Ever since I first laid my hands on Tyrian, nearly two decades ago, I've had a bit of a thing for shoot 'em ups. I mean, who doesn't love blowing up innumerable hordes of alien ships with completely ridiculous and overly flashy weaponry?
With that in mind it should be quite obvious that I was heavily predisposed towards liking Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax, a shoot 'em up that embraces many of the same design choices as Tyrian. Even so, I still found myself genuinely impressed at how enjoyable the gameplay is. The colorful visuals, the kick-ass music, the variety of weapons and characters you can field - all of it comes together to create some truly excellent shooting that had managed to keep me glued to the screen for hours on end.
So what exactly makes Stardust Galaxy Warriors so fun, and more importantly, what are the things that still need improvement?
(Video version of this review - 13 minutes)
The first on the list is difficulty. For those among you that don't play many shoot 'em ups, the genre these days tends to be dominated by Japanese "bullet hells". In other words, games with thousands of projectiles barreling towards you that you either have to dodge perfectly, or make a colorful splatter trying. As you can probably guess, this style of shoot 'em up is about as good at helping you relax as a trip to the dentist, so I'm glad to say that Stardust Galaxy Warriors does not exist simply as form of corporal punishment.
Things do get insanely tough on some of the higher difficulty settings, have no doubt about that, but with a generous health bar and recharging shields you can afford to make a mistake or two before you get annihilated. The same applies to the bosses, though the margin of error is far slimmer since there are more projectiles and mechanics for you to worry about at the same time. While it might not sound revolutionary, the aforementioned addition of recharging shields has been the major reason behind my continued enjoyment of Stardust Galaxy Warriors. Nothing feels better than crushing an entire level while hanging on to a sliver of HP, all through the glorious power of recharging shields!
There's still a ton of bullets to dodge, but its never an unreasonable amount
If you're not a fan of the preset difficulty options, however, why not create your own? Much to my surprise, Stardust Galaxy Warriors gives you the ability to either customize the currently available difficulty modes, or to craft an entirely new one by tweaking a whole bunch of parameters. Do you want to turn Stardust Galaxy Warriors into a bullet hell with millions of enemies and one-hit kills? No problem! Do you want to fight against a smaller number of drastically more powerful enemies? No problem! Do you want to fight against hordes upon hordes of enemies, all of which have a massive chance to drop a power-up? No problem!
I quickly realized that the standard difficulty modes weren't to my liking, mostly because each tier lowered your health reserves while pumping up the enemy HP, so I just tweaked a few numbers and ended up with something much more pleasant. I cannot even begin to describe how grateful I am this feature exists as I am an anomaly when it comes to these types of games. I like them almost unbearably hard, but also incredibly fair at the same time. I want my guns to feel powerful, but I also want to fear the enemy's weaponry. I want to have tons of enemies on the screen, but I don't want the action to turn into a constant bullet hell. Since these are some pretty damn specific demands finding a difficulty setting that fits me is next to impossible, but if I can just create my own - the whole problem is solved!
Want to create your own ultra-hard bullet hell? Well, here you go!
And speaking of weaponry, its probably high time I mentioned the things Stardust Galaxy Warriors lets you explode your enemies with. While the competently insane name would suggest an equally insane arsenal, the truth of the matter is that Stardust Galaxy Warriors has pretty much every weapon you've seen in other shoot em' ups. You've got the spread gun that shoots three bullets in different directions, a laser canon that does damage in a straight line, a gattling gun that spews a hail of bullets, a missile launcher that dispenses justice from above, a wave launcher that launches... well, energy waves , a shotgun that (believe it or not) shoots things, and that sort of stuff.
The weapons might not be the most inspired things I've ever seen, but when it comes to blowing up aliens they do their jobs admirably. The projectiles look good in flight, they are easily distinguishable from enemy fire, the sound design is pretty damn excellent and it keeps the whole combat feeling good, and best of all, the weapons are nicely balanced among each other. A flamethrower is absurdly powerful when it comes to fighting against swarms of weak enemies, but completely useless against big ones, whereas the railgun is able to tear through the slow-moving enemy powerhouses with surprising ease, though at the cost of fire rate. Each weapon serves a specific purpose, and since you can only take two of them with you there is a good degree of choice before each and every mission, and that is something I certainly appreciate seeing.
You know a gun is good when it can't even fit the loadout screen!
Its not just the weapons you get to choose from, however, there are also five playable characters. In the best case scenario you would have four of them active at the same time via co-op multiplayer, but since I couldn't wrangle anyone to play with me I ended up switching between them after each mission. This quickly revealed a rather glaring flaw to me - almost half of the characters are bloody useless in singleplayer! All three of the damage orientated characters are equally fine in singleplayer and multiplayer, as you would expect, but both of the support classes are so gimped I ended up playing them only once and never again.
For example, Black Bear is a defensive support that is capable of projecting a shield in front of her and thus saving her allies from a potentially nasty situation. This sounds like a pretty good ability in singleplayer as well, so what's the problem? Well, as it turns out the shield projector draws power from your own shields! In multiplayer this is most likely perfectly fine since you're taking a couple of hits in order to shield your entire team, but in singleplayer you're essentially sitting there like a lemon and just getting beaten up for no reason. A similar story applies to the other support character as well, which is a massive shame since I'm sure they could easily be balanced for both styles of play.
It looks cool, but I wouldn't recommend it if you value having a face
On the positive side, at least the three playable damage dealers are all unique and exciting to play. Blue Falcon is a long range specialist that is capable of either shooting down his enemies with conventional weaponry, or with gigantic spears that he can chuck at an angle, something no one else is able to do. What this means is that Blue Falcon never has to worry about being in the wrong position, he can continue dealing damage even if the boss is not directly in front of him. As you might imagine, this is a rather sizable advantage.
Red Tiger is one of the harder characters to play as she focuses on extreme close range damage. Tearing through enemy ships with gigantic claws is certainly fun, but it does bring with it a significant risk of death, so I must admit I quickly moved on to other characters.
And finally we have Silver Wolf, my favorite by the way, who is your standard fast moving shoot 'em up protagonist. There is a bit of a twist, however, as he is capable of dashing in whichever direction you choose. This simple ability opens up so many avenues of attack the skill ceiling is more or less infinite. You can dodge through boss mechanics, you can avoid entire squadrons of enemies, you can position yourself at the optimal firing distance... and you can also blink directly into a massive laser and spent your final few seconds feeling very, very stupid. It takes real skill to pilot Silver Wolf at some of the higher difficulty settings, but the extreme risk/reward ratio and fast paced gameplay are exactly what makes him so fun.
Silver Wolf meeting some old friends
While I do love playing as Silver Wolf, the unfortunate reality is that the character itself is a massive, insufferable twat. For reasons unknown Stardust Galaxy Warriors features a bit of plot before each and every mission, and while I was open towards the idea since Tyrian managed to make it work so well, the story in Stardust Galaxy Warriors is mostly memes and terrible jokes. Its all intentionally cheesy and terrible, a sort of parody of other shoot 'em ups, but intentionally terrible and unlikable characters are still terrible and unlikable. Throughout the entire story I had exactly one moment that made me giggle, even that had absolutely nothing to do with the writing as it was a purely visual gag.
Since the story represents the very worst aspect of Stardust Galaxy Warriors, its only fair I bring up the very best one next - the presentation. If you've watched any of the trailers you're no doubt well aware that Stardust Galaxy Warriors is a rather beautiful game. The enemy design is clean and minimalistic, the backgrounds are well drawn and generally quite interesting to look at, and to top it all off, the various projectiles and explosions provide quite the spectacle.
What is it with the bad guys and animal themed ships?
To put it simply, Stardust Galaxy Warriors has everything a shoot 'em up needs in terms of presentation, though there are a few black sheep in here as well. Some of the 3D backgrounds, especially on maps with a whole lot of asteroids to watch out for, tend to bleed into the gameplay area and cause a ton of confusion. This isn't that big of a deal in the campaign since you can just restart and carry on your merry way, but if you're doing any of the special modes these graphical issues can easily cost you 20+ minutes.
On the other hand, the one level that takes place next to a dying star is an absolute nightmare no matter the game mode. The only way I can even begin to describe that level is by saying something as stupid as: "its like trying to perform surgery while someone constantly flashes a red neon light in your eyes". Its just that bad! The enemies are tough, there are tons of projectiles to worry about, and in order to ensure you can't even focus on the things ahead of you the developers added a constantly flashing red light - just for good measure! I can't even begin to imagine why this was added in, but sadly for us all it was, so if you're suffering from epilepsy do be warned.
Now just imagine this place pulsing with red light every 20 seconds...
Now that I've relived my personal hell its time to once again venture into the light, by which I mean talk about the music. While there are a couple of tracks that are just OK, the majority of the music in Stardust Galaxy Warriors is downright amazing! The tracks are action packed and constantly upbeat, without ever becoming so overbearing that they covers the boss audio queues and enemy attacks, or worse yet, become downright annoying. I'm no music critic, so when it comes to explaining why exactly a song is good I'm completely out of my element, but allow me to just say this - even if you're not interested in shoot 'em ups I would recommend checking out the soundtrack for Stardust Galaxy Warriors, its that good! Here's a preview for one of my favorite tracks.
Stardust Galaxy Warriors is a great example of the genre, but most importantly, it is an excellent game in its own right. Its lovely to look at, which combined with the terrific soundtrack ensures that all of the random shooting never becomes a chore. It also helps that there is a good degree of variety when it comes to your characters, weapons, enemies, and even difficulty settings, so there is always a way to freshen up the experience once things start becoming a bit stale.
You most likely won't play Stardust Galaxy Warriors for hundreds of hours, there is simply not enough content in here for that kind of a playthrough, but if you're looking for a shoot 'em up that you can pick up and play for 30 minutes every once in a while - then it might just be the one you're looking for. I certainly had a good degree of fun with it, even though I played it all on my own, so who knows how interesting things might get when you have a couple of friends sitting besides you.