Solar Shifter EX Review
Microsoft Xbox OneAlso available on Apple Mac, PC, Sony PlayStation 4 and Linux
The aliens are at it again. Not content with beating the human race to the brink of existence, they are now trying to extinguish the sun and wipe out humankind once and for all. To top it off there are rogue pirate groups of humans raiding the last outposts to collect resources to enable themselves to leave the solar system.
This is about as complex as the plot gets and it was fairly challenging to piece this all together. Solar Shifter EX is a port from PC and it’s really clear about it from the “Press Any Key” prompts to the lack of even a control pad screen detailing what does what. Fortunately those fears are allayed very quickly as you’re introduced to the two buttons that do anything in the entire game.
Solar Shifter EX is a ‘shmup – that’s shoot ‘em up. You are in control of a space ship which moves around the screen as you blast enemies and avoid getting shot. It fits into the ‘bullet hell’ category that is comprised as much of you killing the baddies as it is avoiding the vast array of projectiles that can kill you.
There is only one mode and no difficulty option which makes it challenging at first as you can die very quickly. It’s not so much the initial challenge that grabs you but rather it’s very hard to see when you’re taking any damage. A complete lack of feedback on this along with the health bar being hidden away at the bottom of the screen means it’s really hard to work out if you’re doing well or not. Bullet hell games are notorious for specific and refined hit zones on crafts but it’s impossible to tell if you’re being hit or not (in terms of on-screen and vibration controller feedback). This is further complicated by the visuals.
Initially they look reasonable but as the game starts to stutter and judder you realise that the game is just not well optimised on console. There’s so much happening on-screen and in a bid to add some three-dimensional polish to the title there is action going on above and below you. What occurs though is a total failure of any depth perception meaning you’ll be avoiding things that you don’t need to and straying straight into things you should be avoiding. For example, the game scrolls vertically on screen. But you will see big and small enemies above and below you - so not on your horizontal plane. This problem only gets worse the further into the game you get. Each time you die you will have to sit through a lengthy loading screen before being returned to one of the few and far between checkpoints, usually in front of some unskippable dialogue.
The camera is the real deal breaker here. Oddly you can’t actually move around the whole screen – only about half to two-thirds which on a widescreen display (scrolling up) is hugely limiting. The camera also does a lot of cinematic panning from side to side. This adds a really nice effect but as the enemies stay central your ship tilts with the camera so you can move left to shoot upwards but actually be shooting diagonally up and right. This just seems like an insane behaviour to build into a game of this type - by already confusing you with suspicious depth perception you should not really be further crippled by odd camera movement.
The audio is not a huge amount better. Explosions and space lasers sound as you’d expect but the background music really just infuriates very quickly. It has a generic budget feel about it and if you were to imagine some music that would play for a shooting game, you would imagine this music.
There are a couple of redeeming features. The first is by way of ship upgrades that do a good job of making your killing machine feel capable of taking down some of these enemy monstrosities. Collecting credits from shooting down the bad guys gives you the ability to buy these upgrades, which is a nice level of customisation in a genre that typically doesn’t give you much outside of choosing the type of spread of bullets. The second is the game’s unique selling point – the shifting.
By holding down the X button (or flicking the right stick) your craft can teleport to one of four spaces on the screen (literally up, down, left or right). This can get you out of danger or into quiet bullet zones to deal damage or survive. When it is flowing this mechanic is actually quite good although it’s not done anywhere near as well as in Velocity 2X. In fact it often falls over – flicking the right stick is definitely the most intuitive option, it’s very quick and mixes in with the action nicely. However you can’t tell exactly where you will spawn to with this method which means there’s a chance you’ll teleport straight into oncoming damage. If you hold down X, then you see four spots glowing. By moving your ship you can position these zones to a safe place and then select the one you want but this additional selection is fiddly and time consuming in a game where split seconds are vitally important.
With no options of difficulty there are also no options for any other mode. In fact, options at all are hugely limited to adjusting sound and just not playing the game. In its defence, there are a few different ships that you can pilot and over fifteen levels to work through but you’ll likely be through most of it in an afternoon. The plot doesn’t do much to reward your attention either - you know how it’s going to end as soon as you start although this isn’t a necessity for games of this type. The main appeal is going back and trying to best your scores but there is so much going on onscreen I was never wholly clear how the scoring operated to effectively improve my attempts. It’s probably for the best honestly when there are considerably better alternatives out there.