‘The Red Star’ Review – Star-Crossed

Blending together mechanics and perspectives from different genres and stuffing them into a single game is a bold move. In good hands the experience is rewarding; but in less experienced hands, the alchemical rigors are passed on to the player. XS Games’ “The Red Star,” a PSP port of a 2007 PS2 release, is a good example of successful implementations. It’s too bad I didn’t like it.

The Basics

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more incoherent narrative than what “The Red Star” dishes out. It’s based on a graphic novel of the same name, which I’ll suppose spews the same type neo-Russian dystopian techno-babble that the game does. But while clarity is ever the issue, there’s no chance you’ll get lost in its straightforward, yet peculiar action.

“The Red Star” is a cross between beat ’em up fisticuffs and a shoot ’em up. You’ll control one of three avatars, each armed with upgradable fists and ranged weapons, across a series of short, linear levels thick with bruising foes and bosses. Merciful the game is not. But creative it is — you’ll interact in an environment that rapidly mutates between brawler perspectives while always giving you fluid control of genre-bending combos. Eat that, “Final Fight.”

The Highs

Changing It Up Is Nice
The game’s fixed camera is a point of entertaining design that is milked to wonderful effect in tandem with the game’s high-octane action. As new combat avenues are opened, the game camera frantically adjusts between top-down, side-scrolling, and even isometric 3D perspectives, giving refreshing looks at what could have been otherwise stale battles.

That said, these on the fly switches are the only meaningful “Highs” in a game full of bad design and spectacularly low “Lows.”

The Lows

Dying for a Save Point
“The Red Star” is at its best when you’re laying on the trigger and evading storms of bullets. There’s some minor visceral satisfaction involved. But it’s often at is worst at these times, too. The game has a wretched difficulty curve that ramps up without warning, and equally vile level structure that ushers in new, ridiculously hard to kill foes and bullet-spewing boss after boss without warning, making this game a chore to play at best.

Checkpoints: this Game Needs Them
To make matters worse, there isn’t a checkpoint system. If you die, you restart the entire level. This is incredibly frustrating since each level has at least two or three boss confrontations on top of several low-level, cheap enemy skirmishes beforehand.

Broken Upgrade System
The weapon, armor, and health upgrade component should have mitigated the game’s difficulty … but it doesn’t. Upgrades are ineffectual, flimsy things that yield only the smallest effects. But even if you desire them, you’ll find your EXP coffers low: you only earn a meaningful amount experience points by performing well in a level. If you suck, well, you’re out of luck.

The Verdict

I wanted to like “The Red Star,” but its well-implemented blend of action can’t carry the game beyond its faults. The lack of checkpoints, solid upgrades, a cooperative component, and the brutal difficulty demolish its promise.