"The First Encounter didn't go so well."
Thus spake Sam Stone as he emerges from the time lock teleporter seconds after going in. The last of the Serious Sam indie collaborations chronicles a non-canonical adventure set between the first and second encounters, blending the series' trademark action with a novel combat mechanic and a wicked sense of fun. Dutch studio Vlambeer has certainly made The Random Encounter look every inch the classic RPG, with disarmingly simple sprite-based retro visuals, overworlds to explore for random battles and plenty of items to grab.
However, calling The Random Encounter an 'RPG' is a bit of a red herring. Its hour-long campaign spans a small clutch of levels and doesn't feature traditional character levelling, character equipment/inventory system or strong storyline. It isn't really a roleplaying game at all, then, so if you jump in expecting a similar experience to Cthulhu Saves The World or Dungeons Of Dredmor, you're set for a major disappointment. Luckily, what The Random Encounter actually is proves a lot more interesting.
As mentioned, the game is split into a number of small levels that resemble an overworld of a 16-Bit RPG. You'll wander around to collect weapons, one-use combat items, armour and companions, while solving a few elementary 'puzzles' like collecting keys or hitting switches. It's all incredibly basic, but fleshed out by a refreshingly self-aware sense of humour that constantly mocks its own simplicity in Sam Stone's irreverent, irrepressible style. Fun though it is, these sections are essentially all just window dressing and an excuse for the random battles and massive boss fights that make The Random Encounter such a unique propositon.
Once a random battle or boss encounter begins, the overhead perspective switches into a three-quarter view that puts your team of heroes on the right hand side of the screen - running backwards as fast as they can in true Serious style. Hordes of classic Serious Sam enemies such as Kleer Skeletons, Beheaded Kamikazes, Gnaars and Arachnoids charge at you from the left in truly biblical numbers, and naturally the aim is to exterminate them as fast as possible before they manage to reach your position and inflict some serious damage. The turn based style allows you to pick a weapon for each character to use, which all operate in profoundly different ways and provide multiple combat applications. The shotgun, for example, delivers powerful close range damage and will aim at enemies within a chosen radius (the larger the distance you set, the less damage it will dish out at distance), while the minigun metes out a linear stream of death that can be precisely aimed down a chosen vector. Getting the right angle to hit priority targets or scythe your way through groups is a surprisingly complex and cerebral affair. Sadly, though, the Grenade Launcher is entirely useless.
A selection of helpful items range from standard armour and healing powerups to some insane game changers like Kamikaze Bait, which summons a hundred screaming suicide bombers into the fray. In effect, it replaces the traditional character levelling mechanics, but you'll frequently have to rely on them rather than your own tactical skill.
After you've selected your weapons and angles, the action plays out in a few seconds of real time - and in a neat twist, you can move your team up and down in order to direct their fire as well as weave your way through incoming projectiles and charging foes (many of whom will run right past you if you're fast enough). It's a fantastically hectic and stressful experience that evokes the biggest battles of the parent franchise and bullet hell shooters while adding an extra tactical dimension to the proceedings. Serious Sam fans will relish Vlambeer's new take on the gameplay, as it's both reverential and refreshingly, wonderfully different.
But the combat is all that The Random Encounter really has to offer. The lack of a compelling experience system and the need to constantly lean on your powerups makes these random battles feel less relevant and important as they should - it's brilliant, but it's also grindy padding of the highest order. Ultimately, Vlambeer's unpredictable humour and the quality of the battling will compel you to push through it regardless.
Finally, we need to discuss the rather touchy subject of value. The Random Encounter's campaign only lasts between one or two hours depending on how often you run out of lives (forcing you to start from the beginning of each level), and offers incredibly slender replay potential despite the shallow unlockable Endless Mode. If you blow through it in a single sitting, you'll definitely come away feeling short-changed. It's therefore best to treat The Random Encounter like a mobile app, enjoying it in short bite-sized bursts between meatier games or at work if you can get away with it. The tiny price tag is definitely appropriate for the quality of the experience and its length stops the action from dragging, but I can't help feeling that it's better suited for mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablets.
- Fantastic combat mechanics
- Adorable visuals
- Incredibly short
- Undeniably shallow
- Misleading RPG overtones
The Short Version: Serious Sam: The Random Encounter is a worthy use of three quid and two hours, but be aware that it's an action packed micro-game rather than a true RPG. So long as you go in with an open mind, you'll have an absolute blast.