Meta-Review: The Red Star – PS2
As a victim of Acclaim’s financial problems, The Red Star was delayed many times and been cancelled at least once. However, XS Games took over the project as it’s publisher and released this shmups/beatemup hybrid game as a budget title for the PS2.
Ever since I first laid eyes on The Red Star back when it was an XBox demo, I knew this would be a modern treat for the old-school gamer. I also happen to be a real sucker for games that combine two or more classic gameplay mechanics. Much like River City Ransom and Guardian Heroes combined Beatemups with RPG elements and Twinklestar Sprites combined Puzzle gaming with shmups, The Red Star takes the best of two worlds and makes the most of it.
Here’s what the critics have to say…
“This is sheer simplistic chutzpah; brassy and single-minded. If we sheepishly look at the back of the box once more, we can see that we’re also quoted as saying The Red Star is “a cross between Streets of Rage and Ikaruga”. Well, thanks. That description certainly makes my job easier, but let me elaborate in a bit more detail.
It’s Streets of Rage in the way that this is a scrolling beat ‘em up arcade game (but one that’s just as dependent on guns). Think also Final, Fight or Golden Axe or Die Hard Arcade or countless others of a genre that once used to walk proudly at the top of our affections. The camera will automatically move between top-down and side-on angles depending on the circumstances as you move along a restricted, linear path. As you progress you’re tasked with defeating each sector’s enemies before the game removes the invisible barrier it placed and pushing you on to the next part to repeat. Each class of bad guy has his own particular weakness to melee combat or gunplay. Some have shields impervious to bullets, for instance, requiring you to hack and shoot as you must, what strategy there is obviously there simply to thin the crowds in the most efficient way possible. The controls are competent, and the weaponry suitably effective. Meanwhile, the visuals have a bold, chunky feel to them, giving the fighting some weight. And, while its combo system is pretty sparse, and the melee manoeuvres and gunplay never intertwine in the seamless way that Devil May Cry manages, it’s a lot of fun.
And Ikaruga? That would be the bullet hell sections. Literally every five minutes there’s a boss encounter – usually in the form of a gun emplacement or huge tank – and each is inclined to spit out an insane amounts of deadly glowing bolts as you bob and weave and shoot and shoot. It’s a ground-based shmup to all intents and purposes. But instead of the frustrating impossibility of your regular Smash TV assault, it’s the patterned chaos of your modern Japanese ship shooter, where considered reflexes can find a path of calm between projectiles no matter how many fill up the screen. Each encounter splits up the fighting perfectly, always a challenge but never long enough to be a chore. Separately, the fighting and the shooting are pretty plain, but together they capably complement any lulls in either. I guess we can grudgingly concede that “ingenious” part of the quote here.”
“As much fun as the pure beat-’em-up action in The Red Star can be, the game’s real strength is how it constantly mixes up the action. At several points during every mission, alarms will go off and the camera will shift perspective. Your side-scrolling beat-’em-up will suddenly turn into a top-down shooter, complete with screen-filling war machines that spew complex bullet patterns for you to maneuver around. The recurrently shifting nature of the gameplay keeps you on your toes, and knowing that each level will contain what amount to several massive boss fights is great motivation to push forward. Though the back-and-forth pattern of fighting a gang of enemy soldiers and then blasting your way through some giant boss fight eventually becomes a little predictable, it ultimately staves off the monotony that often plagues both shooters and beat-’em-ups.
The levels in The Red Star aren’t particularly long, and the game is actually pretty generous with how it ramps up the difficulty, but the pacing is unyielding, and when the game gets hard, it is merciless. You’ve got but one life bar with which to complete each level, and while you’ll usually get a little first-aid kit after each of your big shooter encounters, it’s not uncommon to get most of the way through a level just to get smoked and have to do the whole thing over again. The game isn’t sadistic about it, but having to replay a full level several times can still prove a bit frustrating. Still, when you do finally get past that one boss fight that you’ve been banging your head against, it’s supremely satisfying.”
“With a good variety of enemy types, players are constantly required to switch up their tactics on-the-fly. Some opponents are invulnerable to gunfire, some must be kept at a distance, and some have particular patterns or weaknesses that require more than simple button mashing to overcome. By introducing new types and cycling through them in each level, the developers make sure to keep brains engaged by evaluating the combat situation moment-to-moment. The shield mentioned earlier adds a nice layer of depth (giving the player invulnerability for a fleet moment) and a gun heat gauge stops mindless blasting. Although the pieces may not be very complex, they fit and function beautifully.
Going further, the game enriches the experience by constantly surprising the player with boss encounters that completely shift gears into the high-octane “shmup” genre mentioned earlier. Similar to bullet-hell shooters like Mars Matrix or Ikaruga, The Red Star explodes in these sequences and demands the sort of twitch-gaming reflexes and Zen-like concentration that’s usually reserved for a mean arcade cabinet when you’re down to your last quarter. With strategic fighting and shooting in copious amounts, this game is an adrenaline junkie’s dream.”
“And like any worthy shmup or brawler, The Red Star offers co-operative play throughout the game, and working your way through with a buddy makes for a hell of a good time. One frustrating element to the combat in Red Star is wrapping up a combo just as a cadre of thugs have lined up to hand you your ass, which they do, just as soon as that attack animation wraps up. If you’ve got someone watching your back, it makes for a slightly more forgiving experience throughout the game.
The help is definitely handy, especially in the later levels when the difficulty ramps up and The Red Star’s biggest flaw rears its ugly head: no mid-stage checkpoints, and a level-by-level save system. While the game might feel a bit easy at first, you’ll definitely feel the absence later on.
Length is another issue. The Red Star can be knocked out in a matter of hours — which is what you might expect from a game from either of the genres that influence it — and when you finally lay the final boss to sticky pulp, you’re left wanting a little more. Fortunately, having three completely different characters with which to tackle the campaign adds a great deal of replay value. Co-op goes a long way in extending the life of The Red Star, too.”
“Despite its age, The Red Star’s visuals are surprisingly in line what you’d expect from a later-generation PS2 game; it represents the comic book’s industrial Russian universe well. For those unaware, The Red Star is based on the Christian Gossett graphic novel of the same name (he’s known for having worked at LucasFilm — he came up with the double-edged lightsaber that Darth Maul used — and on the Bruce Willis PS1 game Apocalypse). It takes place in the United Republics of the Red Star (U.R.R.S.), a sort of neo-Russia where sorcery and industrial technology coexist. You take control of three characters — Makita, Maya, Kyuzo — and attempt to take out Troika, who has the country under his control.The three playable characters’ gameplay differs greatly, which offers a lot of replay value (a second player can even join in on the fun and control one of them). It’s not enough to solve the game’s problem of repetitiveness, though. Perhaps as a preemptive measure to satisfy those who criticize similar games for being too short, The Red Star feels artificially lengthened at times. Coupled with a lack of midlevel checkpoints, the game at times becomes a chore as you fight the same enemies over and over while you formulate strategies for defeating bosses at the end of the level. Perhaps a throwback to the games of yesterday, the lack of checkpoints unfortunately detracts from the overall fun.
As a $20 game, though — even considering the wide selection of budget and Greatest Hits titles available on the PS2 now — The Red Star is a great deal, considering it was at one point set to release for more than double that. For old-school action game fans, this one’s a must for your collection.”