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The Red Star (PlayStation 2) artwork

The Red Star (PlayStation 2) review

"One part shoot-'em-up, one part beat-'em-up, and all parts "old school," this adrenaline-fueled hybrid is a blitzkrieg embroiled in frenetic gunplay and hard-hitting melee combat."

It's hard to tell what The Red Star actually is. One part shoot-'em-up, one part beat-'em-up, and all parts "old school," this adrenaline-fueled hybrid is a blitzkrieg embroiled in frenetic gunplay and hard-hitting melee combat. Lock this on a plot based on Christian Gossett's Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel of the same name, and you will wreak havoc sector by sector, neutralizing waves of military personnel and neon-colored bullets. Within an industrial battlefield inspired by a war-torn Russia, you will march through Double Dragon and Streets of Rage, speed past Gradius, dodge by Ikaruga, and ultimately push genre distinctions aside. Assuredly, the unruly path of The Red Star is not without the occasional pothole, but it's certainly worth blasting through any time, any place.

Just as an homage should be, this title takes no prisoners in emulating everything that made finger-twitching classics great, for better or worse. Don't expect plot twists, in-depth character development, or anything close to a tear-jerker here. All you have to think about is obliterating everything that moves on the screen and evading sprinkling streams of gunfire. Every remnant of the graphic novel, which involves the last-ditch defense of the U.R.R.S. (United Republics of the Red Star) against the demon lord Troika, is mainly reduced to mission briefings and the grated, mechanized style of the environments. Dialogue is virtually nonexistent, whether you choose to be the tank-like weapons expert Kyuzo, the Resistance rebel Mikita, or the Sorceress Major Maya Antares, who is unlocked after completing the game. Fans of the critically acclaimed work - named one of the "Top 100 Trade Paperbacks of All Time" by Wizard Magazine - will be disappointed to find the gripping story squished between each stage as text screens that are mostly of the form: "Here is some recon data. (Insert loading screen.) Please hurry! We are about to die! You are our only hope!" Still, this is a small price to pay in service of keeping the game authentic to its roots.

As such, a warning to casual gamers: The first three stages will show you the ropes, but it's not long until those ropes are burned into tiny bits of indistinguishable ash. Once you have annihilated a few infantry units with a few nonchalant melee combinations, trigger-happy foes will soon pelt you from all sorts of directions with a torrent of bullets, mortars, and lasers. Ungracefully you will dart to and fro until a boss, of which there are usually three per level, forces you to bob and weave between projectiles like a pyrotechnic rumba to the death. Then you must begin the dance all over again in the next stage, except with a couple of new soldiers and bosses to throw you off. So if you think your 100-point life bar is generous, think again, especially since there is no sympathy for dying. Even if the final boss is a poke away from being scrap metal, your death means having to restart the level all over again. Consider yourself the guy with that boulder and that hill and that never-ending spiel.

But if there is a case for rooting for the underdog - that's you - then this is it. With every mechanic geared towards throwing off your rhythm and your presupposed strategies, your mind is constantly cranking. You may have the idea that you can butcher everything in sight, especially since your guns have infinite ammo, but they will overheat easily if you're not careful. Meanwhile, as you warily watch the overheat bar rise and fall, you will scan your enemies to choose which firearm best cracks their defenses. Do you strafe with the swift but weak blaster or the explosive but slow-paced cannon? With all your guns sharing the same overheat bar, your decision is not a minor one. Fortunately, you have more than enough effective close-combat maneuvers to give them time to cool down. Each character, along with their standard melee combination, has three chargeable moves that can easily send any unlucky soldier twirling into the air. Every blow you land also fills your protocol meter, a device which stands in for the ubiquitous screen-clearing attack. Better yet, you can activate an impenetrable shield, which can absorb enemy bullets once every couple of seconds. Tackling through each stage will test how you combine and switch between your abilities, for not a single move is gratuitous or overpowering.

When the action stops, however, there's not much to admire. Completing a level gives you the opportunity to upgrade your character by spending points that are earned based on how well you pass the stage. Though this rewards you for skillful play, the game is so difficult that it feels excessive to punish players for barely scraping by. Moreover, you don't receive additional points for achieving the same grade in later more difficult stages - and exactly what you are graded on is unclear. Is it how much health you have left, how many hits you take, or how much time has elapsed? Exacerbating this problem is that the game automatically auto-saves after you upgrade your character, but doesn't allow you to restart the level, if you think you can improve on the grade you received. In fact, there is no way to soft reset the game or restart a level unless you return to the main menu during the stage itself and suffer several long loading screens.

Some might be turned off by the dearth of polish - the frontend, the graphics, and the sound barely satisfy the minimum - but for a budget title, not only is this defensible, but The Red Star accomplishes something that many high-budget games have trouble doing: creating engrossing, dynamic, efficient gameplay. Many will be surprised that this game was actually completed in 2004 by the now defunct Acclaim, allowing XS Games to pick up the rights. If this was released then, questions over the death of the beat-'em-up and shoot-'em-up genres would likely have been answered differently. If you need further persuasion, spread throughout game are references to Friedrich Nietzsche ("Twilight of the Idols"), Zoolander ("Blue Steel" and "Magnum"), and the UK comedy series The Office ("Davbrentsky AKA4U"). Anything this cult and cool really needs no vindication.

draqq_zyxx's avatar
Staff review by Nicholas Tan (May 31, 2007)

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