Finally a twin-stick shooter worth your time
Simplicity is a concept which few games can pull off without being called "simple", gamers consider it a derogatory term rather than a badge of honour. It's this much maligned adjective that has come to define the brightest and best of the twin-stick shooter genre. Giants of the field such as Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 have proven that to be brilliant, a twin-stick shooter must do a few things perfectly rather than everything well. Squid in a Box's Waves subscribes to this theory admirably, succeeding in creating a sense of "easy to learn, hard to master" while carving out its own identity in a bloated and overcrowded genre.
Describing Waves in layman's terms will do nothing to distinguish it from the tepid dime-a-dozen shooters that use the right-stick for more than aiming. The striking thing about Waves is its restraint rather than its features, this isn't sourced from its humble origins as an indie game however. Waves has 5 modes, 4 buttons, 3 in-game songs, zero tutorials and an abundance of variously coloured hexagons, its Spartan arsenal of features belies its sense of focus.
You have 3 tools in order to succeed and plant your score at the top of the leaderboards. A slow-motion meter, an Area-of-effect bomb available after you reach a combo of X10 and your right stick which handles the shooting. Using a keyboard is not advised under any circumstance, not only will you fail miserably but you will be doing an insulting disservice to the superb controls that the use of a gamepad offers.
Each mode pertains to developing skills, for what Waves deals in is skill and reflexes rather than the weapon management and strategy of Housemarque's most recent shooters. The crux of the game lies in the aptly titled "Crunch Time", where you are given 3 minutes to put your highest score on the leaderboards. The other modes serve to develop your muscle memory to help you perform where it matters while being legitimately compelling in their own right.
"Rush" and "Bombing Run" emphasize the importance of building combos and effective control of your spherical ship's physics respectively (the latter being a bit of a sticking point for a GW fan like myself), while Challenge mode teaches the player the importance of time and combo efficiency. "Survival" is pretty self-explanatory; it's also fantastic as it gets to the sheer craziness that is Waves at its best in a matter of seconds. Though the modes are an effective teaching tool, the combination of them and the tool tips aren't enough to teach the player organically about the core systems at play, forcing even a genre fan such as myself to resort to the Hints and Tips section to find out how combos work. Even a one-off tutorial would have helped in this regard.
Player information aside, Waves boils down to rote muscle memory and instinct. There are ways of exploiting combos and slow-mo for survival and a great score but predominantly Waves is played via the seat of one's pants. In every mode you kill geometric enemies which increasing your level, with each level gained (and the shower of "Woot!"s that accompany them) the number of enemies increases, more enemies = more insanity = more brightly coloured explosions = more fun and Waves is supremely capable at ramping up the intensity according to this formula.
The enemies do plenty to ratchet up the white-knuckle high-points of Waves, being colour-coded to denote their behaviours which range from the unpredictable to the aggressive. The element of pure luck is something more complex games have difficulty recreating, yet Waves elicits it on a consistent basis due to the erratic nature of your adversaries.
Waves' leanness and restraint is exemplified in its graphical presentation. Though "art design" is never something one would normally attribute to a twin-stick shooter, Waves possesses a striking one. There's a heavy "nightclub meets hexagons" vibe which matches the hyperbolic, thumping electronica that complements the explosive showers of colourful particles your geometric foes. It's a shame that there are only 3 tracks, only one of which being truly memorable, as they contribute immensely to the game's offbeat and crazy tone. The demonstrably British quips that populate the menu text and score comments do much to atone for this blunder. (John Woo loves this game he does)
Where plenty of small scale games like this attempt to do more and rarely succeed in doing it superbly, Waves keeps its horizons narrow and simple. In other genres this would be a slight upon a game's name, but within the realm of twin-stick shooters I think it counts as high praise. You won't find a more tightly focused twin-stick shooter this side of Geometry Ware RE 2, and for $10, its price of admission pales in comparison to the satisfaction a true shooter fan will get out of it.