Version tested: PlayStation 3
Chances are you didn't wake up this morning thinking, "Nothing says fun like the words, 'Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer'! I may not know what any of that means, but I definitely want in!" That's probably why developer SideQuest Studios has laid it on a bit thick with the sales pitch. Söldner-X's teaser trailer variously asks you to Defend Gota IV, Stop the Virus, Master the Storms of Conceyta - who hasn't got that pencilled in for 2009? - and, inevitably, Unlock the Gates to Another World.
Portentous talk for GBP 7.99. Luckily, all of the above can be achieved by pushing right on the thumbstick and blasting everything that comes your way. Söldner-X is a side-scrolling shmup, and a hard, yet distinctly conservative one, eschewing the intricate colour-coded Treasure approach, artsy PomPom gooeiness, or the super-deformed soap opera characters which often dominate the genre.
Instead, SideQuest plays it straight: a simple yet solid combo system, and a handful of upgradeable weapons to use as you fight your way through twelve sadistically lengthy levels. The results of such a measured approach is a game that's understated, likable, and yet slightly forgettable. Unlike the babbling, eye-searing parodies that lurk at the genre's outer limits, nobody's going to find Söldner-X unplayable or tastelessly garish, but the price its cautious approach has to pay is that it's often pretty flavourless.
There are good ideas here, however, chief amongst them that combo system. Chaining together kills with a single weapon fills up your chain meter, and once it's at the top, switching to another weapon and chaining with that keeps the combo going, resulting, eventually, in a power-up of some kind (in an imaginative twist, these can be good or bad). Each weapon has a cool-off period after prolonged use, which means you have to employ a certain degree of strategy if you want to keep your chains going, and the weapon options appear to be intentionally unbalanced so that you run the risk of tripping yourself up with the wrong gun at the wrong time every now and then.
It's a nice mechanic - even though the need to link separate kills to fill the meter does render it largely useless during the game's bullet-sponge boss battles - and although you may not notice it much on the first trip through the campaign, it will likely dominate all subsequent replays, prodding you towards enjoyable risk-taking in a way the low-key level design and largely unremarkable attack waves rarely do.
Another welcome concept is the Berserker mode, which kicks in when you're down to your last smidgen of health, doubling the effects of your own weapons, while halving the damage your ship receives in return. At its best, like the combo system, it encourages a reckless, nimble sort of play, and even if you can't always rise to the occasion with the necessary brilliance, it's still a much-needed touch of kindness in the game's long, often grinding stages.
Stylistically, Söldner-X takes a while to get warmed up. The first levels - a futuristic cityscape and subsequent jungle viewed in various states of disrepair - lack any of the stylish details Treasure, Cave or Konami might layer in, and the enemy designs - robotic wasps and techno-iguanas if you're playing on HD, blackened potatoes and something that looks like a melted coathanger if you're stuck in standard definition - are missing the weird charm of R-Type's mutated bestiary.
On top of this, the music is the kind of thing you'd find playing on MTV if you were sucked back ten years through a wormhole and deposited in a hotel room in Gdansk: housey piano chords intrude at odd moments, the beats are emphatically high-energy, and there are even regular interruptions from the disembodied voice of some bizarre Mid-Atlantic DJ-type - an odd hiring choice for a futuristic air force, surely? - who pops in every few minutes with inane encouragement or limp quips.
But SideQuest eventually finds its flow, visually at least. Later levels slowly become more engaging as the empty skylines give way to twitchy asteroid fields, crystalline caverns, and some bustling mines to navigate through, and, as the backdrops improve a little, the game hits its stride with slightly more imaginative wave formations and bosses that no longer look like nameless Black & Decker implements, probably for use at some point in the construction of bookshelves. All the while a steady trickle of power-ups offers controlled bursts of flame guns, rockets, and a bow weapon that warps zanily through the enemies, to provide a much-needed break from the standard pulse laser and beam cannon.
Despite this growing confidence, and the reliable injection of life that local two-player co-op always brings to a game, Söldner-X never achieves the mixture of creativity and restraint that defines the great shmups: the babbling invention the best titles bring to their enemies and locations, contrasted with the ruthless efficiency with which they carve up and control the screen, luring you into tighter and tighter play areas before finishing you off entirely - or allowing for that split-second escape.
Instead, SideQuest always remains slightly bland with its environments, and is cautious, rather than precise, when it comes to pacing: its battlefields often hesitant and unfocused when they could be pared down to brutal optimisation. Most importantly, a lack of visual feedback (except in the lavish explosions of a boss's final moments) means the combat is consistently toothless, and the weapons are largely weightless, polite and unassuming when they should be bombastic and energising.
A lack of gimmickry is no bad thing - downloadable gaming is littered with the dead hulks of one-shot titles whose big idea failed to reach critical mass - but this is too often missing a true sense of personality. Ultimately, although it's always competent, Söldner-X rarely revels in its own arsenal, and the result is a game where shooting things never feels like a particularly big deal. And in a shoot-'em-up, no matter how earnestly it's put together, that's always going to represent something of a problem.
6 / 10