Review: Hero Core (Freeware)

Genre: Shooter, action adventure
Developer: Daniel Remar
Platform: Windows, Macintosh
Release: May 3rd, 2010
     Latest Windows version: July 22nd, 2013

Hero Core is an open-ended shooter game from Daniel Remar, the creator of fellow freeware title Iji. While Iji is an unusually intricate Game Maker creation, with complex stat development, branching plot, hacking minigames, and two competing enemy factions, Hero Core takes a simpler approach, and ultimately a better-rounded one.

You play as Flip Hero, a being locked in never-ending combat with a war machine called Cruiser Tetron. With his legion of robotic soldiers, Tetron aims to destroy the earth, and you simultaneously. Flip Hero has defeated Tetron many times in the past, including in one of Remar’s prior games, but the machine’s servants rebuild him each time, and relief is fleeting for both both sides.

It’s a familiar plot for a game, but Tetron receives more development than you would expect, a predator enslaved by his own programming.

The game contains two primary difficulty levels, each with different architecture and enemy placement. Both take place in Tetron’s asteroid base, a black-and-white maze of angular combat machines and automated war industry. The entire game is drawn in flat, colorless pixel, from the largest mecha to Flip Hero’s own health bar. The artwork made me skeptical at first glance, but it fits the tone perfectly, vibrant and alienating at the same time.

Tetron can be challenged from the beginning, if you desire, but you start with a single weak blaster and minimal health. The other areas of the base contain numerous upgrades, guarded behind blast doors, turrets, molten metal, and fearsome bosses. Each room spans only a single screen, imitating older games on primitive consoles, but the enemies are quite diverse, with robotic snakes that jerk across the screen, mobile turrets armed with heavy cannons, lethal fish-shaped machines that summon smaller ones, and mecha with every combination of those attack patterns. Many robots also have smaller destructible parts, removing weaponry when disabled.

Combat in Hero Core is more complex than it appears. The screen tends to overflow with bullets in harsher stages, but there are plenty of walls to duck behind. Your blaster can only shoot left or right, but you can move fluidly in any direction, and with good enough reflexes, you can weave through most bullet patterns without harm. The primary keys shoot slowly, but you can activate a faster auto fire mode, offering devastating power at close range. Since only eight (player) bullets can exist on screen at once, this mode is less effective at a distance, delivering a potent initial burst with a mere trickle afterward. It’s an elegant system, encouraging strategic pauses in use.

You also acquire the Blade, a melee weapon capable of deflecting bullets and smashing environmental barriers. For combat, I found it less satisfying than my blaster. It inflicts severe damage, but it charges slowly, and the range is uncomfortably short. It’s easy to crash into an enemy you were trying to cut up, reflected shots don’t harm them, and many stronger attacks will run right through it. Regardless of your health and armor upgrades, sustained fire is impossible to withstand.

I died many, many times on each playthrough, but I rarely found the game cheap or unfair. Enemies respawn on each screen if you return, but they’re frozen for a few seconds on arrival, granting time to dart past. If you die, you respawn at the last save station you visited, shaped like a save icon on a computer document.

You can fast travel between each station, easing navigation, and different areas can be conquered in almost any order. The interface displays a relative threat level for each section of the base, from the opening Natural Caves to the lethal Guardian Zone, and I generally found it accurate. In addition to weaponry and suit upgrades, you’ll find small computers hidden throughout the base, providing lore on Tetron’s past and his nature. He becomes easier to empathize with, though clearly hostile. Each area has a different chiptune theme from Brother Android, adding bleak color to the monochrome design.

The boss encounters are the strongest aspect of Hero Core. From a walker that splits into three parts to a drone that attacks with arms made from copies of itself, they offer battles as diverse as they are lethal. Some bosses spawn with numerous minions, and some fight as a single overwhelming combatant. One machine encases you within their body for the entire battle. Many contain destructible weak points, and some even split into multiple units. Subverting conventions, most weaken as you hammer them away, aside from a metallic hydra that simply grows more heads.

Except for the final boss, each uses the same haunting soundtrack. It becomes repetitive over so many trials, but when fighting machines, it feels appropriate.

One optional boss appears randomly throughout normal screens, engaging you in a duel it flees if you don’t kill it quickly enough. It doesn’t pack as much firepower as other machines, but it’s difficult to shoot down in the allotted time. I’ve played Hero Core for years, and I rarely succeed. Fortunately, it can eventually be challenged without a time limit.

It’s possible to beat Hero Core in a few hours, but Normal and Hard mode contain different level geometry, and both are well worth playing. A third mode, Annihilation, appears after completing the game on either difficulty. Annihilation is a side story that takes place on the starship Ciretako. Compared to the primary game, it lacks upgrades, but it provides a short, punishing change of pace. You can also unlock a Boss Rush mode, a hidden minigame, and several other items.. I would not be adverse to paying $20 for that amount of content, and for a free application created by a single developer (plus the musician), it’s remarkably polished and durable. Iji spends more time on characterization, but Hero Core doesn’t punish you for combat, and the gameplay is stronger as a result.

Hero Core emulates the past visually, but the presentation and enemy design are decidedly modern. It has some of the most varied boss encounters I’ve ever seen, freeware or otherwise, and the fact that it is freeware only makes it easier to admire. The controls work perfectly, and aside from the limited utility of the Blade, I have few complaints about combat. Tetron wears the familiar mask of a doomsday villain, but his war with Flip Hero becomes more pitiable the further you look, as colorless as the robots that follow him.

If you’re interested, the game can be downloaded here:
http://www.remar.se/daniel/herocore.php

Rating: 9/10 (Remarkable)

An excellent game with few identifiable blemishes, or too many positive aspects to do much harm. Won’t turn bread into wine, but belongs firmly in the upper echelon of its genre.


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Review: Observer

Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017


Observer is an unusual beast. It belongs to the class of horror games that don’t let you defend yourself, but there are relatively few moments of danger, unlike, say, Amnesia. It also eschews true supernatural elements in favor of an oppressive dystopia, delivering the most horrifying visuals through the Dream Eater, a device that lets you invade human memories.

The game takes place in future 2084, a world of overgrown technology. Poland is run by the Chiron Corporation, a company that gained control in the aftermath of a great war between East and West. Mechanical augmentations are common, and not always benign. The population lives in fear of the Nanophage, a plague that causes your implants to attack your organs. Beyond that, your character occasionally has to inject Synchrozine to stop his mechanical parts from shattering his psyche.

You play as Daniel Lazarski, a specialist employed by their police force. Unlike Adam Jensen or Soldier G65434-2, you spend the game unarmed, and your implants weren’t built for combat. Instead, they let you project night vision, scan organic matter and technology, and view a virtual case log, in addition to the aforementioned memory invasions.

Lazarski spends the game hunting a serial killer in a class C apartment complex, home to the lowest of the three social castes segregated by Chiron. The complex is brilliantly realized, a den of drug users, hologram addicts, and blue electronic ad screens. When the main power cuts out, they fear your Dream Eater as much as they do loss of stimulation. You don’t harm them, but few trust you, and the backstory makes it hard to blame them.

You find many of the killer’s victims too injured to speak, and the Dream Eater allows you to gather evidence, recreating their darkest memories as a parade of hallucinations. You witness disintegrating corridors, silhouettes who cover ground in angular jerks, and appliances that cry, vomit, or fly through the air. The sequences are fairly linear, with a handful of puzzles and the occasional stealth section, but they bring the darkness of cyberpunk to grim, bloated exuberance. Lazarski emerges from each trip gasping for Synchrozine, vision covered with blotchy digital squares. Horror is most effective when it spawns depression, and the initial half of Observer delivers in spades.

You also scan objects near the victims, ranging from credit chips to globs of blood and tissue. Your findings establish them as disenfranchised and sometimes questionable bunch. One victim used drugs, and another performed illegal cybernetic operations. One particularly tenacious managed to wound their attacker with a sword cane, leaving a trail of blood for you to follow. It’s an effective way to convey information, although I had to switch between different vision types too often for my taste.

You’ll make some of your most interesting discoveries by reading computers. There are numerous character logs and emails throughout the different suites, ranging from critical plot information to male enhancement requests. The Chiron Corporation’s logo rests watchfully at the home screen of every system, and their footprint echoes throughout the low-caste apartment complex, whose residents receive fewer votes per person than higher citizens. One computer throws in a piece of wartime propaganda, establishing their sheer level of control. Some computers also contain a minigame where you navigate a maze full of spiders, collecting flaming swords as weaponry. The graphics are intentionally lo-fi, and each area reveals a new level or two. It’s a brief but welcome respite from the darkness.

Unfortunately, Observer loses steam in the later portions. The first chunks of memory are unsettling, but it uses similar tricks and scream effects too many times, and tolerance builds quickly. Lazarski’s scanning implants are disabled in the neural realm, and aside from the stealth sections, you’re free to avert your eyes. You aren’t forced to confront your fears like in other horror games.

Several times, you’re required to hack into the brain of a deceased person. Your onboard A.I. warns against it, and the first scenario leads to the game’s most nightmarish sequence, where Lazarski faces true danger. But the setup repeats numerous times, and it loses punch. His brain suffers from the experience, leading to hallucinations in real life. Voices accost you, and wires turn to intestinal tissue, a twisted figurehead for the fusion of metal and flesh. But even then, I rarely felt threatened. Even the few enemy sequences were too simple; I snuck past one without ever seeing it. For reference, I’m the guy who couldn’t bring himself to get past the first enemy in SOMA, so I don’t think my spine is enormously thick.

More damningly, Lazarski and the other main characters never quite live up to the depth of the setting. It’s hard to tell if his voice actor is trying to sound grave or bored, and the body count becomes increasingly cheap, as if you were watching a low-budget slasher flick. The decline is slow initially, but it dives headfirst into a very predictable sort of horror at the end, reducing the higher themes to mere window dressing. Both suffer as a result. It’s refreshing to see a game where the protagonist isn’t trying to save the world, but once you adapt to the jump scares, there has to be substance underneath.

In particular, large amounts of time are spent building one very promising character… only to jettison his development for a cheap horror persona. Many game elements remain strong, but the damage to the climax is irreparable.

When horror is fused with other genres, it tends to consume them. Technology, shadowy researchers, and government programs become rationalizations for monstrous forces, and everyday men and women are reduced to mere props for their rampage. At the beginning, Observer straddles the line well, but horror dominates by the end, wearing cyberpunk as mask instead of partner. Visions repeat too often, deaths are too easy to predict, and characters become cheap victims or aggressors. In a less story-driven game, these faults could be overlooked, but Observer reaches for higher territory, and it could have been brilliant if it stayed on task. As it stands, I’m glad I played it, but it left me wanting more.

Rating: 7/10 (Good)

Run-of-the-mill “good” game. Mostly convincing, with a few notable flaws that hold it back from greatness.

Web Review: Frantic 2

Genre: Shooter
Developer: polymerrabbit
Platform: Internet
Release: September 1, 2009


In addition to games you download or install to your PC, I’ve decided to review Internet releases as well, provided they reach a certain level of depth. The reasons for this are twofold: some deserve recognition, and you can’t go on IGN or GameSpot for each one and read about the same shit. My first review involves a game by web creator polymerrabbit, one I’ve been playing on-and-off on Kongregate for many years:

Frantic 2 is a bullet hell shooter notable for how easy it can be. In it, you pilot one of five ships through patterns of enemies that launch circles, triangles, line segments, and other geometric shapes at you from across the screen. The game contains fifteen levels, which are split into three episodes that can be played in any order, and there are four additional game modes, two of which must be unlocked.

The sheer number of enemy projectiles can be daunting, especially when joined by opponents who carry lasers or homing missiles. Each level throws a mini-boss at you around halfway through, and a boss at the end, which spew enough geometry to fill the entire screen. They often carry missile or laser turrets, sometimes both at once, and survival requires careful maneuvering that limits your chances to aim clearly.

However, unlike many shooters, Frantic 2 allows your ship to survive multiple hits, and you can fly over enemy vessels without harm. Even if you die, you begin each episode with multiple lives, though the highest difficulty offers only two. By killing enemies, you slowly fill an adrenaline meter, which allows you to slow time, shield yourself, or unleash massive attacks that destroy enemy bullets. It makes for a refreshingly approachable experience. You increase your score multiplier by flying next to bullets and killing enemies at close range, but it gets sliced in half when you take a hit, so you’re still rewarded for mastering dangerous actions. By selecting the right card, these actions can also provide extra adrenaline or bonuses to weapon power.

Frantic 2‘s greatest strength is variety, often coming in fives. Five ships, five difficulty levels, and five cards for each of three categories. There are five primary weapons to choose from, ranging from shuriken to laser beams, and you can select between five types of wingmen, which fire rockets, particle showers, or other weapons in formation with you. Most of the options are satisfying, although enemies explode with a generic effect that irritated me after repeated playthroughs. It clashes with the rest of the visuals, which aren’t too pretty to begin with.

On that note, the game doesn’t show much variety in presentation. Each level shares the same soundtrack and boss theme, which would lose impact after five stages, to say nothing of fifteen. Sprites and in-game text are pixelated in a chunky way, not an endearing one, and most of the bullet effects are made from similar shapes and colors.

The game’s sole background is a white (or black, if you choose) space with a few particle effects to simulate motion. It makes the bullets easy to see, but that’s about all you can say for it. Even a simple grid would have looked more interesting.

The sheer number of enemy projectiles can be daunting, especially when joined by opponents who carry lasers or homing missiles. Each level throws a mini-boss at you around halfway through, and a boss at the end, which spew enough geometry to fill the entire screen. They often carry missile or laser turrets, sometimes both at once, and survival requires careful maneuvering that limits your chances to aim clearly.

However, unlike many shooters, Frantic 2 allows your ship to survive multiple hits, and you can fly over enemy vessels without harm. Even if you die, you begin each episode with multiple lives, though the highest difficulty offers only two. By killing enemies, you slowly fill an adrenaline meter, which allows you to slow time, shield yourself, or unleash massive attacks that destroy enemy bullets. It makes for a refreshingly approachable experience. You increase your score multiplier by flying next to bullets and killing enemies at close range, but it gets sliced in half when you take a hit, so you’re still rewarded for mastering dangerous actions. By selecting the right card, these actions can also provide extra adrenaline or bonuses to weapon power.

The typos get old, however

Between levels, you can upgrade your ship with coins dropped by fallen enemies, swapping weapons, upgrading their power, or purchasing cards that confer special benefits. These cards provide much of Frantic 2‘s tactical depth, allowing your ship to regenerate health, move faster, disable enemy missiles, suck in faraway coins, or perform other feats. Initially, only two can be carried, but beating any episode unlocks a third slot. There are also several unlockable cards, enhancing replay value.

For fans of more brutal shooters, the Kamikaze card makes your ship go down in one hit, with a small boost in weapon power for compensation. It can be unlocked by completing two levels without taking any hits.

As mentioned, there are four additional games modes. Arcade removes the shop, providing upgrades based on your ship choice. Another mode offers a prolonged fight against all thirty bosses and mini-bosses. Endurance requires you to complete all 15 levels in one sitting. Survival is the game’s greatest challenge, offering an endless battle where one hit is fatal.

For those interested, Frantic 2 also offers leaderboards. It’s a considerable slice of content, and progression is fast and clean, with no hint of grinding or other tedious padding. I unlocked everything several years ago, but I still return on occasion.

I’ve docked 0.5 points because of my issues with artwork and sound, but otherwise it’s solid.

Rating: 7.5/10 (Good)

Here’s a link, if you want to play it yourself:
Kongregate: http://www.kongregate.com/games/polymerrabbit/frantic-2?acomplete=frantic2