The Red StarBased on Christian Gossett’s graphic novel of the same name, The Red Star plunges you straight into an alternative Soviet Russia, known as the ‘United Republics of the Red Star’… and right in the middle of a battle between the Red Fleet’s flagship Taktarov and the mutinying Konstantinov Skyfurnace.

Sorceress Major Maya Antares and her faithful guardian, combat and weapons expert Kyuzo, have devoted their lives to the service and defense of the United Republics of the Red Star. Under the command of Skymarshall Urik Antares, Maya and Kyuzo have led the crew of the Skyfurnace Konstantinov through countless battles. But now, while entrenched in the war to control the rogue Republic of Nokgorka, Maya and Kyuzo meet a Resistance Fighter name Makita. This ferocious young warrior holds the key to a dark conspiracy that reveals the entire U.R.R.S. to be under the control of the Dark Lord Imbohl and his chief assassin, Troika, the Harvester of Souls.

Makita, Kyuzo and Maya unite to defeat Troika’s tyranny as the Konstantinov and crew mutiny from the Red Fleet. Troika, at the helm of the fleet’s flagship vessel the Taktarov, unleashes a deadly assault to bring the rebels to heel. Under the watchful command of Urik and Maya, Kyuzo and Makita embark upon a final fight to unite the scattered Republics of the Red Star and liberate them from Troika’s rule.

To say that The Red Star had a troubled path in reaching the shelves is a bit of an understatement. The game was in a near-final state and approaching its original 2004 release date when the embattled Acclaim Entertainment group filed for bankruptcy and basically sold off everything it had, including unfinished games. In the process, The Red Star seeming got lost in all the commotion, and quietly sat unfinished on some dusty shelf wherever it is that lost games go. That was until XS Games unexpectedly announced that they were going to pick up and finish the game and hurriedly released it to the PlayStation 2 crowd in 2006.

Basically, if you remember the two old staples of the arcade gaming era, namely side-scrolling fighters and top-down shooters, then you will know exactly what The Red Star is all about. What Red Star does is cleverly take these two genres, mix them all together and then present an unrelenting, fast-paced action game that plays in a way that gamers of old will instantly feel at home with but at the same time look and feel exactly how a more contemporary title should.

At the start of the adventure you get to pick between two characters, namely Kyuzo and Makita, each possessing differing skills, those being power and speed respectively. The game itself is a lesson in simplicity to be honest. Each character has a block, a shoot and a melee button, with a powered up attack button thrown in just so that the triangle button doesn’t feel left out.

From there your character (or characters if you feel like playing two players, ala the classic arcade experience) get dumped onto a fairly linear level, facing ever increasing numbers of specialized villains that all can only be defeated in their own certain way, but in return, can only attack in one single way. Thrown into the middle and end of these stages is the ever present boss battle, which basically takes the form of those old top down type shooters that will have you maneuvering through complex bullet patterns while firing back in the hopes of taking the bugger down.

Now if this sounds a little boring to you so far, this is precisely what makes The Red Star such an interesting experience – the game is forever mixing these two genres up, constantly switching between them and changing the camera angle, doing it often enough to ensure that you never get bored, even after taking down score after score of the same enemy types.

It must be said that the blend of these two fairly simplistic genres is incredibly well done, and it immediately appeals to both casual and veteran gamers alike. Stage lengths and layouts are continuously chopped and changed, so that you will never know what to expect next, and it helps that each and every stage although simple in design, is lavishly detailed. Exactly the same can be said for the character models, because the game pulls off a colourful, cartoonish feel while at the same time looking wickedly detailed. Character animations although relatively few are all beautifully done and as a visual whole, The Red Star certainly appears a polished package. A special note need to be made regarding the multitude of boss designs as well, from deviously simple tank to the whacky floating head, you’ll probably see it all during this game.

My only complaint with regards to the visuals is the complete and utter lack of cutscenes or videos whatsoever. With only static load and mission briefing screens available, one can’t help but feel that XS simply picked up the title, polished it up and released as is, without going to all the extra expense of adding all the little visual extras you would expect from releases nowadays.

Aurally, while The Red Star features a pretty decent soundtrack, it must be said that some of the sound and voice effects leave a lot to be desired, including a lot of the voice acting as well. Still, as I mentioned the background score saves it from being a total mess and in the end it sounds okay enough for a title of its quality.

The game isn’t all that long, consisting only of 19 missions in total, but what it loses in length it more than makes up in difficulty. While the first couple of levels certainly are easy enough, the game quickly ramps up the difficulty level until you are left with some extremely torturous levels at the end, made all that much harder by the fact that The Red Star does completely away with any sort of checkpoint system whatsoever. In fact, the game is more than a little stingy when it comes to player health, and you’ll find yourself doing your utmost to conserve your puny health throughout most of the game, lest you die at a mid point boss and have to do the whole level from scratch again!

The developers also make an effort to add some depth to the game by adding a ranking system for each mission completed, with each rank giving you a certain amount of points to spend on upgrades to your health, weapons or armour. Because of the fairly low amount of points dealt out, you’ll be forced to choose wisely as just what to spend your money on, decisions that could very well effect you throughout the latter, more difficult stages of the game.

Another little added touch to the game is the introduction of overheating limits, which get placed on both your shield and guns. This means that you can never just sit and block everything that comes your way because after a couple of hits your shield will disintegrate and you’ll be left a sitting duck while it slowly rebuilds, and similarly you can’t just lock on and strafe your opponents to bits without pause as your gun has a nasty habit of overheating at the most inopportune of times, leaving you with only your melee attack to make do with while it cools down.

In summary, The Red Star gets a thumbs up for being a competent, polished, highly exciting and addictive game to play, particularly as it strives to resurrect two long lost genres from the arcade era. While it starts out easy enough, it can get quite frustrating to play the further you get into the game, making it ideal for both casual gamers (for the first couple of stages) and veteran gamers who like a stiff challenge. Add some fun two player co-op play in the mix, and you are left with a great, bargain priced game that is well worth the play.

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