Jamestown [Review]

Jamestown is an indie shoot-em-up that pays homage to its forerunners, but also blazes a brave new trail.

Jamestown: Legends of the Lost Colony

I am one step away from death every moment.  My ship cuts through the skies above Mars, dodging incoming fire from enemy ships.  My hands are growing stiff on the controls – I’ve spent too much time gripping them with white-knuckle intensity.  I chance a glance at my partner in her ship only to see the same weariness starting to take hold, the furrow in her brow matching the increasing look of grim determination.  A bolt from a ship whizzes past my face and suddenly the air smells of sulfur.  A hail of gunfire erupts from my ship in response, vaporizing the enemy.  Too close that time, far too close.  I hope the wave of enemies subsides before I can no longer pull the trigger.

I hope in vain.  The last of the minions explodes in the wake of my companion’s salvo, but as it does a giant fortress breaks through the cloud cover.  It begins its onslaught and the sky around us fills with fire.  My companion is burned alive first – she misjudged a gap in the laser fire.  I cannot last much longer.  And I don’t.

“Holy shit, that was intense,”  I say to my fiancee, flopping my controller on the carpet.  She just nods in agreement as she slumps next to her keyboard and lifts her hands up on either side of her.  They’re still contorted like claws from how tense she had gotten; she starts flexing them to work out the kinks.  The controller wasn’t quite as bad on my hands, but I still feel the shape of it pressed into my palms a good while after we stop playing.  Our latest session with the game has only run about an hour, but that’s all it usually takes before we start to lose our edge to fatigue.  Except I’m lying, the fatigue and cramped hands start before that – we simply kept playing round after round despite our better judgment.  Such is the wonderful adrenaline rush that is indie shoot ’em up Jamestown.

Jamestown: Legends of the Lost Colony

In a strange turn for a shmup, Jamestown has a completely serious story and it is placed front and center from the moment you start the game.  Even with the limited space the story is given to breathe, it cleverly crafts an alternate history infused with steam-punk in which Sir Walter Raleigh escapes execution and flees to the New World, seeking absolution from his crimes.  The story adopts historical events, like the disappearance of Roanoke Colony and figures of the time period, and uses them to propel the story forward.  The game stands on merits other than story, but the setting sings.  This strange past – Earth stretching its grasp to Mars during 17th century British colonization – rivals Bioshock Infinite‘s Columbia as the most unique backdrop I’ve seen in a videogame.  Ever.

In the same beat that the gold lettering of the story appears on screen, you’re greeted with the soundtrack, strumming and pulsing like a thing alive.  It may take until the strings sweep over the music in a lilting melody, but soon you’ll realize that Jamestown chooses not to follow the electronic soundtrack that is the standard in shmups.  Instead the player is treated to a masterful orchestral score that reflects the times, with snare and bass drums, strings of all sizes, and horns rounding out the sounds filling your speakers.  There are little nods in the soundtrack that acknowledge the game’s roots.  It never descends into full blown chiptune music, but does indulge itself with a guitar solo in the mix here and there.  The way the music leans back and forth between styles and tempos without being jarring is a pleasure.

There used to be an embeded media player here, but it doesn't work anymore. We blame the Tumbeasts.

The visual style of Jamestown is the homerun that carries you smoothly into the gameplay proper.  After the introduction to the story – while the music still ebbs and flows in the background – there is a shot of Earth as viewed from space, among the stars, that pans down to reveal Raleigh standing on a red cliff of Mars, looking out over some settlements.  Landmasses float in the distance while white clouds slowly scroll across the screen and the title appears. The visuals are reminiscent of the 16-bit era Metal Slug games but they flow better, with details that pop right off the screen.  You know you’re in for a treat just looking at the retro pixel stylings.

From the title screen you can dive right into the action, although it may behoove you not to do so.  A trip to the options menu will give you the chance to make the game even prettier.  The game starts in full screen mode by default, but also with an option called ‘proportional stretch’ enabled.  This fills as much of the window as possible while keeping the aspect ratio and is good for full screen play.  However, if you aren’t married to full screen, there is a ‘pixel perfect’ option which also keeps a clean pixel ration in addition to everything ‘proportional stretch’ does.  You sacrifice a little screen real estate, but it’s worth it once you see it in action.  There is a ‘crazy stretch’ option too, which is used only at your own peril.

There is also a tutorial that can be accessed before the game proper, and it explains some intricacies unique to Jamestown.  It covers things like hit boxes for your ship, standard and special fire modes (different for each ship you unlock) and, most importantly, ‘Vaunt’ mode.  You can achieve this powered-up state by collecting the gold that enemies drop upon being defeated.  Once enough gold is collected to fill the bar, you can active ‘Vaunt’, which gives you a shield that absorbs bullets for a short time period.  In addition to that, your ship’s damage is boosted by 50% and you’ll be under the effect of a score multiplier as long as you can remain in the mode.  The bar drains over time, but collecting more gold replenishes it.  Once the bar runs out, you get bonus points depending on how long you were able to sustain it, so making good use of ‘Vaunt’ is essential to setting high scores and surviving sticky situations.

Jamestown: Legends of the Lost Colony

You can see the shield effect from ‘Vaunt’ in action on the player to the right.

Upon jumping into the first level, you’ll find that you have a host of control options to choose from.  Mouse, keyboard, and controller are all fair game.  I found the mouse to be a bit loose for maneuvering my craft, but that’s largely a matter of personal opinion.  Any of the control options can have their buttons remapped for maximum comfort and/or efficiency.  In addition, a patch also allowed the trigger buttons on 360 controllers to be mapped as well, making life much easier if that is your weapon of choice (it was definitely mine).

Controls can be hooked up in any combination to take advantage of the game’s multiplayer.  This brings me to one (of only two) complaints I had about Jamestown: multiplayer is local only.  Don’t get me wrong, local co-op is a blast, and an addition as unique as the game itself.  What’s the last game you can recall on PC that encouraged you to hook up extra mice/keyboards/controllers to play with your friends?  None, if my memory serves, until Jamestown.  And as the first game from a three person studio, it is also understandable that online co-op may not have been high on the list.  I’ll still be recommending the game to friends – just without the added promise of being able to conquer the skies of Mars together.  It is simply a missed opportunity.

The missions themselves are straightforward, you pick a ship and annihilate the Spanish-Martian alliance wherever you find them, and eventually face a boss who spews more bullets than you can count.  You start with only one ship to choose from (the standard style Beam ship), and can unlock three others that are more specialized by spending credits that you’ll earn while playing the game.  There’s quite a few other unlocks as well, such as higher difficulty settings, bonus levels, a gauntlet mode – which lets you attempt to make it through the entire game on only 2 continues – and a ‘farce’ mode, which makes the story decidedly less serious.  The gauntlet and bonus levels can be attempted through co-op, just like the main levels, and add more replay value whether on your own or with friends.

Jamestown: Legends of the Lost Colony

Enemies range from mundane robotic turrets and ships to insect-like fighters and tentacled monstrosities, each having different patterns and tendencies to look out for.  Things will start off easy enough, but the enemies will start packing more and more tricks up their sleeves the deeper you get, especially in cooperative play.  Bosses will have weak points that can only be taken out by a specific player or will need coordinated fire from all players to succeed.  It adds a bigger spark to the team element than ‘one person stay alive long enough to get everyone else back into the fray so they can win for you’ constantly.  Everyone needs to contribute at some point.

There’s only one truly unfortunate aspect of Jamestown – one that I can’t excuse as easily as the lack of online co-op – and that’s the mission structure.  The game has five main levels, but you can’t complete them all in one shot unless you play on at least ‘Legendary’ difficulty (2 levels up from ‘Normal’).  For shmup vets, that may not be a huge undertaking; but for less hardened players of the genre it probably will.  Attempting to forge a path on ‘Normal’ will see you pointed back to the beginning after only three levels, to redo all those levels on the next highest difficulty just so you can play the fourth.  Completing the fourth greets you with the same scenario to get to the fifth.  In a way it forges an appreciation and aptitude for the essence of shmups.  Sometimes though, you just want to finish the damn game.

Jamestown: Legends of the Lost Colony

Even with its odd mission structure, I still found Jamestown to be delightful.  Fans of shmups will devour this excellent title, and I mean in a ‘suck all the meat off the bones and lick the plate clean’ type of way.  It’s obvious how much respect Final Form Games has for the genre when you play this title.  More casual players will enjoy the game, but may be deterred from completing the game by the mounting difficulty levels, unless they roll deep into the skies above Mars.  I wasn’t a big shmup guy before playing Jamestown, but this indie game has put the genre in a new light for me.  I fire the game up again and my hands settle around the controller – it’s about time I saw how this game ends.

I am one step away from death every moment.  My ship cuts through the skies above Mars, dodging incoming fire from enemy ships….


Robert Hill-Williams
Robert Hill-Williams
Robert Hill-Williams

MASH Veteran

The only things Rob has been doing longer than gaming are breathing, sleeping, eating, and reading. RPGs were what made him view games as an experience instead of a distraction, but these days he likes and plays every genre gaming has to offer. Outside of his usual reviews and articles on MTB, you can find Rob on the weekly Mashcast and frequenting Twitter.

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