Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: G Rev
Publisher: G Rev
Revamped, lazy ports of classic shooters infest Xbox Live Arcade like a bad rash... but every once in a while, a brand new SHMUP (that's shoot 'em up for those who like to pronounce their words separately) hits the service and makes us take notice. One such example was Konami's Hard Corps: Uprising that threw a number of exciting innovations at the run & gun formula, but Strania takes the opposite tack by focusing on the core fundamentals.
Responsiveness. Player empowerment. And mecha.
For the sake of advancing the text-based storyline (that's buried deep within the tutorial menu), the forces of Strania have to repel an evil invasion by clambering into honking great mechs and taking to the skies. It's a scrolling shooter in the style of Raystorm and Einhander; tasking you with defeating waves of enemies, dodging inordinate amounts of incoming firepower and occasionally facing off against huge mechanical bosses. As well as your enemies, you'll also need to content with environmental hazards such as rotating lasers and tight passages.
It's all standard SHMUP fare, but Strania: The Stella Machina handles everything extremely well. Manoeuvrability is the key to success for any wannabe arcade classic, and the mechs handle with pixel-perfect speed and responsiveness that's neither twitchy nor cumbersome. While very difficult on the default settings, it's never cheap - and empowers you with the speed and firepower to get the job done. If you die, it's because you screwed up, not because your mech wasn't fast enough to get out of the firing line.
The one genuine innovation that Strania brings to the table is the cyclical weapons system. Players can store up to three armaments at once and wield two of them simultaneously; switching between loadouts with the press of a button. This allows you to chop and change at a moment's notice and change strategy on the fly. Re-equipping a weapon is as simple as bumping into it from the correct side, for example, if you want to switch out your left gun, simply approach a floating powerup from its right hand side.
Strania's smorgasbord of boomsticks is deeply impressive. You'll be able to mix and match standard gatling guns, lasers, homing missiles and rockets with more outlandish offerings such as reflective laser spheres and clusters of delayed-action bomblets. A sword also gives players some major point blank punch, and can be wielded alongside a gun for increased versatility. Or alongside another sword if you're feeling particularly badass. Regardless of the loadout, you can feel confident that your arsenal will handle almost any situation that Strania will throw out.
Notice that I said almost. It's all too easy to accidentally swap out weapons in the heat of battle, which can eventually lead to you having to face off against bosses and tough waves with an entirely inappropriate loadout. Skilled players will be able to use cunning and patience to botch their way out of these desperate situations (such as staring down a powerful ranged boss with only a sword and close-range bomblets), but once you've found a selection that works, the onus is on you to avoid contact with new weapons as if they were incoming projectiles.
Strania: The Stella Machina, like many shooters I could mention, relies on its colourful and eyecatching art design as its major visual draw. The 2.5D graphics themselves are fairly mediocre and displayed through an aggravating 4:3 letterbox... but there are enough bright primary colours, big explosions and ludicrous lasers to hold your interest. Textures and models leave much to be desired when viewed in short cutscenes and during level transitions, though this also prevents slowdown and makes those all-important incoming projectiles much easier to see. Oh, and it's worth noting that the presentation is extremely Japanese - which is a major plus in my book. Download the trial and you'll see what I mean.
So we've established that Strania: The Stella Machina is a competent shooter that plays well and provides the odd morsel of eye candy, but it's time for the all-important discussion about value. There are no unlockables and little content beyond the levels themselves, but naturally shooter fans will get their money's worth from mastering the levels, trying out the weapons and grinding for high score bragging rights. Most players, however, will find 800 Microsoft Points to be just too much for a single playthrough's worth of action.
To rectify this, G Rev are planning to release a DLC pack with new levels and characters in the near future. No details on pricing or date are available at the time of writing.
- Perfect controls, speed and handling
- Powerful and versatile weapons
- Eyecatching art design
- Cyclical weapons system is a double-edged sword
- Graphics aren't much to write home about
- Weak value for all but SHMUP veterans
The Short Version: Strania: The Stella Machina is a slick, tough and satisfying shooter that excels by handling all the basic mechanics with care and precision. The weapons system and high score tables provide plenty of depth for genre fanatics, but most players should hold off until sampling the more classic SHMUPS on Xbox Live Arcade to avoid buyer's remorse.