Back to the drawing board
HIGH The chain clock.
LOW Failing a challenge and being booted to the title screen.
WTF Hunting not-so-secret keys to play all the stages in the core game.
As awkward titles go, Söldner X-2: The Final Prototype doesn't rank with the likes of htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary or Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth, but it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue either. The game itself, however, is as straightforward as they come.
Wave after wave of ships from the most profligate army in the galaxy assault poor Pilot, whom the player controls. No other name is given, and it's just as well, frankly, because what little story SideQuest Studios provides is a forgettable pastiche of better sci-fi yarns. But no matter. The emphasis, as ever, is on the action: weaving a ship through the fireworks of a thousand Chinese New Years and repaying that violence with a fusillade of cartoony lasers.
Anyone fleetingly familiar with shoot-em-ups (or shmups as they've come to be known) will understand Söldner's setup: shoot and don't get shot. This is easier said than done, of course, and the pleasure comes from the close calls of navigating a curtain of bullets that just happen to provide a path for the player—the enemies are considerate that way.
Söldner's chief innovation, apart from difficulty that dynamically adjusts to player performance, is the "chain clock." As enemies succumb to justice, they sometimes drop gold rings (just try not to think of Sonic the Hedgehog while flitting about the screen to snatch them up). Rings fill the chain clock, and once full, it releases one of several power-ups which grant new weapons, amplify the ones already in use, or boost the score. Essentially, the chain clock discourages passivity by inviting the player to charge into the thick of a firefight rather than hanging back in a purely tactical mode.
The game has leaderboards, of course, and a score is assigned for each stage based on a number of factors such as rings collected, enemies vanquished, and so on. These grades vary from G (poor) to S (ultimate), and what's more, players are continuously rated as they play. A counter in the upper right fluctuates between letter grades as the performance impresses (or fails to do so). I presume this feedback is meant to provide motivation, but for me the opposite was true. Often it seemed that I was doing some ace flying only to find that, no, I'm a D-list wannabe.
All right, maybe I just suck at shmups. Probably I do. Still, being told that I'm not making the grade during every minute of play is hardly encouraging. I found it corrosive to my enjoyment, and consistently coming up short at the finale made me less and less inclined to replay, which is absolutely required since many of the game's brief stages are locked until the player collects "secret keys" that enemies drop.
Söldner X-2 is a good-looking game, with sharply rendered backdrops of war-ravaged cities and underwater caverns, and Rafael Dyll's trance soundtrack perfectly accompanies the game's 80s-era vision of a chrome-and-glass future among the stars. But a game so dominated by the derivative is hard to recommend, especially on a platform that includes Resogun, Luftrausers, and Velocity 2X, all of which bring a fresh take to one of the least fresh genres.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: fantasy violence ("Bright explosions and falling debris are frequently displayed as enemy ships and asteroids are destroyed").
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The voice of Ground Control occasionally chimes in with helpful advice, and while these tips carry subtitles they're hard to read amidst the chaos on screen. Otherwise the game plays identically with sound or no.