STAFF REVIEW of Defenders of Ekron - Definitive Edition (Xbox One)

Monday, September 10, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Defenders of Ekron - Definitive Edition Box art Whenever there’s a new shmup (shoot-em-up) released, I always jump on the opportunity to try them out, as it’s been one of my favorite genres since I can remember. Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition is the latest entry into the genre on Xbox One. We’ve all played a shmup before, so what makes this one so different? Well, it actually has some unique ideas that make it stand out, which took me by surprise. Of course you’ll be shooting in all 360 degrees, but you’ll also be exploring, analyzing enemies, solving puzzles, changing combat modes and more. While I applaud the innovation of adding elements like these into the genre, as it all works mechanically, I have to note that they don't blend cohesively well at all times, like mixing two drinks that shouldn’t be together.

You fill the role of Ekeas, an eager cadet who’s been training, as long as he can remember, to pilot one of the coveted Anakim mechs. These mechs have special abilities that allow them to absorb nearby energy and convert it into their own special abilities called Isvara. Something is wrong though, and Ekeas isn’t able to use his Isvara ability for some unknown reason, so he’s thrust into an experimental program instead as they try and figure out why.

Of course this revelation happens at the worst opportune time, as the fleet is attacked by the Renegades, a group of previous members focused on starting a civil war for their own reasons. While the story isn’t anything unique, and you’ll see the ‘twists’ coming a mile away, I appreciate that developer In Vitro Games has at least tried to focus on adding a comprehensive story to a shmup, even if it is a bit long winded and dialogue heavy at times, all across 10 individual missions.

At its core, Defenders of Ekron is a top down twin stick shooter. Most levels will follow the typical ‘shoot everything until it dies’ design, but there are some exploration and puzzle sections later on to change and freshen up the gameplay. Problem is, I’m not sure if these really fit or blend together well. I play shmups because I want to shoot and blast everything while trying to avoid a screen seemingly full of bullets. These sections really slow down the gameplay to a crawl, and while some will enjoy the change, I wasn’t as fond of these sections nearly as much.

You’ll not only have to shoot enemies, but analyze them, explore, use your shield tactically, as well as upgrade your mech whenever possible to keep going. Every boss is super-sized, usually filling the whole screen and having multiple segments to destroy, which I quite enjoyed, even if they weren’t terribly challenging. This Definitive Edition has included some improvements, mostly consisting of more balanced gameplay and an entertaining vertical 2D 8-bit version of the game, titled Invaders of Ekron. Also included is a Boss Rush mode, allowing you to tackle 13 bosses in a row should you desire.

Your mech has different modes that can be utilized depending on the situation. You’re able to traverse in much greater speed, but you will be unable to fire without transforming back, or scan enemies to get a readout about their weakness, but again, you won’t be able to shoot when utilizing this skill too. While they aren’t needed, they do add some depth to the gameplay, but since it’s unneeded for the most part, there’s generally no reason to do so unless forced.

Shooting is far more involved than your regular shmup. Sure, you could hold the Right Trigger down, but you have a meter that acts as an ammo/heat display, so you’ll eventually have to stop firing for a short while to recharge. This slows down the gunfire quite a bit, as you have to pick and choose your shots or recharge whenever able. More than just your regular bullets utilize this meter though, as your homing bombs do as well.

The Left Trigger allows you to lock onto enemies that your cursor is over, hurling a bomb from where you that is locked on, but this also uses your blaster meter. Problems arise when using these, as your cursor becomes independent from your movement and have to hover over each enemy to lock on (or analyze). Doing so in the heat of battle is near impossible and confusing, and it caused me to not even bother unless needed for a puzzle or specific enemy.

You also have access to a shield. In most shmups you have a bomb that can clear the whole screen and its bullets, but instead, here you have the ability to use a bubble shield whenever you like, protecting you from regular bullet damage. I thought this was amazing at first, as when you’re in a bad area where you WILL get hit, you can simply shield out of it and fly somewhere else. The only issue is that this uses your blaster meter as well, so if you’re low on ammo and try to bubble, you won’t be able to until you recharge. The shield will drain your meter quickly as well, so you can only use it sparingly.

There are tutorial-like missions that you can play, gradually teaching you the aspects of certain gameplay elements and how to overcome them. Some of these are straight up skill based, such as having to defeat enemies in certain ways, and others are much more interesting, like puzzles that require ricochet shots or shields to get by. They begin interesting and simple enough, but they eventually ramp up the difficulty to 11, especially if you want to earn gold medals, forcing you to be near perfect with your new abilities.

There is one mechanic I really do enjoy though, and I hope other games take note. Enemies will drop energy when destroyed, so you naturally will collect this. Fill your energy bar and you’ll earn a skill point. Fill the bar many times and you’ll have many skill points to upgrade your mech after a level should you wish. What’s really interesting though is the option to utilize that hard earned energy to restore your health if you desire.

Do you keep getting hit on a boss and don’t want to fail the level and restart? You can use a bar of energy to refill your health if you think that will help, though you’ll have less skill points to spend afterwards. It’s a risk versus reward done in a very clever way. At one point I had 6 skill points saved up, fought the boss and had to heal so much I walked away with only a single skill leveled up as the battle that had just occurred required many health regenerations. It’s clever and it works to help with those sections that are just a pain.

I absolutely love shmups, and while Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition is completely serviceable as one, it didn’t do much to excite me, even with some new interesting mechanics and a rarely found narrative focus in a schmup. I applaud the risk of trying something new, but the blending of different mechanics doesn’t always work as well as I would have hoped. While not terribly long, $12.99 is a little steep for what you get, but worth checking out on a sale if you’re in desperate need for a new twin stick shooter shmup.

Overall: 6.0 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 4.0 / 10


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