Despite the general feeling that there aren't as many shmups coming out as frequently as we'd like, the truth is that many are slipping under our radars - far more than I'd like to admit. And I'm sure there are even more that have slipped past me, hopefully to be discovered in the future at a time when they can still be appreciated. Luckily, I stumbled across a little gem late last year, a game that few had heard of (and, according to its sales, not too many had played). Usually I'll try out a game, give it its chance, and then move on when I get the idea. This shmup, however, had me (us, actually), playing from start until finish without pause. I speak of course about Inferno, an Xbox Live Indie Game.
Part of a monthly series of releases from developer Radiangames, Inferno is the standout title among the herd, designed less as a screen of stuff to shoot at, but as a journey through spaces requiring strategy to survive - an adventure shmup, if you will.
Geometry Wars Meets... Something Else
I had to convince one of my friends to play the game with me, as it supported co-op up to 4 adventurers. In doing so, I did my best to nail the concept by marrying two well-known titles: Gauntlet and Geometry Wars. Lo and behold the developer himself cited these games as his own inspiration for mashing up genres.
While this specific genre-blending convergence is no stranger - the idea appearing previously in Geometry Wars Galaxies for Wii - the execution has been fairly lacking, feeling like the same ole arena, but with a few walls in the way. Inferno is indeed just an arena of walls and enemies, but the layout of the levels harkens back to a day of battling from room to room, inching closer to the goal with every successful enemy slain. I would say it's close to the claustrophobic progression in the dungeons of Diablo, though with far less clicking.
Working together with my friend was just as integral as understanding the importance of saving that last bomb. He and I discussed the best plan of action to take on each room. We chose complementary weapons sets so that both of us could look out for each other in different scenarios, or sometimes both chose the same brute force and mowed down walls of circles together.
It was a fun experience, to simply communicate and understand the dangers, their weaknesses, and deliver an exacted attack to progress forward. The levels are designed to teach you and to scare you. For example, a wall of hundreds of weak enemies are piled against the other side of a door, trying their best to hone in on you. It's not until you willingly unlock the door (by going right up to it) that you can progress, in effect releasing them as well. The tension that builds up before that door is opened is delivered with great effect.
Not a Corner In Sight
The aesthetics to the game greatly helped extend the playability of the experience. Actually, all of the shmups in Radiangames' series have a unified visual and aural motif, reenforcing circles (i.e. radians) in the enemies, player, weapons, levels, effects, and menus. Meanwhile, sound effects have a distinct lowpass filter and grunge to them, making the games almost identifiable by audio alone. These stylistic choices were no doubt made for efficiency to get a new shmup out each month, but they also provided something both pleasing and easy to digest as more advanced input was introduced in later levels.
Inferno is of course not without its faults, though they are few and far between the successes that stemmed from this Indie Game. The weapon upgrades are a bit linear, allowing little trial-and-error to find the ultimate combination to address any situation. Also, the final boss, while extremely powerful, has a flaw in its behavior that allows the player to constantly attack with little consequence. However, these hardly put us off during our journey.
The $1 Night
Inferno is a game that I wanted to play because I miss the old days of going through a game co-op with a friend, and also because I like shmups a lot. The sense of adventure, strategy, challenge, surprises, secrets, and rewards were more than enough to keep us glued to our seats, a length time I'm pretty sure went over 5 hours. We played on the hardest difficulty ("volcanic"), which at times we regretted, but later found pride in once we accomplished seemingly impossible odds.
When all was said and done, the two of us had spent 10 man-hours dredging through an unknown indie shmup, enjoyed ourselves the entire time, and created a night of fond memories. All for $1. One dollar. If you like shooting things and moving around through spaces as much as I do, I invite you to play Inferno and create your own experiences, too! (though I believe the price has increased a little since I purchased it)
Here's the release trailer, which is sadly one of the few videos floating around of some of the more intense moments in the game:
For a more uncut look at gameplay, here is a playthrough of the demo:
[cross-posted on Gamasutra]