Review – Jamestown
I’d like to see the Spaniard that could get past me.
We here at PEOWW are suckers for a good Cave shooter. So many developers have tried to capture the style and spirit of their signature vertical-scrolling shoot ’em ups but no-one has really matched them in terms of balance and playability. So, you have to admire Final Form Games for bringing the genre over to Steam, taking on Cave at their own game and for doing such a bang up job with the whole thing.
Jamestown is an old-school take on the genre but with enough new twists and polish to warrant a release here in 2011. It tells the bizarre story of our own Sir Walter Raleigh and his exploits as he battles the “betentacled martians who are in league with the Spanish” in 17th century Mars. Just like we learned at school. Say what now? The story is just a text-based affair to set the scene, the scene being a mix of steampunk and sci-fi all delivered in deliciously detailed hand-drawn pixel graphics. Of course, the genre demands a ton of bullets and huge bosses, and Jamestown delivers without acting as if the game engine has just been kicked in the nuts.
The visuals are also complimented by a lavish soundtrack that deserves its own mention. From cheery, heroic themes to dark, bombastic pieces, each level has it’s own music and it’s all a pleasure to listen to. If you follow us on Twatter, you’ll know that level three’s music was quite the brainworm for me last weekend. I didn’t mind though, it’s not some fucking horrible EA licensed music or anything and despite its modern polish, it suits the genre perfectly.
The main game plays out over five levels. These have different settings but in its entirity it’s not a particularly long game. You get a choice of five difficulty levels and four different ships, which helps you to tailor the game to your own skill level but be warned, you can only see all the levels if you play on ‘Legendary’ difficulty or above. It is your standard shoot ’em up action with a primary fire mode, a secondary ‘special’ weapon and then your ‘vaunt’ mode which is a short shield followed by a period extra damage and double scoring. Picking up the medals dropped by the enemies you destroy allows you keep vaunt mode going for longer – this ultimately builds your ‘combo’ score . This is Jamestown’s take on Cave’s usual trick of having a deeper scoring mechanic in their games. Thankfully this is simpler than the likes of Guwange and, as with the rest of the game, helps aim it at people who want to shoot things rather than people who like their shooters to be joyless memory tests.
Another aspect of the game that I like is that the bosses here aren’t completely hateful bulletsponges. Sure, you’ll be dodging a lot of bullet patterns and plugging away at their health but it never feels unfair which is how you want things when you’ve just battled through a horde of martians and Spaniards to even get there. That’s not to say they aren’t imposing, they are, they just aren’t cheap.
Once you’ve battled through each of the main levels, the game is extended thanks to various unlockable challenge levels which vary from surviving thirty seconds of absolute bullet hell, remixed levels and even a take on Space Invaders. These are invariably a lot tougher than the main game but do represent some added value. Another unlockable is Gauntlet Mode which is basically your standard arcade mode. You see, normally you just battle through each level with two continues per stage, but Gauntlet Mode gives you two continues for the entire game. Quite why they’ve decided to make such a default mode an unlockable (albeit an easy to get to one) is a mystery and does sum up one of my issues with the game. Everything is hidden away at first, and some of the later levels can only be unlocked by playing on the harder settings. This is fine, I’m up for a challenge and I made short work of beating the game on Legendary (the middle of the five difficulty settings) but the game never lets you play the later levels on the easier difficulties when you’ve unlocked them which is a shame as sometimes you just want a quick and easy blast through the game to enjoy the graphics and music.
Being a fan of old arcade shooters, when I saw a brief promotional video for Jamestown I was sold immediately. While I had a rough idea how good Jamestown was going to be I was not expecting the game to be so well made. Simply put this game is a fantastic homage to the prolific ‘Shmup’ creators, most notably CAVE who made games like DoDonPachi and Progear which Jamestown gains most of it’s inspiration from.
The levels are very well crafted with a unique steampunk aesthetic and do not feel overly cheap in any way and the enemies are interesting and are lovingly animated. The scoring system is a simple combo based affair with medal collecting. There are plenty of ships to choose from, all of which play differently to each other in noticeable ways. There is also a ton of bonus content and levels to unlock via playing the game too.
Overall I really enjoy this game. Yes I am aware there are a ton of great free to play shooters that you can just download for free on the PC but Jamestown‘s charm and great game play warrant its £7 price tag as it’s easily one of the best shooters I have played in some time and considering that not even CAVE make gorgeous looking pixel based shooters like this any more because it’s “too expensive” I would recommend checking this game out.
Secondary Score: 9/10
Other criticisms are that the game never remembers the button layout I use for my Hori arcade stick (definitely the best way to play) and that co-op play (which is quite a focus of this game and a nice addition to the genre) is limited to local play only. Whilst it is perfectly enjoyable in co-op the keyboard and mouse control systems feel pretty compromised (the mouse is particularly useless for navigating bullet patterns) and online play would have been a massive bonus for this game. Also the ship choices, whilst being commendably different from each other, could also use a bit more balancing with the Laser ship being a much better choice than the others. Gunner in particular looks like a poor fourth choice.
As a first effort, Jamestown is a remarkable piece of work, and a very credible shot at the genre. It manages to balance out accessibility with the hardcore gameplay that Cave fans will want. A few niggles aside, it’s one of the most enjoyable indie efforts I’ve seen on Steam and with most of Cave’s efforts on the 360 seemingly being region-locked, by pricks, out of European hands for the foreseeable future this is a fine way to get your bullet-hell fix in the meantime. If you want some quality shoot ’em up action in your life, and can’t be bothered configuring up MAME, then Jamestown is a very decent way to get it.