Tentacles at Dawn

So this makes Humble Bundle Review #7 then? I’m over half way there! I doubt I’ll get them all done before university starts again properly, but I can always try, right? One step at a time – now it’s time to write down my thoughts on Jamestown by Final Form Games.

Jamestown Review
Jamestown is a shmup-come-bullet-hell set on 17th century Mars, where British colonists are engaged in conflict with an alliance of the Spanish and the native Martians (which appear to be a race of tentacled monsters who are not much more advanced than the humans in this universe. The game blends elements of old and new shooters with a decidedly steam punk aesthetic, and a refreshing dose of red martian soil.

Jamestown’s story spans five levels, which can be played separately, with access to the game’s shop between missions, or all in order by purchasing access to Gauntlet mode from the shop. The shop also allows you to purchase challenge packs and new ships using the money you’ve earned by playing the game. Gauntlet mode apparently gives you more cash than playing missions individually, and the story plays out in exactly the same way, except that you have only two continues with which to play the entire series of levels.

Before each level, and after the last there are sections in which the game’s story is told through text, and static, painterly pictures. The images are nice, and with the story they give you a deeper insight into the world in which the game is set, but ultimately I don’t think they added much to the experience, or really compelled me to play on. They can easily be skipped if you’re replaying the game, or simply not interested. There’s a purchasable farce mode in the game’s shop which changes the text displayed during these sections, is mildly amusing, and perhaps more interesting than the original story. There are also white-on-black chapter descriptions at the beginning of the levels, which are reminiscent of old books and sci-fi films, and, on occasion, are very funny.

Jamestown can be played with 1-4 players acting as a team, and you can use any number of mice, keyboards, or Xbox controllers to achieve this (I haven’t tried a regular joy pad, but this may work). There are a lot of difficulties to select, so you can match the difficulty to the number of player’s and their abilities with ease, or pump it all the way up to Judgement for a real challenge. If you play single player you’ll have two lives to lose before a credit is taken from you (a single bullet to the centre of your ship means death, as in any good bullet hell), but if you play multiplayer, the game uses a system whereby you only lose a credit if the whole team is down at once. Team members are revived a set amount of time after they died, which appears to scale based on the number of players, or can be revived early by collecting tokens dropped by certain enemies (usually big ones). I have to say, this system works really, really well (bold well!), and playing the game with even one friend adds so much to the experience. There are eight ships to choose from with the reasonably priced Gunpowder, Treason and Plot DLC, each of which is slightly different, most notably for its special ability. For example, the Beam ship can fire an uber powerful beam straight ahead to animate foes, where as the Gunner ship is able to fire its main guns in any direction. When playing together in different ships this adds a tactical element that I’ve never before witnessed in a shmup, and I highly recommend you get the DLC for the extra options. You’ll be screaming “vaunt“, “help“, and “don’t bloody die” at each other every other minute, especially if you take on the game as a gauntlet.

I found the game played best with a joy pad, but keyboard controls work almost inseparably well unless you’re playing gunner. Mouse controls are a little awkward to get used to, but if you have sensitivity adjustment buttons on your mouse like I do, and can get used to doing this on the fly, you gain a significant freedom of movement bonus. Using a mouse also works exceedingly well if you’re playing gunner, as you can aim much more accurately than you can with a joy pad. Overall the gameplay’s difficulty is fairly balanced between ships and control mechanisms – though neither I nor my friend could work out what good the bomber was.

The graphics and audio in Jamestown are thoroughly polished in line with the rest of the experience. Though far too detailed in general for me to consider true pixel-art, as I have seen it refered to as, the graphics are certainly perfect on a per-pixel level, and the pixels are somewhat visible, helping to aid the retro feel of the game. As with the gameplay I think they are the perfect fusion of old and new, and the theming speaks of this too with visions of steam-powered tanks and ships blasting lasers across the skies of mars. The soundtrack is impeccable, and is completely indistinguishable from that of a high-budget film soundtrack. If I recall correctly there’s even a chip-tuney rearrangement of some of the music in the credits for another retro nod. The main score is classical styled, though I noticed some really driving percussion when I was playing yesterday, and the soundtrack definitely helps to contribute to the sense of urgency you’ll experience when you play the game.

Gameplay is spot on. I’m floored by how perfectly made this game is. At first I was distraught at the fusion of shmup and bullet-hell gameplay (these are superficially similar, but imho completely different genres), but with careful memorization of the threats in each level, and cool cooperation with a partner, the mechanics gel flawlessly. I say “a partner” because that’s how I’ve found the game best played; party play is fun, but for the best level of tactics, and the least on-screen distraction you’ll want to go at this with just two players. On harder difficulties you’ll face an impossible array of bullets unless you know what you’re doing. Your job is to learn the threats that need eliminating first, and leave only enough alive that the bullets on-screen are manageable. Too many bullets? If you’ve been collecting th gold dropped by enemies you can activate Vaunt, which gives you a temporary shield encompassing a moderate area around your ship. This allows you to absorb bullets, even protecting your teammates within the bubble, and afterwards you can maintain a combo by constantly collecting more gold. This combo gives you additional points and weapons power, but will end if you run out of gold or get shot down. If your combo is ended by your termination, you will not receive the points you earned during it. In Gauntlet mode, points can grab you extra continues, so this is a very important tactic.

I’ll wrap this review up, since it’s gotten awfully long. This game is fighting VVVVVV and NightSky for the place in my heart as my favourite Humble Indie Bundle title so far. It’s a really refined shooter. You won’t find anything new if you’re not into this sort of game, but if you like shmups or bullet hells, or you’ve never given them a fair chance then this one is about as well made as they come, offers a solid, thoroughly enjoyable challenge for a single player or a group of friends, and is dirty cheap. My only disappointment? Final Form Games doesn’t seem to have made anything else yet.

:C

 

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