Developer: 24 Caret
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 3 Only
It is a scenario that we are seeing more and more regularly, plucky indie firm shows off stunning looking game idea at a convention, then a few years later after much toil and graft, said game arrives in downloadable form to much acclaim. Barely five minutes goes by between high quality indie games these days; it is the future, I’ve seen it. This year alone I have looked at Fez, Velocity, Dust, VVVVVV and Papo & Yo, all of which have been right out of the top drawer and with not a major games devco in sight. The latest addition to this fine list is 24 Caret’s wonderful rhythm action/shmup crossover Retro/Grade, a marriage of game styles that should have never worked in a million years, yet proves to be a match made in heaven.
The name Retro/Grade is an obvious play on words, given the retro connotations of a sidescrolling space shooter. But it also works to illustrate the time reversal gimmick that is the basis for the entire game. Get it?
You see, the whole idea of the game is that everything is running in reverse. It may look from screenshots like a conventional shooter, with some bullet hell flourishes and tasty bosses. But in reality the game more closely resembles something like Amplitude, Bust A Groove or Guitar Hero, as you attempt to complete the mission of retracing the steps (and shots fired) of your spacecraft. If this sounds confusing, it makes far better sense when you see the thing in action.
The game actually kicks off with the end credits, with your avatar, the wonderfully named Rick Rocket, having just successfully destroyed the final boss. The screen then scrolls backwards from right to left and it is your job to position yourself to absorb all of the shots your ship has already fired, by hitting the X button to hoover them up. The game makes this task even more enjoyable with the use of a superb soundtrack, and absorbing shots in time to the beat of the music will rack up better scores. Did I mention that the scoring is also in reverse? That’s right, you begin the game with a stack of points, with the aim to reduce it down to zero!
Your game is over if your health bar depletes, which happens when you miss shots or are struck by an enemy projectile. Avoiding such a calamity is made easier with the addition of power ups which allow you to do such natty things as rewind time to correct your mistakes, a handy tool that comes at a price; using it will deplete your fuel and also affect your score. There are also score multipliers to pick up which will allow you to really rack up (or down) your points.
One thing you notice straight away is that the bullets you have to absorb are often arranged in “lanes” with each one a different colour. This is no mere coincidence, as 24 Caret always intended this to be a game that can be played with a guitar peripheral, with the buttons corresponding to movement and a strum of your axe taking the place of the X button. It is an excellent way to play the game, and justifies the slogan on the t-shirts available on 24 Caret’s website.
Retro/Grade has ten main levels, and a series of over a hundred challenge missions, which have conditions like finishing a level without using power-ups, or playing through a stage with the speed significantly increased. There are some unlockable ships to collect and in a nice touch many of them are inspired by other indie hits of gaming past, I loved the blocky Minecraft one. The game is a little bit limited by the mere ten songs on offer and there is a great deal of environmental repetition over the challenges, but the soundtrack – which is available to purchase separately from Bandcamp – is of a very high quality, and the game looks beautiful, with a kaleidoscope of swirling bullets, bright colours that leap out of the screen, and a great amount of detail in the 3D backdrops.
VERDICT: Another day, another ace independent video game. Retro/Grade is an incredibly fun game to play and provides a funky spin on the traditional rhythm action game. When you hit your stride and really start nailing all of the musical notes/bullets in time to the music, it becomes an exhilarating experience, particularly if you are doing it whilst wielding a ridiculous Gibson plastic replica axe, gurning away with each strum. It is pretty short, sure, but it is keenly priced, and for your readies you are getting a well-crafted, high-quality, genuinely impressive game, every sale of which will go towards helping 24 Caret come up with their next title. Who wouldn’t want that?