Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is It Me Or What?

Wow. Raystorm, the sequel to Rayforce (Layer Section, Gunlock, etc.) is really fuckin’ hard.

This is notable because a) It was my first purchase in the series and I finished it years ago… so what? I’m getting old and slow now? And b) The first game, Rayforce, I just finished several days ago and that one is purported to be the most difficult one. Usually articles go out of their way to state how hard number one, Rayforce, is, but number two has no reputation for that apart from one review I’ve read that actually said it was easy.

I don’t know what that guy did that made it so easy. I’m assuming he didn’t just max out his ships and continues and turn the difficulty all the way down, which you CAN do in the options screen…I just really don’t want to do any of that crap. I want to play it as it was intended. Default. A few key differences that were implemented into this sequel could’ve made it a lot easier than Rayforce, but those advantages are offset by other issues…so to me it balances out…and in fact, I’m having more trouble, by far, with Raystorm.

Both games have a forward-firing ‘shot’ and a lock-on ‘laser’. As described in an earlier post, the game has a targeting reticle that floats ahead of your ship. Pass the reticle over an object and small red indicators attach to that object, signaling its ready to be hit with the laser. Since the enemy only has the ability to hurt you when firing at the same level/layer at which you fly (or angling a shot which has to rise up to you), the lock-on’s ability to target enemy BELOW your flight path—before they ever get to where they can shoot you—is a distinctly cool, and very necessary advantage. The powerups are basically the same for both games. Red and yellow power up your shot, green powers up (increases number of lockons for) your laser. Neither game has a speed control for your ship.

What’s different: in Rayforce you can only lock onto targets below you. In Raystorm you can now lock onto targets in your same layer. This gives you the ability to hit enemies traveling at the same level with the power of both the shot and the lockon lasers at the same time. For strong enemies this means hitting them with double the firepower. Also in Raystorm you have a bomb, the screen-clearing panic weapon that is standard issue in STGs. There is also one powerup that is different. Sometimes when you die and lose your last ship a special blue powerup appears that if you continue you get everything, shots and lasers, powered to the max. This was probably a carrot to encourage additional quarters in the arcade. This is quite common in STGs now, but apparently not in Rayforce’s day. Finally, there are multiple ship choices in the sequel, so you can pick the one that suits your style of play; shots emphasized, lasers emphasized, or balanced.

All of those things taken together would be advantages… and if the basic difficulty of the game remained the same, then a sequel encompassing those alterations would definitely be easier than the original. However Raystorm has 'complications' too. For one, the viewpoint has now been shifted to slightly rearward of the ship, instead of looking straight down. This has the effect of extending your view a bit, but muddying it at the same time. You can see further ahead of you, and so see enemies sooner than you could in Rayforce, but the new 3d polygonal graphics are not as sharp. So whatever advantage the viewing angle might give you is canceled by the lack of clarity in what you are actually seeing. Even the bright red bullets are not so obvious against the backdrop of enemy ships rising and falling between layers, and the swirling camera work. Couple this with the fact that many of your deaths will result from enemies that speed in from the top of the screen always at your layer, so your visibility window is no better than that in Rayforce.

And speaking of speeding: your ship is abysmally slow. It was no thoroughbred in Rayforce. In that game it was big, slow, and had a huge hitbox (the area of your onscreen ship that registers to the game as ‘hit-able’). But in Raystorm you are a positive slug. There are many times Raystorm chugs from slowdown, which might be an advantage in many games, but here it isn’t. The expanded ‘bullet time’ you get from slowdown doesn’t mean shit if you can’t actually move your ship. This game's default ship speed is every other game's slowdown speed.

Another thing that is driving me nuts is the ship’s centering. In Rayforce your ship centers a little bit. When you stop moving one direction and let the joystick center, your onscreen ship wobbles slightly in the opposite direction to simulate leveling off. A lot of games have a ship center or level after it veers, but the sprite's total outline stays in the exact same spot. Its' just a little artistic flourish to make the ship look cooler and act like it has some mass and weight to it. In Rayforce the entire sprite's area actually moves BACK the other direction a few pixels. This can be really frustrating if you are in a precision situation where every pixel counts. When you want the ship to stop and let some enemy fire graze past you, you have to really give yourself a bit of extra room (not always available!) because the ship rocks back into position if you stop moving. In Raystorm, this wobble is even larger, practically exaggerated even. Because of the shift to polygons, and a rearward tilt view, the designers appear to have decided this particular movement quirk was too subtle if done just like Rayforce. 'Graphics a bit unclear, more complicated 3D-simulation view, better really make that wobble apparent, eh?' Ugh. And much to the detriment of my ability to play it!

I mentioned how, with the updated lock-on, you can now target enemies at your layer, allowing twice the hurting to be placed on larger or stronger enemies. This doesn't really mean anything in Raystorm since they've simply upped the number of hits required to take down an enemy. Most enemy ships larger than the basic 'popcorn' size, take far more damage than their analogues in the first game. Especially the bosses. Rayforce had a great balance for its bosses actually. They were tough, and intense, but the intensity dragged on for the right amount of time. Just when you thought your skills wouldn't hold out any longer, the boss blew up. In Raystorm, the bosses just go on and on. They don't have life bars to tell you how you are doing-- so you have no idea how you are doing. Their ability to take damage (at least at default difficulty) far outlasts my stamina. Typically, the first ship you have when you face them (assuming you've fought them before and so aren't surprised by their attacks) will go the longest. After that one dies you're going to be so tired that whatever other ships you are going to lose will follow in short order. It almost doesn't matter if you get into 'the zone', because your hands and/or rhythm just won't hold out. The last level of the game is just one big boss fight. Actually, that's fine for me. The last level should be a bitch. That's the nature of these games. He's tough, huge, and complicated. But the funny thing is that despite all that HE isn't the toughest fight. The bosses of the two levels prior are. They have difficult, nigh-undodge-able attacks (it can be done, but it is a lot of work). As I said the issue is how long it takes for them to be destroyed. The balance, in my opinion, is off. Expecting you to deal with say, four minutes of intense boss fight with four instances of his nigh undodge-able super attack might be what you could expect. This game basically doubles that. And it is frustrating and kind of tedious actually. If those two penultimate bosses at least changed form to keep the battle interesting that'd be one thing. The very last boss does do that. But he's the entire eighth level. These two guys just do their same thing over and over and are just seemingly impervious to damage. I wind up using my bombs whenever possible just to get it over with, not because I'm down to my last ship.

If this makes it all sound like the game totally sucks, it doesn't. It is a good game. It is just kind of a letdown after the greatness of Rayforce. My attitude towards it is a bit like that expressed in my post about Shutokou Battle 2. I 'remember' it as a really good game, but my experience in the genre since playing it has perhaps refined my expectations, so the weaknesses are now more apparent to me. I don't want EXACTLY the same play experience as Rayforce. But it doesn't appear to me the gameplay (or graphic) additions are improvements. The whole thing would actually be a lot better if the bosses (all of them) had about half the 'hit points'. This would make everything a lot less frustrating--the viewpoint, the slowness, everything. Because the bosses are where you are going to lose the majority of your ships. If you spent half the time there, then you'd be bitchin a lot less about how slow the ship is, or how difficult it is to see what killed you.

There is no option to reduce 'boss difficulty', unfortunately. However, there is a mode in the game that lets you play each level for practice. That's what I'm gonna have to do. I don't mind the last boss being a total bitch. In fact, I've kind of learned to deal with most everything he throws at me. But I just don't quite get there with enough ships to beat him...owing to the two bastard bosses right before him.

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