The mechanical genre that we refer to as “shoot ’em up” actually covers a number of different gameplay styles. And, as with everything else in this world, it displays distinct fashions and trends as the years go by.
Back in the early days of gaming, the fixed shooter was king. Then we moved into the beginning of the horizontally and vertically scrolling age, the former of which in particular flourished throughout the 16-bit home console age. The rise of polygons brought with it a shift to “2.5D”, where 3D graphics were combined with 2D gameplay for added spectacle. And today, many — though not all — shooters focus on the elaborate choreography of the “bullet hell” or danmaku subgenre.
This is an oversimplification, of course, but the fact remains that we see fewer shooters in the style of those from the late 16-bit and early 32-bit eras than we used to. Which is why Rigid Force Redux, a recent Nintendo Switch and Xbox One release from German developer com8com1 Software, was such a pleasure to explore.
In Rigid Force Redux, which is an enhanced and expanded version of the 2018 PC title Rigid Force Alpha, you take control of the unusually named titular spacecraft under the cool, calm guidance of your AI assistant PSYE. It seems that scientists researching the biomechanical CORE technology that allows your ship to do what it does have found themselves under attack, and thus it’s up to you to blast everything in sight and stop whatever has gone wrong from going wrong further. Likely by blowing it up, if previous experience with this sort of thing is anything to go by.
The narrative for Rigid Force Redux doesn’t make a lot of sense if you stop to analyse it — it’s certainly no Astebreed in this regard — but it doesn’t really matter. It provides sufficient context to give the blasting action a certain amount of meaning, and a good shoot ’em up is usually more about enjoying the spectacle of the journey than pondering any in-depth questions about life and death. (The aforementioned Astebreed is, of course, an exception in that it does both. But we’re not here to talk about Astebreed.)
Thankfully, the journey you undergo in Rigid Force Redux is an immensely enjoyable one, taking you through six distinct stages, each with a climactic boss fight. While those less familiar with the conventions of the shoot ’em up genre may bemoan this seemingly short length, games like this are most certainly not a “once and done” sort of affair. Rather, they’re built for repeated playthroughs and gradual improvement — and in this regard that short runtime means that you can enjoy a very complete-feeling experience each and every time you attempt to improve your skills.
Rigid Force Redux’s mechanics draw obvious inspiration from classic horizontal scrollers of the 16-bit era. While it’s not mentioned specifically by name in the official marketing material, Rigid Force Redux is often referred to colloquially as an “R-Type-style shoot ’em up” and this is an accurate descriptor; while the way the game works isn’t identical to Irem’s classic title, there are enough similarities to make the comparison obvious to those in the know.
Not everyone is familiar with R-Type, though, so let’s examine Rigid Force Redux’s mechanics on their own terms. In fact, despite its clear inspiration, Rigid Force Redux itself admirably makes no assumptions about its players’ familiarity with shooters of yore, and as such opens with an (optional) tutorial that introduces all of these mechanics to the player.
The basics are as you’d expect. You have a fire button, which shoots in front of your ship. This starts as a basic rapid-fire cannon, but can be replaced with a spread shot, a powerful and super-fast volley of laser fire or bouncing green lasers by collecting coloured power-ups dropped by specific types of enemies. These can then be complemented by a subweapon — either a homing missile or a salvo of bombs — that can be upgraded by collecting the same icon twice in succession.
Upgrading the main weapon is a little different, however. Rather than simply collecting a power-up of the same colour again, you instead need to watch out for glowing items known as “Force Fragments”. You can grab up to four of these, and each one adds to the firepower of your current weapon.
That’s not all, though; by using the shoulder buttons on your controller, your Force Fragments can be arranged in four different positions, allowing you to fire a narrow or wide spread of shots behind you as well as in front of you, or simply to supplement your ship’s regular frontal firepower with either a concentrated barrage of shots in a small area, or a wider spread of shots.
The levels are all designed in such a way that frequent reconfiguration of your Force Fragments is a good idea, because not only do they allow you to take out enemies approaching from behind, they also act as a physical shield, absorbing enemy projectiles and preventing your ship from taking damage. This is especially important in the harder difficulties, as these more challenging modes allow you to take less damage before losing a life; Hard mode provides a true old-school shoot ’em up experience with its one-hit kills!
One other distinctive feature of this type of shoot ’em up is the fact that there’s as much emphasis on negotiating perilous environments as there is dealing with swarms of enemies. You’ll need to show off some fancy flying skills in pretty much all of the stages as you avoid timing-based obstacles, confront foes in claustrophobic corridors and follow your flight path to victory. Some levels even deviate from the standard horizontal scroll or play interesting visual tricks on you with slanted scenery; there’s definitely plenty of variation.
As you defeat enemies, they will release small green energy orbs that can be collected by flying through them or sucking them in with a pull of the right trigger — the latter option also slows your ship down, so you can’t just keep it held down. These orbs are worth points but also add to an energy bar at the bottom of the screen. This can be expended in two ways: firing a charged shot that fires your current weapon in a considerably more powerful form for as long as energy remains in the bar, or swinging a sword-like appendage capable of cancelling enemy bullets.
The latter option is a nice idea but feels a little underwhelming in execution, particularly given how little area it covers and how much energy it takes to use. In mechanical terms it’s presumably intended to be the equivalent of a “panic bomb” and as such probably won’t be used a great deal by skilled players; the option is there, though, and provides a bit of variety.
Boss fights are, as you’d hope in a game like this, a highlight. The enemies you’ll encounter are varied and interesting, and each have their own unique, learnable, well-telegraphed and eminently fair attack patterns to deal with. The battles are arguably a little bit too easy on the easiest difficulty — with the possible exception of the fourth and final bosses, which gave me a little trouble on my first run through the game, even on Easy — but accessibility to shoot ’em up newbies has clearly been a focus of the developer’s efforts with this game, and inexperienced blasters will welcome the relatively straightforward victories!
Presentation-wise, Rigid Force Redux is solid. While the polygonal visuals aren’t the fanciest you’ll see, they keep things nice and clear and move along consistently smoothly, keeping things looking slick. The soundtrack, though, is something else. Developed by the Finnish one-man music project Dreamtime, its synth-heavy, dramatic yet melodic compositions are the perfect accompaniment to the on-screen action, deftly capturing a “modern retro” feel and giving the game a very strong sense of identity.
There are three ways to play Rigid Force Redux. Initially, you’ll only have access to the Main Mission mode, which tasks you with starting at the beginning of the story and fighting your way through all six stages with a limited number of continues. One-credit clears are encouraged through the fact that not only does your score reset upon continuing, any high scores recorded at the end of a run are based on your last credit, not your best credit.
The credit system is actually mostly pointless, given that once you’ve reached a stage for the first time you can then start Main Mission mode from that point from the main menu, but it does add to the arcade feel somewhat, and provides a structure on which you can base your “training” if you want to learn to master the game. The only area where the continue system distinguishes itself from the “start at stage X” option relates to boss fights: during a run through Main Mission mode, boss fights are loaded as separate “sub-stages” and thus continuing allows you to start directly from the start of the confrontation, whereas kicking off a new run from the main menu will put you back to the start of the stage as a whole.
Clearing a stage for the first time in Main Mission mode unlocks it for play in Arcade mode. Here, you play a single stage from the game and attempt to score as many points as possible. There’s an added score multiplier mechanic in this mode, with said multiplier charging through acquiring the energy-conferring green orbs, and there are also a number of hidden items throughout the stage, including floating astronauts to rescue and energy capsules that are a great way to quickly send that multiplier through the roof.
Clearing Main Mission for the first time — regardless of whether or not you continued or started from a later stage — unlocks Boss Rush mode. Here, you are challenged to defeat the game’s six bosses in as short a time as possible. Every couple of battles, you get a brief reprieve where you can collect new weapons and Force Fragments if you need to — though if you’re already armed to the teeth you’ll want to take the glowing portals and zip through these sections as quickly as possible to shave a few precious seconds off your time.
All three modes have great potential for longevity, because they are each able to record your progress in their own unique way. Repeated runs through Main Mission mode are desirable to try and get the highest possible total score or clear the whole game on all three difficulty levels without continuing; Arcade mode’s score attack nature is extremely addictive and satisfying to engage with, plus it’s a great way of learning the levels; and Boss Rush mode is a good way to practice the boss fights and see if you can get through them a little more efficiently.
On top of all that, there’s a series of achievements to unlock, most of which are worthwhile, interesting challenges rather than “fire 5,000 shots”, and each of these unlocks a nice piece of artwork to admire in a gallery.
All in all, Rigid Force Redux is a very solid horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up that pays extremely respectful, loving homage to R-Type, while remaining a lot more accessible to genre newcomers than the monstrous difficulty of Irem’s classic. The easiest setting in Rigid Force Redux is balanced well enough to provide a reasonable challenge while allowing pretty much anyone to enjoy the spectacle of the whole game, while the other modes and harder difficulties provide plenty of longevity for those seeking to sink their teeth into the game a little deeper.
In short, this is a top-notch shoot ’em up well worth your time, whether you’re a shmup newbie or a grizzled veteran. Now I’m off to go a couple more rounds in Arcade mode, I think. If the Bydo Empire calls, I’m not in…
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