StarDrone Extreme is an upgraded version of the 2011 PlayStation 3 original for the latest Sony console, the PS Vita. The game itself is ideally suited to a handheld platform given the multi-level structure where each episode is brief (in theory - more on that later) and the touchscreen controls are seemingly and surely the most simple way to control your spaceship.
Yes, your spaceship. It’s time to explain what the game is all about. You are the pilot of a spaceship in a very colourful gravity-less universe, where your surroundings vary from blackness and stars to bone-like structural frameworks, purple hubs and colourful jewel fragments. The aim of the game is varied depending on the level you’re playing. Often it’s simply about getting from A to B. You might need to collect all the stars on your way or alternatively rebuild the colourful rainbow gem after collecting each constituent part from the four corners of that particular area. You might even have to kill all the baddies. It’s not very clear at first what the goal for a given level is (it is detailed on the bottom of the screen but by then you’ll likely have kicked off the level) which can lead to some frustration as you die over and over whilst trying to work out if you need to gather every last star, or if you’ve just missed all the coloured gems to date. Not a particularly long-lasting problem in any given instance, for sure, but with over sixty levels and pretty hectic gameplay it would have been nice to have a bit more guidance ahead of starting out.
Each level sees you aim your spaceship’s ejector pod in the direction you wish to begin your journey. Aim, point and let go. Bob’s your Uncle; you’re flying. Now despite being a pilot of your spaceship you actually have no control over it. The only influence you have over its path is by interacting with it via the surrounding environment. So really you’re not flying, only floating, as per the laws of physics. There are purple hubs dotted around which when long-pressed (and near to your ship) will apply some kind of tractor beam to it, meaning the trajectory will vary, and the speed, until you let go. If you choose not to let go you’ll circle the hub indefinitely in what appear at first to be ever decreasing circles. It may be your best bet of getting the ship going the way you want it though, and also allows you to gain some level of control over the speed of it too. Letting go leads you towards your goal if you do so in a timely manner. It may otherwise send you darting into a wall of spikes or exploding monsters. You can take a bit of battering, but eventually you will blow up. Blowing up is clearly very bad.
The requirement then is to use the gravitational hubs to subtly alter your ship’s course allowing you to move around that particular map collecting all stars (normally involving spinning around the hub several times), or driving towards your goal whatever that may be. You’ll need to utilise the surroundings and the bad guys as well to make your way around each level. Moving around the level is only half the battle though - knowing where to go is equally important. There is a mini-map in the corner of the screen but it’s often not clear about where you need to be, as opposed to how you can get to any one point. Not exactly what you need after unsuccessfully exploring an area for far too long.
At first the experience of StarDrone Extreme is quite entertaining. It’s a colourful enough game which shows off the vibrancy and brilliance of Sony’s handheld wonder’s screen and there’s a lot happening on-screen at any given time, too. It’s an excellent way to engage the player immediately and draw them in, especially given the simplicity of the controls. The action belies that and gets the adrenaline pumping. Initially it’s fairly straightforward too, important whilst you try and get your bearings and work out what each thing you can see is and allows you to learn how to manipulate the world to your benefit. The problem is this early feeling very quickly goes.
Every level, although the map is different and the goal will change each time, rolling through the various different endgames, is the same. It doesn’t matter if you have to defeat all the monsters, or even use them to blast your ship in directions you otherwise can’t manage. All you do is press the screen, hold for a period of time and let go when aiming where you want to go. The actual controls feel responsive enough in terms of the hardware / software interface but feel a little less well executed in-game. Letting the spaceship leave the hub (i.e. removing your finger) when you have it facing where you want to go often results in it flying elsewhere. Sure, part of this is down to skill (or lack of it) but too many times in too simple a situation it felt like the on-screen feedback was inaccurate. This is upsetting. Either your ship blows up, meaning you start again, or you just take forever on a particular level. That might not be a bad thing were the game compelling enough to keep going. It just isn’t though. A quick blast when on the bus to the pub is great, but when this becomes a laborious hunt for the way through to the red part of an otherwise completely rebuilt gem, it loses any enjoyment and starts to annoy.
The difficulty of the game can be changed and also you can vary the speed all the way from one to ten (it doesn’t go to eleven alas; a missed opportunity if ever there was!). Neither option is going to be engaged by gamers unless they ramp things up (or down) from the start. There’s no replayability in the game. Well, there is, just none that’s desirable. There are score attacks, a set of trophies (no platinum unfortunately) and multiple ways to complete certain levels. The problem is that there is no way we can see anyone wanting to play any levels again. There is nothing which compels you to master a particular bit, something which other equally cheaply priced Vita games have succeeded in achieving (MotorStorm RC). Another way to make the game easier, at least in our eyes, is to switch to using the rear touchpad. This acts as a single button and guesses which hub you want to attach your ship to, rather than you having to actually touch the relevant one using the main touchscreen. Frankly, there is little point unless you want to blast through the game a little more swiftly and collect the trophies.
Having been released on PSN a year ago the developers, Beatshapers, have made use of the cross-play functionality on conversion to Sony’s handheld which is great to see being employed again in an early Vita release. It means you get trophies on your PS3 version of the game as well as the Vita version. It’s a shame the makers didn’t see fit to implement any extra game or special linked action, such as a two player co-op set of levels (needing both PS3 and Vita gamer to cooperate with multiple gravity hubs at any given time). It means although this is StarDrone Extreme, there’s no new game here, just a Vita conversion of the non-extreme version with the crossplay inclusion.
It’s disappointing really. StarDrone Extreme looks good, shows off your Vita and comes in at a fantastic price point (£2.99). But it’s a puzzle game at heart that doesn’t feel much of a puzzle, more a search for items in space using not entirely satisfying controls. It excites very early on and then frustrates and annoys for the most part when you get stuck, or delayed. If you manage to surpass a level in a sensible amount of time and do this for most of the sixty available, then your experience will be a decent one. But that’s decent at best, and annoying at worst.