in the door, but then took a hard turn and veered off the map as soon as they got through. Such is the destiny of Fate; Gaijin Games' Bit.Trip'd interpretation of the shoot 'em up genre.
Fate subscribes to the horizontally scrolling method of shoot 'em ups and arrives complete with the expected barrage of enemies, gun fire, and end-of-level bosses. Its twist and signature is it affixes CommanderVideo, Bit.Trip's protagonist, to a fixed line across the screen. Often bending into patterns that best resemble an electrocardiogram, Fate's directive line is both CommanderVideo's greatest friend and most unforgiving foe. On one hand, vanquished enemies drop points/health that always appear on said line; all you have to do is move forward or backward and run into it. On the other hand, the screen is always scrolling forward and if you move too far back it can become impossible to avoid enemy fire. If you'll excuse my awful yet perfect pun, it's a difficult line to walk.
It's easy to look at Fate’s guiding line and see it as a set of training wheels, a "my first shmup" created exclusively for genre novices. It's not as easy to actually play the game. As is the case with other members of the Bit.Trip club, Fate can be insanely hard to overcome if you fail to develop any sort of proficiency at what you're doing along the way. It's not a game you can mentally autopilot or listen to something else while it's taking place. It requires a dedicated brain to constantly assess and react to the cavalcade of crap flying toward and/or behind CommanderVideo. I don't know what it is about shoot 'em ups, but they always take significant period of adjustment to get used to. I have to think differently to play them well, and getting in the established rhythm is a talent some may never come to terms with.
That being said, it took a bit of time to appreciate Fate's respective quirks. Pink bullets home in on CommanderVideo and seemed impossible to avoid until I realized CommanderVideo moved much faster along the line when I wasn't holding the fire button. I initially found it impossible to move CommanderVideo's stick figure visage through the onslaught of bullets until I realized only his center, a red cross, was vulnerable to damage. Likewise, I initially didn't pick up that his power output as well as his health was tied directly to vanquishing swaths of bad guys along with picking up the rod crosses they dropped on the almighty line. Moving all of these elements into place put Fate's goals within better reach, though non more so than the additional firepower output provided by the occasional super friend power up.
And then there are those boss battles. Each of Fate's screen-filling bosses are puzzles unto themselves as you desperately try to break down massive health bars while nailing down the bullet-hell pattern of pixels headed your way. Fate damns the player to repeat the whole level if he or she falls at a boss and while this initially seemed unnecessarily cruel, the truth of the matter is that each level took no more than six or seven minutes to complete. On one hand time dilation and the difficulty of what I was doing made that process seem much longer than it actually was, but on the other it sort of sucked to effectively breeze through a level only to get obliterated by a boss I couldn't figure out how to properly damage the first or sixth time. Personal reactions will of course vary, but I came down on the side of appreciating the brashness of a challenging game.
It's also noteworthy to mention Fate offers two separate options for control. Initially I was playing with an Xbox360 controller, which effectively rendered the game a twin stick shooter. The left stick moved CommanderVideo along the line, while the right stick provided directional fire. Eventually I switched to mouse and keyboard and found that much better. Bringing in the mouse allowed for a consistent cursor on the object being fired at, whereas using an analog stick required me to constantly shift my aim with my movement. When you're trying to aim at the same thing while making trace movements to avoid gunfire, it's a better and less rage-inducing experience to keep your eyes on CommanderVideo, and mouse/keyboard enabled that approach much better than a controller.
Gameplay aside, Fate's a real beauty in the presentation department. It doesn't technically look like much with an aesthetic that obeys the days when Atari ruled the roost, but the combination of on-screen activity and a soundtrack that builds and corresponds to the player's input renders it unique in its genre. This isn't necessarily new, every Bit.Trip game has boasted a special, collaborative relationship between its rhythm and action, but with the exception of Rez few peers have achieved the end-result as gracefully. Dubstep was much bolder choice when Fate originally released in 2010, but it still feels smartly implemented in 2013 - or at least not as aggressively aggravating as its
Fate's also kind of a short game. Even with its formidable difficulty, all six of its levels didn't take more than three hours for me to roll credits. Like the rest of Bit.Trip, Fate is intended as a score chasing apparatus, and you're intended to go back through and achieve better marks. Whether that's done by avoiding power ups or tireless efficiency wasn't immediately clear, but it was hard to deny the draw of doing so. I didn't find said draw appealing enough to actually go and do it, mind you, but it's there. Fate is currently listed at a sale price of $4.99 on Steam (and regularly priced at $9.99), and it either approach seems to justify Fate’s asking price.