• Vanguard Knights

    2 hours playtime

    no achievements

This is a 3D SHMUP. The game alternates between levels where you fly forward automatically and simply move in the cardinal directions (like Starfox, except you move your reticle separately with the right stick), and levels where you have free movement over a set map and you have to hold LB to move forward while using the right stick to steer (you can still use the left stick to strafe like before, though). The game also has that Ikaruga mechanic where you can swap your color and you’re immune to projectiles that match your current color. You deal more damage against opposite color enemies, but it also doesn’t take long for there to be scenarios where the screen is crowded with bullets or for you to be targeted by attacks that can’t be dodged (meaning you need to be the right color to avoid damage).

Controls are responsive and work well, though the game could do better about letting the player know how the free-move levels work. There’s a button prompt at the very beginning of the first free-move level, but that’s it. Not only is there no way to see controls in-game after that prompt goes away, but the game continues to display motion lines as if you’re moving, even when you’re stationary. Worse, the “quick boost” button (RB) sends you backwards during free-move levels. I was stuck in a corner for a bit before I figured out LB moves you forward. It also took me a while to realize that ships with blue circles are just blue enemies, not allies (ships with green circles are allies).

Your regular shots are mapped to RT, but the game also claims you can fire missiles by holding LT and locking onto enemies, though there’s no clear visual/audio feedback on this. In fact, sound design is one of the game’s worst elements. There are segments in the fly-forward levels where you have to dodge walls, but if you hit one, your plane barely shakes (if at all) and the sound effect is a soft mechanical hum. Between that and the health bar being made of the same vector line graphic that is also used to decorate the hub, it made it hard for me to tell if I actually made it past a wall or if I clipped it and got damaged (that said, you have regenerating health, so it kinda doesn’t matter much). It’s not like the game doesn’t have a kur-thunk sound effect at all; one is used for when you destroy enemies, so I don’t know why that same sound couldn’t be reused for hitting a wall (there aren’t any enemies during wall-avoiding segments anyway).

Oh, and there are a couple parts during free-move levels where you have to defend a ship, but the second time this happens, there are still many enemies flying around where you’re at, so I didn’t even realize until I heard one die over the radio (which is also hard to notice since you hear your enemies die over the radio all the time, so it kinda blends in).

The game also has a fair bit of challenge to it. Some levels can be a bit repetitive, like when you’re flying through the horizontal support beams in the third fly-forward level, but even then, the game builds on it by adding vertical support beams to dodge along with them. Free-move levels fare a bit worse, though. They almost always play out the same: see where the arrows around your ship point, then go over there and kill the same copy-pasted ships or stationary MacGuffin. Really, the only times you’ll take damage the free-move levels for the most part is when you get blindsided by an opposite-color ship from off-screen. Still, even the free-move levels get a bit of variety, with one having constantly-rotating pillars (though now that I think about it, I don’t think they actually hurt you if you crash into one) and another where you have to fly past a laser to destroy its generator (effectively resulting in a mini-boss where both colors are shooting at you and colored walls rotate so you have to switch to avoid damage, though said walls appear abruptly and I’m still not sure if double-color fire can be avoided in a way that lets you retaliate).

Speaking of bosses, they can also be challenging, but also a bit repetitive. The three fly-forward bosses have set phases, but when you destroy their core, they flip around and repeat their pattern, only difference being opposite colors (effectively no difference). There’s even some difficulty imbalance since the second fly-forward boss has the hardest-to-avoid attack: the guns flash what color they’re going to shoot, but they do so at the exact moment the previous bullets pass through your ship, and since there’s no pattern (they can even pause shooting for a moment), it can be hard to react in time. The boss also has an attack where there’s a + shape of one color that spins around while the other color wall is sent forward (meaning you have to be the forward-wall’s color until it passes, then you can swap and move to the other quadrants to hit the necessary weak points), but the boss can also abruptly spin the + wall faster than you can move with it.

There’s also a couple free-move bosses. The first constantly switches between colors and flies quickly around the arena, making it annoying to keep up since there’s no lock-on (the boss also has a lot of health). The final boss is multi-phased like the fly-forward bosses, but no duplicate fight when you’re done. It’s okay for the most part, but there’s one point where it releases two drones of opposite color, with both shooting at you, making it hard to hit their weak points without taking hits yourself. Plus, the last phase also has it alternate colors when attacking, but it also likes to fly very close to you; not only does this make it harder for you to swap colors in time (or even result in you getting hit by both colors at once), but you can also get rammed by the boss itself.

One more thing to mention: the Ikaruga mechanic even extends to the checkpoints. Not only do you have to fly through them (they’re rings), but you also have to match their color. Don’t worry about this causing unnecessary setbacks, though: checkpoints are pretty frequent and the game isn’t that hard, so even if you miss one or two, you’ll not have to wait long for the next one. Plus, these colored checkpoints are only in the surprisingly uncommon fly-forward levels; for free-move levels and all boss fights, dying simply respawns you right where you died without any progress lost (and you have 5 lives per level/boss). Not only that, the one time I actually did get Game Over (on the final boss), I closed the game, turned my computer off, started the game the next day, and saw that the game secretly gives you a save point mid-fight, two phases before the end credits (even restoring your lives to 5)! The dev really didn’t want anyone to rage-quit the game.

Overall, there are some repetitive moments and some less-than-fair moments (as well as the graphical and sound problems), but there’s also a lot to like here as well. The fly-foward levels are pretty fun, and while I’m not that big a fan of the free-move levels, they still have responsive controls and have hazards you can reasonably avoid (for the most part, at least). Ultimately, I think there’s more good than bad. Plus, the base price is only five US dollars, so I don’t even have to recommend waiting for a sale…maybe…