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IRO HERO (PC) artwork

IRO HERO (PC) review

"Only The Skilled and The Patient need apply."

The year is 2036. The Nyagu race have taught humans how to obtain electrical energy from within. It didn't take long before evil consortiums and the Nyagu themselves began to harvest people at energy farms, as disposable power sources.

One man... would change all that. When his mother died at one of those same farms, enough was enough. He alone would topple the corrupt and cruel system and set all people free.

His name is Iro. And he's a Hero.

No, really. That's the story. And developers Artax Games were intent on telling it: there are crudely drawn cut scenes between levels, and the play field is intermittently bordered by characters' faces and their dialogue -- all in the name of fleshing that story out.

Thankfully, they really needn't have bothered, because, 1. Iro Hero is a vertical shoot-em-up, so its story is dismissed out of hand, and 2. It's a damn fine shooter at that.

One look at any given screenshot will tell you that Artax has gone for a cutesy, cartoony, 16-bit shmup aesthetic. It's decidedly retro. To its detriment, Hudson Soft's Soldier Blade of 26 years ago looks a million times better. To its credit, its visuals are pleasant and clean; no bullets will be mistaken for background objects here.

So it's pretty cool then, that a game that looks this way, should play the way that it does. Iro Hero is a "polarity shooter," so right away we have to compare it to Ikaruga. The latter game is gorgeous and takes itself very seriously and is hard as hell. The former is cute and quaint and is also hard as hell.

It's a challenge not to let Iro Hero's looks fool you. A game this brightly coloured, with a rhyming name, has no business being this punishing. Story mode, which I'm told is a newer addition to the package, allows you access to any level once you've beaten it, and unlimited lives. (It helps too, that the game isn't a one-hitter-quitter exactly; your ship can take a few light scrapes before exploding.) Persevering at Story mode, one unforgiving level at a time seems the only possible way to play and enjoy Iro Hero. And yet, the game was originally meant to be played as is offered on Normal mode (three credits), or worse yet, on Arcade mode (one credit). Seriously?

Even with unlimited chances, you will struggle to make headway. Artax were sneaky: the first three levels are pretty straightforward. They almost act as a tutorial, giving you lots of same-coloured enemies in succession, so that you can stick with one colour and pound away with ease. A red wave will descend slowly, you'll switch your craft to blue and tear them asunder. Or, you'll stay red, and absorb their red bullets towards filling your special weapon gauge. Easy peasy.

But suddenly it's not. Mixed formations will descend, fast moving ships will fly, dagger style and your fingers will fumble to switch polarities when you stupidly notice you're not doing any damage to the blue enemies with your blue shots.

Later levels become longer, and progression is earned by learning what's ahead through making deeper and deeper runs at the stage before dying thrice and seeing the TRY AGAIN screen. Soon you'll get a chance to see the boss, and you'll usually die not because insane dodging is necessary, but because you won't immediately understand what is required of you. Where is it safest to park? What colour is the boss's weak spot? Is it readily hittable or do you need to reflect shots off bumpers to do damage? This stuff doesn't seem particularly heady, but even simple puzzle elements aren't so simple when you're simultaneously dodging bullets.

With enough practice, you'll get to the boss consistently, and eventually, you'll get there without losing lives, and eventually without getting hit. Then you'll throw all of those chances at the boss and figure it out and move on to the next stage.

Iro Hero does Ikaruga one or two better, introducing four colours to confound you. There's the usual blue and red which your ship can switch to, but there are also purple barriers and bumpers that flip the polarity of the shots you hit them with, and yellow barriers which convert all shots to nonabsorbable yellow ones.

Every new stage is a struggle to make inroads, every past stage, a conundrum solved. Iro Hero is a very good shmup that is at once more and less accessible than the usual Ikaruga ilk. It's even harder in some ways, but thanks to Story mode, you're afforded every opportunity to persevere where other games (and even this one before the addition of Story mode) limit your chances and offer instead spirit crushing restarts from scratch. And that's not hardcore, it's just unreasonable and demoralizing. Iro Hero isn't quite perfect, but it's a well crafted, smart, attractive polarity shooter that gets challenging shooting just right.


Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (August 16, 2018)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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