It’s not often you get a 2D shooter with a genuinely new idea, but by combining elements of roguelikes this one keeps things interesting.
Some types of video game are just impossible to do anything new with. Real-time strategy games went from the most popular genre on the PC to near extinction in just a few years because they couldn’t evolve. 2D shooters lasted longer but suffered the same problem, while fighting games – no matter how good they are – haven’t really changed since Street Fighter II. In most of these cases there’s probably nothing that can be done except present the same idea in a different form, which is exactly what Steredenn does.
Steredenn was first released on PC and other consoles as long ago as 2016, but we have to admit we’d never heard of it until a reader mentioned this new Switch version in the Inbox. Once again it’s an indie game with an offputtingly weird name (developer Pixelnest is from Brittany and the name means ‘star’ in Breton, so it’s nothing to do with cleaning dentures) but we wish we’d know about it before. Or perhaps not, as the Switch edition is considerably expanded and improved upon from the previous versions.
The basics are the same though, and Steredenn is an old school 2D shooter very much in the style of classics such as Gradius and R-Type. It’s got some neat pixel art graphics and a cheesy rock soundtrack but it’s main claim to fame is that it mixes in roguelike elements and procedurally-generated levels, which turns out to be a match made in bullet
Although we have enjoyed many roguelikes in the past we’re not usually big fans of randomly-generated content, particularly when it comes to level design. Much like lightgun games, 2D shooters may look simple to the casual observer but designing levels and the movements of enemies takes just as much skill as with any other game. In fact, it’s arguably more important in a 2D shooter because the gameplay is so focused.
But rather than foes just appearing on screen at random Pixelnest has constructed a system where waves of enemies are still orchestrated, but those waves are strung together at random to construct different stages. One of the key limitations of 2D shooters is that they tend to be very short and you end up just learning all the levels by rote. Although you do learn how to deal with specific enemies that’s impossible in Steredenn, which means you literally get a new game every time.
Of course, none of this would make any difference if the core mechanics weren’t solid, but Steredenn is a very good shooter. There’s a wide range of different spacecraft to unlock the further you get into the game and each one has a unique special ability (a short-range melee weapon, heat-seeking weapons, teleportation, etc.) and starts with a different primary weapon.
More weapons can be picked up as you destroy enemies, so that you can switch between two at any time, while the final boss of each level drops a range of upgrades that can enhance an ability or weapon or provide some other bonus – although you can only take one at a time. Different weapons are also more effective against certain enemies, indicated by colour-coded flashes when you hit them, so although the combo system is fairly simple, compared to other 2D shooters, there is some depth to the gameplay.
All the weapons are wonderfully imaginative and diverse, from giant killer sine waves to flamethrowers, power-up beams, and semi-autonomous drones. Normal enemies typically fight back only with a standard barrage of their own weaponry, but bosses go full on bullet hell and constantly switch tactics so that, once again, you never quite know what to expect from second-to-second.
The bosses are probably the game’s weakest point though, at least from a visual standpoint, as most of the time they’re just slightly bigger ships than usual. And they certainly never evolve into the sort of imaginative monstrosities of something like R-Type. The difficulty level can also vary fairly widely from one go to the next, although it still ramps up in stages.
In true roguelike style if you die that’s it: there’s no lives or checkpoints. Although if you get far enough you do permanently unlock new ships. There’s also lots of different modes, some of which also have to be unlocked, including a daily challenge, an Arena mode where you take on specific bosses, and a weekly boss rush mode.
The most important new feature for this ‘Binary Stars’ edition though is a two-player co-op mode. It’s offline only, but the nature of the Switch means someone else can instantly join in if you just use a Joy-Con each.
The co-op mode and the unlockable ships are the main additions to the Binary Stars edition, which will apparently be available as an upgrade for the other format versions in the future. Which means that no-one need miss out on one of the most original and fun 2D shooters we’ve played in years. We wouldn’t want to see the random element in every game, but here it’s a welcome novelty that adds a roguish charm to a well worn theme.
Steredenn: Binary Stars
In Short: The mash-up between 2D shooter and roguelike works surprisingly well, with a game filled to bursting with imaginative weapons and winning presentation.
Pros: The procedurally-generated levels work great, and the core action is excellent. Excellent variety in weapons and player spacecraft. Plenty of modes and fun co-op.
Cons: There’s not much visual variety in the bosses or the backdrops, and eventually you’ll have seen all of the individual random elements.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Plug In Digital
Developer: Pixelnest Studio
Release Date: 8th March 2018
Age Rating: 3
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