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Square Off - Review

Given that both Xbox Live Indie Games on Xbox 360 and games on Windows Phone use the XNA development environment, it’s surprising how few indie games have made the jump from Xbox 360 to Windows Phone so far. Twin Blades is the earliest game to have made the transition (becoming an Xbox Live title, no less). Indie gaming fans sick of puzzle games now have a more hardcore game to play: Square Off, courtesy of Australian developer Gnomic Studios.

Square Off’s story, told through a series of full screen stills in the intro and ending, involves a prolonged alien invasion of the earth. Humanity is unable to defeat the aliens for some reason, so a mad scientist comes up with a plan. He splices alien DNA with his own brain cells, creating a team of Square Avengers. These little guys strap on jet-packs, grab some guns, and head out to save the planet.

While the silly story sets the stage, Square Off is really just about shooting a bunch of aliens. The game consists of seven levels: the first three have four regular waves followed by a boss wave, while the final level contains two waves and a big boss wave. In normal waves, a group of UFOs act as enemy generators. They spawn numerous smaller enemies and must be dealt with before the bad guys overwhelm you with numbers. Helpful color coded arrows indicate the location of off-screen enemies and UFOs. Finish everybody off and it’s on to the next wave.

Rocket past the break for our full review.

Jet pack hero

Players make the Square Avenger fly around in any direction with a virtual left thumbstick. A virtual right thumbstick allows the Avenger to fire in any direction. It’s the same control setup as Rocket Riot, and it works just as well (read: excellently) here. Square Off does them one better by allowing players to choose between fixed, free floating, and floating positions for both sticks. Free floating (a thumbstick is created wherever you place your fingers) worked best for me, but it’s wise of Gnomic to accommodate other play styles.

Square Off also allows the player to select from multiple weapons at any time. You start with a standard pea shooter and a few bombs. Bombs explode a few seconds after they’re thrown rather than on impact, but they inflict massive damage on nearby foes. Defeated enemies sometimes drop additional guns: a very useful 3-way gun, a shotgun, and a rocket launcher - all with limited ammo. Simply tap on the weapon’s icon at the top of the screen to select it; though as an option, the game can automatically switch to weapons on pickup.

Powerups also spawn in designated spots throughout each level. These include health refills, an invincibility helmet, and a faster, red jet-pack. The player’s health does not refill automatically, so I often found myself flying around the powerup spots looking for health. The current system works, but I’d prefer automatic refills to scavenging.

Enemies of the state

Let’s face it, aliens believe in different things than us and therefore deserve to be violently destroyed. They come in a few different varieties: standard one-eyes who attack by running into the player; helmeted aliens who can take a bit more damage; aliens who can shoot projectiles; enemies who explode when killed (useful for destroying groups of enemies at once); and the UFOs that spawn them all. Smaller aliens come in a few different colors depending on the level, but most of them are green.

The first five levels feature the same boss: a giant UFO. They spawn enemies just like small UFOs, but of course they’re much more aggressive and resilient. A new, really big boss debuts in levels 6 and 7.

You’ll notice I didn’t exactly list a ton of enemies or bosses. The lack of enemy variety is probably Square Off’s biggest problem. A few more types of enemies and unique bosses for every single level would have kept the game’s seven levels feeling a bit fresher. They do ramp up in challenge, of course, and the stages themselves look great.

2.5D on the go

Ah, Square Off’s levels.  From snow-covered mountains to the wreckage of satellites orbiting the earth, each 3D arena shines. Multiple background layers and occasional foreground objects create a great sense of depth. Little touches like rocks pouring into distant carts of the Mine and skeletons and coffins in the Jungle show a lot of care went into the environments.

Hand-drawn 2D characters contrast nicely with the backdrops. The cartoonish art style itself is reminiscent of The Behemoth’s console titles, Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers – not that that’s a bad thing. The smiling Square Avengers show a lot of personality and look great in production art. The enemies don’t have quite as much flair. Some humorous animations would have given them more character. They explode nice and bloodily when killed though.

Sound off

Another thing that could have helped establish character is the use of voice samples. The hero does squeal when he dies, but that's it. A few silly lines from the Square Avenger and groans or taunts from bosses would add some aural punch. The game’s workmanlike sound effects get the job done but they don’t make much of an impression.

Square Off’s music is pretty good though. Each stage has a unique tune, which is more than many phone games can say. I found myself wishing for a sound test so that I could sample the tunes outside of battle… Except for the title/menu theme, that is. Something about it gets on my nerves.

Solo shooting

The Xbox 360 version of Square Off is a multiplayer-oriented game. The entire seven-level campaign supports four-player co-op, and it also has unique death match arenas (all offline-only). Sadly, multiplayer couldn’t make it into the mobile version. The campaign is still plenty of fun solo though.

Gnomic also added a sort of survival mode to give the phone version more staying power. It works a bit oddly – instead of a separate mode, players must choose to Fight On after completing the final wave of a level. Gamers can earn trophies by surviving to the fifth, tenth, and fifteenth waves of each level. I would have liked a more developed survival mode that stands out from the regular game somehow, but what’s here is still a fun inclusion.

A local leaderboard tracks players’ high scores. The developers plan to add online leaderboards in a future update, which will really encourage players to reach the higher waves of Square Off’s levels. The game also tracks a plethora of stats like weapon usage, etcetera, which I guess might be interesting for somebody out there.

Future plans

Online leaderboards are one of several improvements that will come in a future update. Gnomic Studios also plans to work on a sequel at some point in the future. I’m sure it will be great, but I’d really like to see them tackle another genre like platformers. Square Off’s 2.5D graphics and art style would be perfect for a longer, deeper style of game.

Update: Online leaderboards are live!

Overall Impression

Square Off is a welcome addition to the Windows Phone indie game lineup. What started as a contest entry in 2009 has blossomed into a charming little shooter. The game has transitioned from Xbox 360 to Windows Phone amazingly well, except of course for the multiplayer. Still, Square Off displays a level of polish that few other indie games on the platform provide. There’s nothing else like it on Windows Phone apart from Rocket Riot, but hey, Square Off’s $2 cheaper.

Square Off costs $2.99 and it also has a free trial. To try it out, aim your sights here (Zune link) on the Marketplace.

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Comments

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Jay Bennett says:

The Zune link doesn't seem to exist Paul :)