Jason Rohrer, he of Passage and Sleep Is Death, has released a new game - Inside a Star-Filled Sky. Rather surprisingly, given his heritage of slow-paced, narrative-heavy games, it's a shmup.
Rather unsurprisingly, it is far from a conventional shmup. I've given it a couple of hours so far, not yet enough to offer a verdict as such, but as there's quite a buzz around it a few early thoughts seem more than sensible. Here they are.
A 2D, not-quite-psychedelic affair, it perhaps characteristically involves an element of metaphor. Is key mechanic (outside of shooting lots and lots of things) is to improve 'what's inside yourself' - by which it means collecting power-ups. Tricksily, you can't actually use these power-ups. Only the next You can do that
You become the next you by exiting the level, which is achieved not by murdering everything but by exploring/surviving a procedurally-generated maze full of shooty stuff. Make it to the exit and you'll go to the next map, and start as a new, random pixel-art creature with whatever abilities you assigned to it on the prior level.
If you die, you go backwards. Back to the last level and the last creature. If you died because the trio of abilities you'd given your beast weren't terribly effective against the enemies and situations you'd encountered, this rewind is not so much a punishment as a chance to choose more wisely. Is the little beggar that killed you lurking behind a bit of wall, spamming bullets wildly? Pick up a Corner Shot or two upgrade. Or was it a back of baddies hurtling towards you in a terrifying wave? Grab a spread shot or the like – less accurate, but grand for crowd control. Or maybe the problem level contains a long corridor with no room to dodge the lone enemy within. In which case, fill your three ability slots with power ups featuring the heart icon, with each one allowing you to stomach one more hit before you meet your end. It a recursive game, and that means mistakes can always be corrected and death is never final.
The point is, as well as the metaphorical element of exploring and bettering yourself, it's also remarkably tactical. The shump element of reflex and pattern-spotting is in there, but it's also about equipping the right tools for the right job. As someone who gets exasperated with the hardcore shmups because that particular vein of high speed perfection makes demands that I'm too lazy to meet, the idea of puzzling it out rather than grinding it out is a whole lot more fulfilling.
The random element works well too, as much because of the never-the-same-twice element as because Rohrer seems aware that randomness can lead to no-win situations. If that happens, you can elect to 'enter' (snigger) your current character or any enemy and from this visualised introspection a new branch essentially spawns. I'm a little vague on what it's doing and why, but as far as I've gathered to date it's an opportunity to bring up new levels if you've faced a roadblock in another one. There's also an element of in theory spawning legions of new possible realities with every level switch. I think I'm going to have to sit down and draw some diagrams to get a proper handle on that.
More on this soon, once I've played a whole lot more. I'm quite taken with it, however, and I suspect those who have found Rohrer's previous efforts on the obtuse and sleepy side are in for a very pleasant surprise too. This is much more directly a videogame in the traditional sense, but it retains the exploratory, thoughtful touch of the developer's earlier titles nonetheless. If you're interested – and you should be – it's currently available for pay-what-want.