While Psikyo could have easily stuck to being a heavily armed one-trick pony with the success and popularity of Strikers 1945 and its two sequels, the company decided to branch out and get a bit experimental in a number of its games.
A particularly potent example of this comes in the form of 1996’s Sol Divide, an unusual and underappreciated game that does things very differently from many other shooters out there — particularly its contemporaries from its time of original release.
Does “experimental” equate to “worth checking out for more than five minutes out of curiosity”, though? Let’s take a closer look, since like many of its stablemates, you can enjoy it as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha collection on Nintendo Switch.
Sol Divide has a story, but as with most shooters that make an attempt at having some narrative context, it is delivered without any real care; in a genre of game that typically lasts around twenty minutes for a complete playthrough, it’s hard to get particularly attached to either the characters or setting — though there are some notable exceptions out there.
In this case, the narrative primarily acts as a means of giving context to the various challenges you face, beginning with chasing a villain who has stolen a sparkly thing, liberating towns that have been infested with monsters and eventually descending into the underworld to dispatch some great evil that, if left unchecked, will probably make humanity little more than a wet smear on the ground.
It makes an effort, at least; there’s an introductory cutscene and opening level that is unique to each of the three playable characters, there’s a map screen between levels that attempts to give us a feeling of context to the game’s overall “world”, and there’s a definite feeling of progression to the overall experience. It ultimately doesn’t matter all that much, though.
What does matter is that Sol Divide plays with the traditional structure of the shoot ’em up quite a bit. Rather than unfolding as tightly choreographed levels that conclude with a large-scale boss fight, each of Sol Divide’s stages consists of a series of discrete enemy encounters — some of which consist of groups of smaller enemies, and others of which feature large bosses.
These encounters generally flow into one another to give the feel of a seamless “level”, but the key difference is that you need to clear an encounter out before you can progress, rather than it being possible for enemy formations to pass you by as in more conventional shoot ’em ups. In this sense, Sol Divide is structured more like a beat ’em up than a shoot ’em up — and to add further credence to this, you even have a melee attack button as well as your shots.
In your battles throughout Sol Divide, you’ll face a variety of different enemy types, most of which can attack in several ways. Wizard-style characters will fling shots at you from afar and teleport around the screen, while knights will attempt to soften you up with ranged attacks before moving in for a melee kill. And alongside these human foes are many different monsters, each of whom have their own distinctive, learnable attack patterns; rather than learning how to successfully dance around the choreography of the level as a whole, however, you’ll need to be ready to deal with these different types of attacks coming at you from multiple angles at once.
Sol Divide also features some RPG-style mechanics along the way. You have a health bar rather than lives, and this can be restored with green potions that some enemies drop upon their defeat. The maximum value of your health can also be increased with an item that some enemies drop, and other foes will drop magical scrolls that give you access to a selection of spells.
The magic effectively replaces the “bomb” function in a more conventional shoot ’em up, but again it does things a bit differently. Spells each take a different amount of magical energy to use, and magical energy charges up automatically over time and through grabbing red potions that enemies drop. More powerful spells can only be used once before you need to collect a scroll for them again; lesser spells can be used repeatedly so long as you have enough magical energy.
The spells are interesting because they cater to a variety of different play styles. The basic fire spell favours aggressive players, for example, because it shoots out a fiery breath directly in front of the character. The ice spell, meanwhile, freezes everything on the screen for a short period — though some bosses are unaffected by it. Other spells allow you to slow or stop enemies, summon mystical allies to deal damage for you or simply drop a meteor on your foes’ heads — and a couple of these abilities are unique to each of the playable characters.
Those three playable characters distinguish themselves by their style of fighting. Tyora the wizard is best at defeating enemies from a distance with her rapid shot, for example. Meanwhile, Kashon is the opposite, being more suited to powerful melee strikes, and Vorg offers something of a balance between the two. Tactics that work for one character won’t necessarily work for another, so truly mastering Sol Divide is a matter of understanding each playable character’s strengths and weaknesses, and making use of them accordingly.
What fascinates me about Sol Divide is that despite the fact it is unmistakably a shoot ’em up, it really doesn’t play like what we’ve come to expect from the genre. The discrete enemy encounters unfold almost like an action RPG or beat ’em up, with space management and careful avoidance of semi-randomised attacks being of paramount importance, rather than the strict memorisation of preset formations more commonly seen in the genre.
The presentation is immediately distinctive, too; the monsters and bosses in particular have a strong look of classic Harryhausen stop-motion animation about them, and the game’s somewhat muted colour palette fits well with this aesthetic. The whole experience feels like you’re playing a video game adaptation of something like Clash of the Titans or its ilk; there really is nothing quite like it.
Some will likely bounce off Sol Divide due to its unusual structure, its increased complexity over some of Psikyo’s more conventional shoot ’em ups or even its presentation. But few can deny that it was a brave, bold experiment to do something a bit different — and continues to stand out as something absolutely unique even to this day.
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