Monday, July 25, 2011

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony Review

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony, developed and published by Final Form Games.
The Good: Constant action with simple controls, varied ships and enemies, well-adjusted range of difficulty, up to four players on the same computer, nice retro graphics and music
The Not So Good: Lacks online co-op, short five-mission story-based campaign, content locked from easier difficulty levels
What say you? This action shoot ‘em up has chaotic fun and retro charm, but it’s short and needs online play: 6/8

Last Summer, I visited Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America. As a nearby resident of the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in the continental United States, it’s interesting how desolate and depressing these early settlements were, surrounded by disease and eventually unfriendly neighbors. History shall repeat itself as we colonize other planets, and that’s the premise of Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony: those hardy English, running out of places to colonize on Earth, reach out to Mars. In a scientifically accurate portrayal of solar system settlement, your task is to shoot the crap out of everything you see. See how much we’ve progressed in four hundred years?

The graphics of Jamestown are decidedly retro, and I feel this works well with the game. While I would like to see the excellent art style at a higher, crisper resolution, the detail is impressive and distinctive, from the backgrounds to the ship and enemy designs. Each level has a characteristic setting and enemy roster that differentiates itself from the others well. The explosions and weapon effects look nice as well, and the overall bedlam is pleasing to the senses. The sound effects are much the same: while combat is surprisingly subtle (especially firing bullets, but that’s probably on purpose so not to annoy), the music is a wonderful orchestral arrangement. Overall, I was pleased with the detailed art that Jamestown has to offer in the design of both the graphics and sound.

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony is a classic shmup (shoot ‘em up), where you and up to three friends can blast many an enemy. The game includes a very short story-based campaign consisting of only five levels, and each level takes only a couple of minutes to complete. That means you can breeze through the game in under thirty minutes, if you so choose. The thinking is that you’ll want to replay it at higher difficulty levels and with friends, but the lack of content is still undeniable. In addition, you have to beat previous levels at a specific difficulty level to unlock the later ones, so you might as well start out at the legendary level, then. Hey, when there are only five levels to choose from, at least let us play them at the difficulty we are most comfortable with. Speaking of difficulty, I found the five difficulty levels to cover the gamut from “trivially easy” to “insanely tough,” and everything in between. If you’ve chosen a level a bit too challenging, at least the game gives you partial points for completion. Those points can be spent to unlock things, like new ships, alternative game modes, and bonus levels. The twenty bonus levels are very difficult and usually quite short, involving a single objective like collecting rings or survival, so it’s ultimately just a minor distraction rather than a full-fledged gaming mode. Finally, Jamestown has co-op for four players, which would be fantastic except that you can’t play the game online. Online leaderboards are a small consolation for lacking online co-op, so the only people who will be able to enjoy this wonderful aspect of the game are those who have physical friends to play with.

Jamestown has four ship types that vary your primary and secondary weapons. I was most comfortable with the one you start out with, the beam ship, which has a good spread fire and secondary beam weapon for taking down large ships. The gunner ship lets you change the direction of the primary fire based on movement (and then keeps it aiming in that direction); this takes some practice, but it’s useful for powerful enemies placed on the sides. The charge ship (another personal favorite) shoots slow-moving torpedoes straight ahead, and the longer you wait between charge shots, the more powerful the torpedo. Finally, the bomber lets you detonate your bullets mid-flight; while the idea is nice, the basic fire is underpowered and I found that detonation took too much micromanaging to be worth the effort. All of the ships move pretty slow, making peripheral firing important. Overall, there’s something for everybody.

Jamestown can be controlled using the keyboard, mouse, or gamepad, allowing four people to crowd around the same computer screen. All methods have three buttons: fire, a special attack, and the vaunt. As enemies die, you should collect the coins they drop, which eventually allow you to enable vaunt mode. Here, you get a temporary shield, damage boost, and score multiplier. The vaunt mode is plenty useful when you are in a sticky situation, either with lots of incoming bullets or boss battles. I like the risk/reward of going for coins to earn the shield and damage bonuses as well.

There is a large range of enemy types encountered in Jamestown, all with varied attacks and behaviors that must be dealt with. The mixture keeps up throughout the five-mission campaign, keeping you on your toes as you deal with new opponents each level. Enemy bullets are usually easy to see, and Jamestown is simply a matter of killing enemies, collecting coins, and deftly avoiding incoming fire while using your secondary weapons and vaunt mode. You explode if you are hit in the middle of your ship, and you are given a couple of continues during each level before it’s game over. The chaos balance is done well: the action is frantic but it never feels overwhelming or unfair, and you can always tell what’s going on (and why you just died).

Jamestown is a polished, enjoyable shoot ‘em up that falls a couple of features short of excellence. The straightforward controls make the game easy to pick up and play, and the vaunt system, where collecting coins from destroyed enemy units triggers a shield and damage bonus. Using the vaunt at the right time can mean the difference between defeating a boss (or other tough area) and having to restart. The four ship types allow advanced players to try out some alternative strategies (although I always went back to the more straightforward beginner ship, though the torpedo charge ship was a close second), and the enemies are quite varied and require varied tactics. There are only five short levels in the story-based campaign, and the later missions require you to complete previous levels at a higher difficulty level, discouraging novices in the process. The twenty brief bonus levels offer varied challenges but limited replay value. Four-player co-op is undeniably fun, but since you can’t enjoy it online, it’s appeal is somewhat limited unless you have people called “friends” (I know, I’ve never heard of those either). Still, for $10, this retro game will provide a cost-appropriate amount of fun for shmup fans.