Geometry Wars in Bullet Hell
Download Size: 70 MB
Time Played: 3 hrs.
Unsuccessful Attempts on Last Stage: 15-20
What I'd Pay: $7
Steam Price (2/11/12): $10
Scoregasm introduces some interesting mechanics, then proceeds shoots itself in the foot with one of them. The dual-joystick controls ala Geometry Wars? Work well. The path branching based on your success building combos, ala Star Fox 64? Also works well. The burst attack to destroy everything around you that's recharged by shooting things? Creates a steep difficulty curve where everything's either too easy or too hard.
Scoregasm's primary mechanic is the combo interplay between the shooting and the bursting. The bursts destroy all enemies & bullets near you, but they use up energy. The energy recharges slowly over time, but if you need it fast, shooting enemies recharges it faster. (Bursting also builds up your combo meter faster, which in turn powers up your guns, making it easier to kill enemies with it & recharge your burst.) To burst constantly, you also need to be shooting enemies constantly. Usually this is pretty easy, and many of the stages boil down to "shoot towards where the enemies are spawning, burst constantly to eliminate the bullets". However, once you get low on energy or enemies, you need to conserve the bursts and it suddenly turns into a "dodge Bullet Hell" game. Since you've spent the rest of the game just bursting any bullets that got too close to you, you're unprepared for this sudden shift and wind up dead.
Bullet Hell veterans won't notice such a steep learning curve (and will probably enjoy the game much more than I did), but the dual-stick setup will still give them issues. Your shot spread is pretty slim, some of the targets are narrow, and it's tough to aim at them properly when you're keeping an eye on your ship weaving through the bullets. This game made me realize why most Bullet Hell games only let you shoot forward and have large bosses.
Most of those issues crop up in the last Insane levels, though. The rest of the game felt pretty easy, with nasty-looking levels being a cinch when you can just vaporize anything near you. The fun came from trying to push your combo score as high as possible to unlock more exits. The game has 3 different tracks (Normal, Hard, Insane) and you can open portals to the other 2 tracks by reaching a high combo score on a level. I would go from Normal to Insane then drop back to Normal and claw my way back up through Hard to Insane... and then die horribly to some spiky boss. I haven't seen a course vary that much since I played Star Fox 64.
The game also benefits from very short levels. It was rare for a level to last more than 1-2 minutes, and you can also start a new game at any level you've unlocked, letting you quickly practice it. That's a good thing, because some of the levels have (completely unexplained) victory conditions. Some require you to defeat a boss within a limited time, while a few have you survive against an invincible enemy or fly through all the squares of a laser grid. Some of these levels also had strange change-ups, like spawning a large enemy on what had been the only safe spot until that point, that felt a bit cheap and required some memorization.
The last Insane level was the worst, though. It lasts a good 4-5 minutes, consisting of a tough run through minions & bullet storms followed by the toughest boss fight in the game. During that boss, you can't recharge your burst by shooting other enemies, the boss is protected by a rotating shield that blocks most of your shots, and every time you die you have to restart the boss from scratch. It wrecks the bite-sized pacing of the rest of the game by forcing you to go through that gauntlet before you can practice fighting the last boss. I gave up on that level after 15-20 tries and even changing my Control Setup from Mouse+Keyboard to Keyboard Only. (Aiming with the mouse isn't fast enough when enemies are swarming you from all sides.)
For the shmup veterans, there's also Challenges for each level and even an Expert mode for harder runs through the game, so you can wring your money's worth out of the game. Judging by the last few Insane levels, though, those might be too tough for the casual shmup fan.
The game's graphics are mediocre, with models that look simple & bright, like they came from the mid-90s. Their simplicity isn't a problem, but their overlapping is. Some of the objects in the background look like enemies, the brightly-colored bullets cover up anything beneath them, and the swarming enemies can hide among both, popping out to blow you up. (The enemies behind bullets encourage you to use burst liberally, which bites you in the ass during the later stages.)
Overall, this is a game the hardcore bullet hell crowd will get much more out of than the casual shmup players it initially appeals to. It's unfortunate that the interesting shoot/burst mechanic leads to the sharp difficulty swings; if it gradually weaned you off relying on the burst & taught you to dodge bullets, I might've built up the skills to beat the game.