Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3
You are Rick Rocket, spaceman and hero. He’s saved the world already and defeated the evil aliens. The thing is, he has to do it again. This time he needs your help. In order to do so you’ll need to become a time-travelling, backwards-flying, guitar playing puppeteer. So begins Retro/Grade, a truly innovative and apparently unique shmup which is controlled to a beat by the plastic axe sitting in your living room you once bought for Rock Band, or Guitar Hero
The immediate feeling on getting hold of Retro/Grade is one of joy at the creativity and variety life can still present even in today’s world which on the surface can look like a promenade of sequels and annual franchises (it’s not the case if you look properly but outwardly it can seem this way). Retro/Grade jumps out not only because it’s been highly regarded throughout its long gestation period but also because it is the only non-guitar game around that utilises the guitar you break out semi-regularly to play a few songs (or, in many cases, sits unused in a cupboard). This doesn’t exclude those without one though - it plays fine with a regular controller - but it’s been designed with a five-button axe in mind, and as such feels more complete and natural when played that way.
The mechanics are surprisingly difficult to get well enough into your head in order to perform at a high level consistently. Eventually you’ll become adept if you persist. If you’re an experienced plastic guitar player you can think of the learning curve as a condensed version of that. You control Rick Rocket’s rocket. It is travelling backwards on-rails but using the five buttons you dictate the track the ship travels in. You then need to strum to suck up blasts and missiles you originally shot (pre-credits) to destroy the foes. It’s going backwards remember? If it’s a missile you strum and hold, like a guitar sustain; if it’s too hot and Rick previously switched to guns, a single strum - as per a single note - will suffice. This all sounds like just playing a guitar song. It is, kind of. But you don’t hold a button and strum. You press a button to get the ship in place ready to strum and sustain. You may need to move tracks during a sustain, to collect all your missiles that are being returned, but it’s still difficult to do things in a slightly different order to the way you’ve trained yourself since 2005. If you haven’t got the pre-conceptions of rocking out to Iron Maiden in your head it may be an easier concept to play, especially when using a normal controller, but other aspects make you feel like you’re undergoing a stupidity leak.
The whole thing is going backwards, after all. It’s counterintuitive to the way we always work in the Western world, and even if you are an experienced Rock Band gamer - where the track goes vertically rather than left to right - it’s another direction entirely. The bespoke synthetic soundtrack is also less than helpful in learning the ropes. The cue to say you have succeeded in playing the reverse of your shot or missile release is missing, or not as obvious or as strong as it could be. The feedback to the gamer is weak so you’ll find yourself failing a lot early on even if you thought you’d made every note. If you do fail entirely, or realise you’re about to, you can whack the whammy bar and your storage of retro fuel kicks in. This makes time go forwards again according to the timeline you just created. This allows you to erase your most recent mistakes and have another go. A helpful addition, especially at higher difficulty levels when you have more tracks and more buttons but it will probably be used most regularly when it’s game over and you’ve lost (until you fire the retro rocket boosters), although there is a chance you’ll become savant-like and get to a point where you’re able to use it strategically rather than exasperatingly. This will not happen early on.
The music has been produced for Retro/Grade itself by Skyler McGlothlin, or Nautilus. Each level is basically set to one track and there are ten levels/tracks in total in the game. It’s completely essential as it allowed 24 Caret Games to make the game they wanted in conjunction with a musician, rather than fitting a new game to an existing song and compromising on the gameplay and action. Also, given the sci-fi setting synth music is the correct fit and classic rock or Johnny Cash would have been rather an odd choice anyway!
There are five difficulty levels each challenging the gamer with more action on screen and more tracks and button presses per level. This is the main replayability value. Whilst true guitar experts will be able to succeed on the hardest difficulty from the off, it would be a slow process given the mechanics. As such it is likely multiple playthroughs will be desirable if you want to ace that top difficulty, or if jumping in headfirst be ready for a tougher and slower adventure than perhaps imagined (speaking from experience). Even after the game is beaten there are the scoreboards where friends and randoms around the world may well have a lower score than you - remember, you’re trying to suck up all your shots in order to save the world here - and of course the trophy collection.
Retro/Grade deserves a lot of credit. It’s another exciting and different game made available on PSN which, alongside Steam, is the place to show the mainstream what else there is out there. It innovates in games using music and alternative control methods without alienating those with standard controllers. It looks bright and vibrant and gorgeous when the onscreen action is intense, and the soundtrack is excellent in context. On the downside the gameplay is what it is for the duration. It’s unusual and funky at first but this will wear off after a few levels and many will find it a bit of a chore to get to the end, doing so for the music and to complete Rick’s story. To that end it’s fantastic things like this are being tried and everybody should taste this game, but the execution of the idea doesn’t quite match the idea itself.