STAFF REVIEW of Solar Shifter EX (Xbox One)

Monday, August 29, 2016.
by Adam Dileva

Solar Shifter EX Box art Bullet hell games, more commonly referred to as shmups (shoot em’ ups), tend to have a unique characteristic or mechanic to make each one stand out against the other games in the genre. These types of games, and their gameplay, are generally known to throw as many bullets at you as possible, requiring the highest of reflexes and nimbleness to survive. Solar Shifter EX, a game recently released on the Xbox One, may not reinvent the genre, but it does possess a unique gameplay mechanic that I’ve not seen in a shmup before. That being said, I’m just not sure if that’s enough to make it worthwhile. Like many smaller indie games coming to Xbox One, Solar Shifter EX was released on PC last year and it has now made its way to Microsoft's console, so if it looks familiar, that’s most likely why.

While shmups generally aren’t known for their in-depth or intriguing storylines, Solar Shifter EX does include a narrative, but it’s nothing we’ve haven't seen a hundred times before. The story revolves around an alien invasion and mankind needs to fight back or face extinction. While cliché, and not overly original, at least some effort was put into having some basis behind your actions. The story is not told very well though as the game lacks cutscenes and there isn't any decent voice acting. Get used to the fact that you’re coming for the bullet hell, and that aspect is definitely present, so just leave it at that and ignore the paper thin plotline as it doesn't do anything to be anymore interesting than what it is.

Like most shmups, you pilot a spaceship that can only sustain a certain amount of damage before being destroyed. A good shmup needs two key mechanics to work in sync in order for the game to be successful: precision controls and an accurate hitbox.

Controls need to be spot on since you’re dealing with hundreds of bullets on the screen at once, and if you can’t avoid them 'fairly' then the gameplay suffers. The hitbox for your ship also needs to be accurate and logical, allowing you to only get hit when you ‘should’, and if that is not the case, then that’s another big issue that’s a huge detriment. Solar Shifter EX is an odd case, because while it has decent controls, the camera completely messes up any effort that’s gone into making them accurate. The hitbox for your ship seems to suffer in the accuracy area as well, and I can’t tell if it’s because of the shifting camera or some other underlying issue; but more on that shortly.

Like any bullet hell game you will be punished for not being skillful enough. Sometimes you need to start from the beginning while other times you'll find that you can continue from certain checkpoints. Luckily Solar Shifter EX employs the checkpoint system and allows you to respawn not too far back, but get used to long loading times as the level seems to be completely reloaded every time you die. Considering that you’ll be dying quite often it becomes frustrating to wait so frequently, sometimes more than the gameplay.

What I found very odd was that there was no bomb system or super weapon to use when you’re stuck in a tight situation, which is unlike what most games in the genre utilize. There’s also no upgrade system in place aside from spending credits you gather from downed enemies to improve your main and secondary weapons (both shoot at the same time). For all of the upgrading that I did I never noticed any difference in my firepower. I don’t know if that’s because the enemies gain more health in the later stages, or if the upgrades are so minor that you can’t tell the difference. Either way, it felt like a waste since there’s no tangible benefit from upgrading, other than there’s nothing else to spend the credits on.

What sets Solar Shifter EX apart from others in the genre is its unique shifting mechanic. This allows you to instantly shift to other predetermined spots on the screen (top/middle, bottom/middle, left, and right) with a flick of the right stick. While you can’t spam the shifting non-stop, the cooldown is very minimal and there’s no limit to how much you can use it in a level. It’s a mechanic that is only briefly explained in game and it's not taught to you as well as it could be. You better learn how to utilize it to your strategy very early on though, as there are many sections in the game that you won't survive without shifting out of danger to a safe spot. It’s a unique idea, and has potential, but surviving in Solar Shifter EX is simply about finding one of the few ‘safe spots’ on the screen as enemies shoot in predetermined directions, so it becomes a test of memorization more than skill.

The level designs are bright and colorful, and there’s more than enough happening on the screen at once, but it’s impossible to take in the visuals when you’re trying to frantically focus on your spacecraft and any projectiles heading your way. While bullet hell games are known for filling your screen with projectiles and chaos, there’s just too much going on here for it to be appreciated. The inability to appreciate all that goes on is also most likely due to the terrible and shifting camera angles, as they are more of a detriment than anything else.

Every shmup that I can think of off the top of my head always has a static camera. It is usually a top down view and you shoot horizontally or vertically depending on the game. Solar Shifter EX seems like they wanted to mix things up and use odd angled views, but they are at inopportune times which you have no control over. So, sometimes the camera will move to a specific 45 degree-like angle, yet your controls don’t feel as if they’ve been re-calibrated to accommodate the new viewpoint. I get that they were going for a more cinematic approach, but when it’s a hindrance to the gameplay, and simply doesn’t work, it's not fun. The odd angles also have you shooting at weird directions, also being unsure of where the next ships and bullets will come from next.

At the end of the day I can appreciate that Solar Shifter EX is trying to do something new in the genre, and while the shift mechanic adds a new way to think about playing, it hasn't been fine-tuned enough to be something truly special. More than anything, the camera issues are the biggest drawback, along with the gameplay devolving into finding 'the safe spot’ to survive more than using reflex skill. Fans of the genre, like myself, will enjoy this game for what it is, but it won’t stand up against the greats of the genre like Raiden or Ikaruga. If you’re a casual fan however, I’d recommend waiting to pick this game up until it is on sale, unless you really need to see what bullet hell is really like.

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


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