I find it difficult to describe exactly what type of game Stardrone Extreme is. It has elements of platformers, sidescrolling shooters, and even puzzle games, yet all of these fail to accurately describe it. I must admit, though, this is a conundrum I realized only after I finished the game because I was having too much fun while playing to dwell on the subject. Whatever its genre, Stardrone Extreme is a fun and affordable downloadable game for the PlayStation Vita. It sucks you into its gravitationally dependent world thanks to its addictively kinetic gameplay and the sheer inventiveness of its level design.
The start of each level requires you to aim your spaceship in the trajectory you wish to launch it. Once your ship launches it travels through the level in a perpetual straight line. The only way you can influence the ship’s movements is by tapping the screen when a floating beacon happens to be nearby. Doing so will cause a tether to form between the ship and the beacon, causing the ship to rotate around it as if in orbit. You can change the ship’s trajectory by appropriately timing when to release it from the beacon’s orbit. This mechanic serves as the backbone of the entire game and the developers definitely make the most of it.
The game employs a minimalist control scheme, requiring use of either the rear or front touch interfaces. Both options work well but there's just something more intuitive about controlling your ship by tapping on the front screen. You can press and hold the shoulder buttons to pause the in-game action without transitioning to the actual pause menu. From the pause menu you can back out of the level, adjust the in-game volume, or change the game speed. I completed approximately half of the game on the lowest default speed, with satisfactory results, before I switched all the way to the other extreme. Playing the game on maximum speed doesn't necessarily bring about an increase in the difficulty, rather it feels like the speed the game is meant to be played at. Reverting to a lesser speed afterwards felt slow and unwieldy in comparison.
Each level comes with an objective that must be met in order to progress. The most common objectives are lighting up all of the stars found in a level, destroying a certain amount of enemies, or simply making it to the end of the level. These basic objectives recur throughout Stardrone Extreme but it never feels repetitive because each level offers its own unique navigational challenges to overcome. In addition to beacons, the levels are populated by walls (both spiked and un-spiked), destructible cubes, bumpers and, of course, enemies. The enemies aren’t very varied - most are explosives that cause damage after you come in contact with them or will aggressively pursue you throughout the level.
The level design is brilliant and engrossing. You must to figure out how to alter the drone’s trajectory to careen past all manner of obstructions by judging when is the best time to latch onto or disengage from the nearest beacon. If you happen to transgress the boundaries of the level your drone will drift into deep space until it is eventually sucked in by a black hole. There are ramps you can ride on to speedily guide the ship to where it needs to be, and speed-up fields, which will cause it to jettison with incredible velocity. I'm convinced the developers pushed these seemingly simple game mechanics as far as they could go and left very few stones unturned in regards to fun design; the game is a veritable rollercoaster ride that always keeps you guessing.
Most of the time, your ship completely lacks offensive capabilities, so the best method for dealing with enemies is to avoid them. However, the game peppers a small amount of power-ups into the proceedings. One of these pick ups turns your ship into an unstoppable berserker capable of smashing through most objects, including enemies. Another power-up is a magnet that makes it easier to attract collectible stars to your ship as if it were magnetized. The final power-up turns your drone invisible, allowing you to sneak past enemies unnoticed. Alighting idle stars, which serves as fuel, in close proximity will fill up your Speed indicator. Once the Speed indicator is full you enter Comet Rush mode, which will increase your drone’s speed and imbue it with the power to demolish nearly anything it its path.
One of my favorite things about Stardrone Extreme is its old school difficulty. The only way to overcome the most brutally challenging levels is to fall back on the tried and true methods of memorization and perfecting your reaction times. The game is aware of its difficulty and so (via free DLC) allows you to skip ahead to the next level if you tire of struggling on a stage. The problem is that it asks whether you want to skip ahead after each death, which needlessly increases the time between failure and restarting the level. Personally, I felt as if the game were taunting me and am proud to say I never succumbed to temptation; powering through the levels through sole reliance on the ingenuity of your own reflexes is immensely satisfying.
Stardrone Extreme looks pleasant, though the recurrent deep space background makes the visuals feel unnecessarily repetitive. It's at its most beautiful when your ship is rocketing elegantly through the levels past many potential hazards, some of which produce magnificent explosions of light as you whiz by. The game sounds very sci-fi, thanks to its tranquil electronic-based soundtrack, but the tracks repeat too often. The sound effects are well implemented; the many different chirps and whooshes provide appropriate feedback to let you know when things are going right or horribly wrong. Overall, Stardrone Extreme’s presentation comes off as efficient but little else; it merely gets the job done.
There are five different chapters, each broken down into 12 individual stages for a total of 60 levels. If done correctly, the levels vary in length from around 30 seconds to up to two and a half minutes. The game’s difficulty, however, ensures that you will need multiple attempts to nail the timing just right in order to complete most levels. When all is said and done it took me about 3 hours and some change to complete. At $3.99, the game doesn’t break the bank, but more content would have been nice. Aside from competing for high scores on the online leaderboards you can replay levels to perfect your performance and thereby earn all of the in-game gold medals.
When you play as many games as I do, the generic conventions eventually start to run into each other. It’s rare to find a game that appears to be so simple but is in fact cunningly deep. In this respect, Stardrone Extreme on Vita feels like a breath of fresh air (maybe not so much if you’re already familiar with the PS3 version). It may not last long, or wow you with cutting edge visuals and sound, but the game manages to leave a great impression nonetheless.
This review is based on a PlayStation Network copy of Stardrone Extreme, provided by the publisher.