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Friday, July 27, 2012

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony

Jamestown holds a special place in my heart, and for more reasons than because it's the only (and best!) video game I've ever been in the credits for.

See? See??
AND it's not just because two-thirds of Final Form Games' core design team graduated from a particularly remarkable institution (which I also attended).
No. Jamestown holds a special place in my heart because it is FABULOUS.

The premise is simple: Help Sir Walter Raleigh clear his good name by travelling to British-colonized Mars and find out what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke, all the while doing battle in your mechanized Conveyance against the allied Spanish/Martian forces.

It's astonishing nobody thought of it before.

If you, like me, used to hang out in arcades back when they were a thing, then you know what a vertically-scrolling space shoot-em-up (or "shmup") looks like. It looks like this.

You can tell by the fact that the number of bullets on-screen is countable that this isn't a very high difficulty setting.
Essentially, the screen scrolls at a fixed pace and you move your ship around within it, shooting baddies and trying not to get shot. At the end, there's a boss. There are several different ships to choose from (one at the start, three unlockable, and three more plus a random option in the Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot DLC), each with a primary and secondary fire and different specialties. At first glance, it's pretty basic for anyone who played this kind of game in an arcade.

Which makes the very subtle improvements the game adds to that formula all the more compelling. From the ground up, the game is built for local multiplayer, supporting multiple keyboards, mice, and controllers so that up to four people can play. The specializations of the ships themselves lend each a different role so that your strategies through each of the levels can vary drastically based on your composition. Another delightful mechanic is Vaunt, an ability which is charged by collecting coins (or maybe spare parts) from destroyed enemies. When you activate it, a shield appears around your ship that destroys incoming bullets and your firing power is doubled for a short time - at any point you can cancel your extra damage in exchange for a mush shorter, smaller shield. The strategy involved in vaunting is more complex than it seems - you can dive in front of an endangered ally and throw up a shield around him, or charge an enemy with your shield up to destroy its bullets as they're fired. It's hectic and split-second, and with a full four ships on a hard difficulty there can be a lot of incoherent shouting, and those are the most excellent moments of the game.

Moments like these are less excellent.
The fact that there's no online support, and that the game is a little short, are the main criticisms to raise over this game. But it's hard to see where online multiplayer would be able to provide the crowded-around-a-screen or peppered-around-the-living-room atmosphere that this game was tailor-made for. The game's about as long as it needs to be, and the extra difficulty settings, numerous bonus levels (the regular levels with special objectives, like surviving a screen full of bombs or getting a certain score within a time limit), and "gauntlet mode" where you play through all the levels in succession with limited number of lives mean that there are plenty of challenges to keep you busy even after you beat the final boss. And if you get tired of the main ships, you can pickup Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot, their DLC, which provides three new ships that add even more ridiculous fun to the game (and up to four more Guy Fawkeses per screen).

Choosing ships is like 9% "what will work well" and the rest is all "what will be totally badass."

I said the game is fantastic, and maybe the description above convinced you, but what makes it fantastic is how well everything meshes together with the setting they've established. The humor is perfect: They start with an absurd premise - the 16th-century British colonization of Mars - and play everything completely straight from that moment forward, and that's enough. Apart from an unlockable "Farce Mode" - which replaces the already-silly story with an even sillier telling wherein "Wally" attempts to give the Martians a time-out - nothing about the humor is over-the-top. It's just enough to justify the setting, provide a backbone to the action, and be hilarious. Like I said: perfect.

The art is similarly incredible, reminiscent of the aforementioned arcade games but with lots more heart and love poured in, and lots of attention paid to each pixel - the backgrounds of the five levels are dynamic and exciting, with little Redcoats firing from the ground on Martian ships, or cargo trains bellowing along alien railroads. It can be distracting, but you learn what to look at, and even novice gamers picked the game up quickly - a friend of mine with no prior shmup experience was ready to take on the last level with us after forty minutes of play or so. The soundtrack is worth picking up on its own, and is also completely straightfaced - energetic orchestral pieces that are unlike anything that's ever been put on top of a game like this before. All of them are of the highest quality, and the epic, 9-minute suite accompanying the last level (abridged) is one of my favorite pieces of music in any video game. It all fits, and it's all fun.

A few bugs marred play for us - finding that only one mouse was supported on a mac, for example - but overall the game is a lot of silly fun, and the price point is low enough that it's a really sound investment even if you only plan on playing it alone. But if you've got a group of friends to come with you, it's a must. This is probably the best multiplayer indie game of the last two years - and if you remove the "indie" qualifier, that sentence is probably still true. 

Final Form Games website - http://www.finalformgames.com/

Get the deluxe pack, with the DLC and soundtrack. Very worth it.

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