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Einhander (PlayStation) artwork

Einhander (PlayStation) review

"Enter Einhander: the German codename meaning, ‘one-armed’, because of the ships’ single manipulator arm. The Selenians would use the Einhander crafts to be, in effect, kamikaze information gatherers. The instruction booklet tells us that “the survival rate for Einhander runs is zero.” It’s up to you to change that. "

...and because of its shape, called… Einhander.

That inspired line from this game’s introduction could be changed to read, ''and because of its hype, it came from… Square.'' Einhander might be the single most hyped 2D shooter in ‘modern times’. While it is a very good game, the real reason for the hype is obvious: Square made it.

Yes, the same Square of Final Fantasy and Chronotrigger fame decided to make a shoot ‘em up. When I first heard the news, I remember being skeptical. I was thoroughly surprised and pleased that Square made sure to do two important things, which were critical to their first shooter enjoying any measure of real success. (There will always be those who buy solely on the basis of the game developer’s identity, but an RPG maker’s side scrolling shooter could not fly on past credentials alone.) Firstly, they dispensed with much of their trademark, heavy-handed theatrics, and secondly, they really, REALLY did their homework.

The theatrics weren’t completely done away with, as the excellent story is quite dramatic by shooter standards. But it is toned down, such that it doesn’t distract from pure action aficionados’ getting on with their blasting.

The Empire, (Earth’s united forces) fought two wars with the capital city of the moon, Selene. The first ended in a stalemate, but the second had the Selenians making great strides with their superior technology, before eventually and inevitably succumbing to Earth’s deeper forces.

Enter Einhander: the German codename meaning, ‘one-armed’, because of the ships’ single manipulator arm. The Selenians would use the Einhander crafts to be, in effect, kamikaze information gatherers. The instruction booklet tells us that “the survival rate for Einhander runs is zero.” It’s up to you to change that.

You’ve got three different ships at your disposal: the Endymion Mk II and III, and the Astraea Mk I. There are also eight weapons to choose from, ranging from a simple Gatling gun, to an extremely powerful grenade launcher, to an unconventional boss killer, the blade. Each weapon has strengths and weaknesses that force you to really plan out which weapon to use in which situation. For example, the blade is great for bosses because of its intense concentrated power, but may not be effective elsewhere in the level because of its limited range and ammunition.

Yes, ammunition. You see, Einhander is one shooter where you don’t have unlimited bullets (or charge for the weapons that use it). Therefore, a concerted effort must be made to fire efficiently. To make things even more interesting, while the Mk III can only load and use one weapon (also called gunpods) in addition to the standard pea shooter, the Mk II can load THREE gunpods, but only use one at a time. So using THAT ship involves a heady sort of weapon juggling, reminiscent of Axelay. The Astraea is a different animal altogether, as it loads two gunpods, but can fire them SIMULTANEOUSLY. Needless to say, this ship is potentially the most destructive. The Astraea then, is great for more experienced players. The Mk II might suit strategic players better, while the Mk III is great for those who just want to jump into the action, worrying only about what weapon they manage to snatch at a given time.

And snatching weapons is the name of the game. Quite literally, the reason for the ‘one-armed’ moniker given your ship, becomes apparent when you figure out how to equip gunpods. Once you destroy or otherwise incapacitate an enemy, the name of the weapon the craft was equipped with will be shown, and you are then free to ‘steal’ that weapon for your own use. (If you destroy the enemy in the wrong way, you will also destroy his weapon!) This isn’t a new concept; many shooter fans will recognize the weapon stealing from Gaiares, though in Einhander you won’t have the convenient droid object to retrieve the weapons from long distances.

The manipulator arm has two more tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, you can use it as a shield of sorts, whether or not it has a weapon attached to it. (Though if it does, the gunpod will take damage and you will eventually lose it.) And secondly, you can switch the manipulator from the top to the bottom of your ship, effectively changing the position of the gunpod that it’s holding. This creates new variations for weapon use, as your forward firing grenade launcher when switched to the bottom, will fire backward. And your top mounted WASP rocket launcher? It will fire homing missiles when bottom mounted. There is a lot to try in Einhander, and with the ability to unlock bonus ships, gunpods, and galleries, what I’ve detailed is only the beginning.

If there are two types of horizontal shooter—the strategy type, and the pure reflex type—Einhander tries to be both. It does much better doing the latter. Certain levels, like the third, (especially the confrontation with the spider mid-boss) are reminiscent of Thunderforce games. The only strategy necessary in these sections, is which weapon to use for maximum efficiency, while you dodge like a demon.

Unfortunately, despite all the complexity and the good ‘twitch’ sections, the game isn’t as intense as it could be. The best way to describe intensity may be to say that it’s the right combination of exaggerated power from your ship, and the perilous patterns, placement and bullets from your enemies. In Einhander, your ship doesn’t feel threatening or awe-inspiring, and your non-boss enemies and their attacks don’t either. And then, there are parts, like level four, where R-Type II provides unwelcome flavour. You absolutely must know what’s coming to advance even slightly. But Einhander lacks the ingenuity of THAT game’s Force Device manipulation to make the ‘memorization’ at least interesting. (In tedious parts, switching weapons isn’t nearly as much fun as positioning the Force Device.)

What IS definitely interesting in Einhander, are its graphics. They are crisp, featuring among the best polygonal mechanical designs found in a shooter. The bosses are incredibly well rendered and animated. I’ve seen nothing like them before or since. They take up half the screen, and are VERY active, swinging their limbs about seemingly haphazardly, in an attempt to snare you. The boss battles in Einhander may be the best LOOKING in a shooter. If you are a fan of mecha-type anime, you will appreciate the game, if only for this. (They are so good in fact, that I wish Square had made a boss only time attack mode, like the one in Thunder Force V.)

However, the backdrops and scenarios seem to hold very few memorable moments, due in large part to the game’s insistence on its own brand of realism. The levels look very serious, and as a result, the game loses much of what might be called the ‘cool’, or ‘wow’ factor, that features heavily in competitors like R-Type Delta.

As you might expect from Square, the music is absolutely top notch. The quality is outstanding, and many of the tunes are downright intense. But you won’t find yourself remembering, let alone humming, most of the tracks, with the possible exception of “Shudder”. The sound effects and voices are crisp, polished, and effective. Hearing one of the robot bosses threaten you in German as you approach, only to wail as you annihilate him, is particularly satisfying. And the female voice that announces your mission status is a well executed touch.

Einhander is a very good shooter that accomplishes something quite special. Because it is from Square, its quality may have helped the cause of the dying 2D genre to an incalculable degree. That is to say, a good Square shooter in today’s gaming climate helped make the shooter a viable genre again. A sub-par effort would have had the inverse, adverse effect, going far in convincing new age gamers new to the genre, that the genre itself is inherently flawed, rather than the actual effort from Square.

As it is, the quality of the animation, the weapon system, and the bosses, add up to a game that features the great innovation and polish of most Square games, but not enough of this genre’s necessary intensity. Einhander, while possessing so many good qualities, is not an excellent shooter, simply because everything is too neat and tidy. It is a tight, good-looking package, but after playing R-Type Delta and Thunder Force V: Perfect System, this one won’t make you sweat much. That’s not to say it’s easy—in fact the general lack of restart points makes it slightly frustrating at times, and always challenging. It’s just not that intense, and that’s what makes a shooter FUN. As a result, even with all the replay incentives, after you have a pretty good time finishing it, you may be finished with it.

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 14, 2004)

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

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