There is a moment in Metal Gear Solid 4 where you have to mash a button (Heh) as hard and fast as you can for an agonizingly long time. I was literally standing and screaming at the screen by the time I was finished, having to yell just to keep up my strength and resolve. My time with Rise of the Ravager reminded me of that moment, with every stage pushing me up to and beyond my limits. While not as physically painful as the moment in Metal Gear Solid 4, the sheer amount of mental dedication and reflexes required to beat this game in its highest stages will have you screaming at the screen. Whether this is a roar of triumph or a howling defeat entirely depends on the player.
Gentleman Squid Studio’s Rise of the Ravager is actually pretty straightforward. You have a base to protect along the bottom of the screen, so the object is to shoot down anything and everything before they come into contact with it. The first hit will break your shield (which regenerates over time), and subsequent hits will actually do damage. If you take three hits without the shield, you lose. You have one stationary turret to deal with the threats that are raining down on you, and you have to shoot them down with a shot of the same color as the enemy. The game only starts you off with a color or two to get you started, but soon you’ll have to keep track of four different colors. Simple stuff, especially if you happen to have a 360-style PC controller since the colors match the buttons.
The people at Gentleman Squid proceed to eviscerate you within that simple framework. By some of the later stages, you’ll find yourself looking out at a sea of enemies coming down at you; a wall of creatures that will shatter your shield and destroy you if you screw up for more than a second or two. I’ve heard people compare this game to Guitar Hero, and I didn’t really understand how they could be similar until I played the game. If you’ve ever kept track of your colors while scrambling to hit the right buttons on time, then you will already have a good start at Rise of the Ravager.
You’ve been given tools to help yourself out with. The game has an upgrade system for your weapons and shields, and it’s vital that you learn the best way to use it for each stage. For most games, the upgrades you choose get locked in and it’s hard to go back to make changes, but Rise of the Ravager will let you undo every single upgrade you’ve ever made since you started the game. This was just incredible, as there were some tactics that worked early on in the game that really didn’t fly near the end, so being able to take back the points I’d dumped into some upgrades was awesome. It also let me try out any tactic that I could afford at the time, so I could completely change my tactics if the level needed a different approach. Easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever seen for a game with an upgrade system. Why lock someone into a set path because it seemed smart when you didn’t know the game that well? Why punish someone for making bad early-game decisions? I love this system; it’s sheer genius.
With those upgrades, you can increase things like your damage, firing rate, shield regeneration, and number of turrets. You can also get bombs to use once per level, add a couple of auto-turrets, or increase the aim-assist on your shots. They all sound very good, but as the levels change some of them become more important than others. In one level you might run into hordes of small, weak enemies and increasing your firing rate could help you more than increasing your damage. In many of the boss stages, things can get so hairy that having a bomb or two could tip things in your favor if you’re in danger, so pulling some upgrade points from one area over to the bombs could help you win. If you’re good at keeping enemies at bay you might want to put more points into firepower, but if enemies keep on creeping by in this particular stage then adding shield regeneration could keep you alive.
I really liked this system, and was especially impressed at the way a stage seemed to be naturally solved by making some minor adjustments to my upgrade loadout. I felt like firepower and firing rate would win the day, but there were many times when increasing the aim assist helped me land hits on enemies with more precision. There were a lot of times that a shot might miss by just a little bit since the stage was filled with lots of tiny enemies and that upgrade would save me. In a couple of stages it wouldn’t matter how many turrets and shots I had in the air; someone would sneak by. Getting the shield to regenerate fast after those moments kept me from meeting the game over screen during those levels. The levels managed a variety that always had me fiddling with those options, and just when I’d settle into a tactic the game would find a way to show me how useless it was.
How does a game where you just have to shoot down enemies using the right color do that? It manages that by throwing dozens of different behaviors and patterns at you all at once; forcing players to learn and adapt to them. It’s very fair about its enemies whenever a new one shows up, typically letting you fight that one enemy by itself so you can see what it does. I advise you to back off for a moment when you run into something new, as knowing what it’ll do on every inch of the screen will help you finish the later levels. Many of the enemies move in erratic patterns that make them hard to hit, so having an idea on what everything does is mandatory.
The developers made this easy with the sharp art design in the game. Rise of the Ravager utilizes an Inca theme throughout the game; one that you mainly see in the enemy design. Many of the game’s enemies have been designed to look like Inca masks, with all of them looking quite different. Despite being a single color, there’s a lot of nice line work and details on each mask, making them look unique as they come scrolling down. Other enemies look like animals or odd creatures, again filled with details that make them look different. Each of the varied enemies moves in a specific pattern you can tell by its look, and the details of these creatures let you pick them out and know what they’ll do as soon as you see them. The fine details and varying shapes help the player to tell them all apart, even if you only glimpse them out of the corner of your eye.
Given that you have to know what you want to do on any particular part of the screen even if you’re not paying strict attention to it, this was necessary in order to have a chance of beating the level. The developers nailed this, creating enemies that I knew how to fight even if I only glanced at them for less than a second. I knew what I had to do just from a bit of wing or the lower jaw on a mask, so if I saw any part of the enemy I’d know where to shoot once I turned my shot in the right direction. The great art design really keeps the game together, and I can’t imagine the game working without it.
The art just looks great, too. I love all the varied monster designs, especially the bosses and how they work. I didn’t know how you could make some of these Inca designs work like bosses in a Shmup, but they do. There’s also some really nice backgrounds behind those walls of enemies that you’re shooting, and even the game over screen has a greatlook to it as the Ravager tears through the earth. They’re both still screens, with the Ravager rising up over a few images, but they are done up in a hand-painted style that I liked. Also, have you seen this game’s cover compared to the other games on the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace. It’s like comparing Monet to a backed up bus stop toilet.
Anyway, because you can tell what the enemies are while barely seeing them and because you have lots of neat little upgrades, the game has no mercy. Maybe in the first few levels, but not for long. At the same time, it is very doable if you can keep a cool head. The game is built around pushing the player to the end of endurance; always sending down a lot more enemies than I was comfortable with. I tended to panic every few seconds while I was playing it (hence the standing and shouting when I used the controller), as the waves of enemies are carefully calculated to be just about too much. The levels also continue on a little bit further than I felt they would, so the game feels like an endurance run. I really liked this, with victory making my whole body almost slump at the sudden relaxation.
It really is that hard. The game throws lots of enemies of varying colors at the player every second, and many with varying strengths. You have to gauge what you see, fire an appropriate amount of well-aimed shots at those enemies, and be looking over at wherever you’re not firing to see what you should be doing next. Not only that, you’re hopefully planning on every single shot you need to make on the way over to whatever priority enemy you want to hit next. Maybe a slow red enemy is about to hit your shield, but there are a few weak blue and green enemies falling down in between where you’re shooting now and your target. You can keep firing on the way, so as you adjust your aim you can slip your finger across the blue and green buttons, killing those enemies before you blast the red one and protect your shield.
Learning that multitasking is key, as only concentrating on what you want to hit leaves many enemies alive on the way to your target. You have to be hitting as many things as you possibly can all the time, so I found this game needed all of my attention and reflexes every second I was playing. It felt like I was playing Dyad all over again; my mind racing with every possibility as I played. It forces me out of the slow, methodical tactics I am comfortable with and just kept me roped in. You are always teetering on the edge of failure in this game, so there’s very little that’s sweeter than beating it despite those long odds.
Every time I sit down to play this game for ten minutes, it becomes two or three hours. It’s got a very simple premise, but it uses its controls and art style in ways that keep the player engaged with the game. The game pushes its players like a good coach, maintaining a hard but fair pace in each level. It always feels like it’s almost too hard during each stage, but when you win and look back you’ll laugh at how easy you used to have it in the early stages. I have a hard time walking away from those harried levels, feeling like a small change or a little bit more practice would see me through whenever I lose. I never thought I would say this of a game that looked so simple on the surface, but I am hopelessly hooked on Rise of the Ravager.