X-Morph: Defense (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: EXOR Studios || Overall: 8.0/10 | Note: Review includes the “European Assault” (DLC)

I’m a big fan of the tower defense genre, so whenever I get the chance to review a new game in the genre, I get excited.  Unfortunately, there’s not usually a whole lot of variety, as a lot of it relies on how well the levels are designed, what kind of towers are available, and if there’s anything particularly charming about the game.  The hook for X-Morph: Defense is that it mashes the tower defense with a “twin-stick” shooter, turning the player into a very important and active participant in defeating the waves of enemies.

Back in high school, I used to play Starcraft quite a bit — but I seldom played the game as it was meant to be.  I always played the “Use Map Settings” customized maps, and there were a lot of different iterations of tower defense, among other “new” genres.   On its face, X-Morph: Defense feels like a fully realized version of those old Starcraft tower defense maps.  The idea of forcing your enemies to move around your towers and build barriers was one of the strategies you’d employ to make those maps easier and get the most kills, whether it was intended or not.  Since X-Morph: Defense is designed with this aspect in mind, this leads to putting way more emphasis on the placement of towers and terrain manipulation, rather than the tower configuration.  The path of your enemies to the core requires significantly more player agency than most tower defense games offer, and that’s one of the shining aspects of the game design.  Where the tower placement gets complicated, is that enemies come from multiple directions, and even more directions are added as the map expands.  This forces your strategy to change between waves, and you’ll have to re-evaluate your previous tower placements.  Each wave demands you to pontificate to see if you can improve it even slightly; the freedom to do so comes from not “losing” resources for selling or moving your towers.  Unfortunately, the tower weaponry variety feels intentionally basic, because the main emphasis in gameplay is with the player-controlled character.

As the titular “X-Morph” defender, you will eventually be able to switch between four different weapon sets on the fly (pun intended), depending on the situation.  You’ll constantly be encountering helicopters or jets trying to shoot you out of the sky, and combine that with the ground units shooting projectiles at you, you’re almost in a bullet hell game.  The towers become a secondary thought in the heat of the battle and you just kind of hope everything is working out… until it doesn’t.  I’m not very good at bullet hell games, so it sort of takes the enjoyment away from the tower defense for me.

There are 14 levels in the original game and three more levels that are introduced in the DLC, which is called European Assault.  There’s a lot of game, with approximately five to seven waves in each level.  The story is an interesting take as you are the alien invader against a highly technologically-advanced human society who make giant mech bosses.  The power fantasy of being an advanced alien seems a bit softened when the measly humans bring out these huge machines, but I digress.  The boss battles are really unique challenges and have a more traditional twin-stick shooter vibe.  While towers are still important during this phase, depending on the boss, it definitely becomes a game of skill rather than strategy.

As you complete each level, you’ll gain more skill points to put into a tech tree, which unlocks things like weapons, more health, or other buffs. You are mostly free to create your own strategy, but eventually you’ll unlock them all so there’s not a lot to strategize around when that happens.  What you do notice is if you don’t have certain tech unlocked that matches the challenge of the map, you’ll just be fucked and have to start over.  There are several difficulty levels, and it is pretty difficult on normal once you progress past the first few levels.  I even put it on easy and it was still hard!  I think I mostly suck at the shooting part of the equation, which isn’t surprising.  Very Easy is a lot more in my wheelhouse, but it’s not like the game is going to play itself, you’ll still have to make sure to pay attention to what is going on.

I enjoyed X-Morph: Defense quite a bit until I realized that it was the same sort of challenge for the non-boss waves.  It also becomes daunting when you see 8 different lines heading toward your core, you’ve already got a bunch of towers manipulating 4 different paths your enemies are taking, and now you have to worry about 3 different airborne enemies, and I don’t even know where the last line is coming from.  After the 8th or 9th level of dealing with crazy lines, I just lost interest.  I think there needs to be more depth in the way towers worked for me to really see this as a tower defense game first.  There’s only so much fun in spamming the same tower without being able to improve them in some way within the confines of the level itself.  Instead, I feel like it is a twin-stick shooter game first and that’s not particularly my cup of tea.

Despite my personal misgivings, I think there’s plenty of value to this game, it’s well made, and it has fun terrain physics.  Once you get through the trash waves, the fun boss fights really throw in a unique aspect to the gameplay.  If perhaps there were some smaller bosses sprinkled around it’d break up the gameplay and make it a bit more engaging since the trash waves take a long time to get through.

 

Blasters of the Universe (PC/HTC Vive) Review

 Developer/Publisher: Secret Location || Overall: 8.75 / 10

So we’ve got another VR game up to the plate. This one, Blasters of the Universe, by Secret Location, is something of a mashup.

A vast majority of VR games belong to a genre collectively called “wave shooters,” which pit the VR player against wave after wave of enemies. Sometimes there are mechanics for moving around, but most of the time it’s standing or room-scale. Often the player is taking cover behind something, like a shield, and dodging what they can. Sometimes the enemies are zombies, sometimes they are robots, sometimes they are gangsters.

Blasters of the Universe doesn’t break all the molds of the wave shooter, but like some kind of VR Coldstone Creamery it rolls in a heaping cup of “bullet hell” while spectators watch behind the glass counter thinking, “Are these guys insane?! Who wants Ikaruga in their wave shooter?! Gross!”

Turns out: I do! And I don’t think my tastes are that refined, at least when it comes to VR.

The premise is that some unemployed nerd named Allen was really good at arcade games in the 90’s, or maybe late 80’s. He was only good at games, somehow he was able to get into “VR” and has been living there ever since. Despite how very close the antagonist is to me in the game, the story’s not important. The Grand Master Virtual Space Lord Alwyn will be around to mock you, or even awkwardly praise you, but the meat of the game is blastin’ and dodgin’ with a lil’ bit of blockin’, and isn’t at all story driven. The same basic premise for the wave shooter: enemies will appear periodically while you shoot at them. However, their attacks come at you very slowly, often in patterns or huge fields of bullets. In many games, the player’s hitbox is some amalgam of their head, the area beneath, and possibly their hands. Blasters of the Universe does the unthinkable in most by making only the player’s head the hitbox. That allows for some pretty miraculous dodges, but it also allows the bullet hell mechanic to work without being absolutely frustrating. Your are limited by your own movements, which isn’t novel in VR, but it is for a bullet hell.

There are a variety of enemies with their own patterns of attack that, when they are all firing at the player simultaneously, leads to some interesting gameplay. While the player tries to 3D limbo through all the space in between the bullets while trying to counter attack with their own gun. Less enemies means less things shooting, which means the player won’t have to somersault through death-fields. Occasionally there will be a boss that needs spanking, and they will have their own attacks, telegraphs and “puzzles” (if you can call the process of “how do I kill this?” a puzzle). There are four campaign levels with casual and “hell” modes, and each of those has an infinite mode if that’s your thing.

What’s the shooting like, you ask? Well, that’s up to you. There are a bunch of weapon parts to fabricate your own gun out of. Semi-auto or full auto, magazines or recharging ammo pools, precision or spreadfire, you name it. Players pick a weapon frame, barrel, bullet type, magazine and a gadget to make their own weapon of choice. Along with this, they can pick different kinds of shields that, while unable to block everything that comes at the player, they can provide some relief in a pinch. They vary in size, strength and mechanics, with some changing the player’s defensive tactics entirely. The last thing of note is that each weapon frame has a special ability that charges as you shoot n’ dodge your way through waves. Specials like a super-powered laser that sustains for a few seconds, or having two guns for a short time.

Blasters of the Universe performs pretty well on a 3770K processor and a GTX 980ti, and it took quite a lot going on to get any frame drops, which is somewhat admirable considering some of the garbage I’ve played, which is saying quite a bit. The art style might not be everyone’s scene, but it fits the narrative, and it gets the job done just fine.

I like this game quite a bit. I don’t really dislike wave shooters, but there are a ton of them and most of them have their own “twist” that either doesn’t add anything novel, or complicates something that would otherwise be fun. Blasters of the Universe‘s take is one of the better, more unique spins, and in some ways improves on what “classic” (bare with me, the platform’s a baby) VR titles, like Space Pirate Trainer, laid out in the genre. It’s not what I’d call a relaxing game, but if you’re in the mood to move around and shoot at things, this is one of the better choices I’ve come across.