A retro inspired shooter that takes a genre set in its ways and turns it on its head. But is it enough to keep you hooked?!
When it comes to gaming, I’m really not a very picky person. I’ll play anything and everything, new and old, superbly crafted and passably shabby. I mean, I suffered through each and every achievement point in Bullet Witch and hacked and slashed my way though Onechanbara on the Xbox 360. I proudly admit I am an achievement addict, ok? Don’t judge me…
However, there is one genre that I have a hard time with overlooking its faults. That genre is shoot em’ ups. I’ll always try the new one’s that pop up here and there, I mean I love the genre! So, when Eastasiasoft reached out to me and provided me with a fancy review code for Iro Hero, the latest and greatest shmup by Artax Games, I jumped at the opportunity! But again, this is the one genre I’m quite picky about, so although I was excited, I was also a tad hesitant.
I like my shmups fast paced, frantic, action packed, and filled to the brim with bullets (preferably pink and glowy). So, in so many words I like the bullet hells of the world. At first glance, Iro Hero didn’t seem to be offering that flavor of chaos, but with some of the features it was touting, it still managed to pique my interest!
So, I had to put aside my presumptuous judgments, look past its frilly gameplay trailers and colorful promo art and actually play the game. So I tighten my sequined driving gloves, dusted off my arcade stick and prepared myself for a whirlwind of weirdly floral shmup-ish delights!
Slow and Steady… Gets Underestimated
Arcade style games like Iro Hero really live and die by first impressions. This was especially true in the coin-op days where all developers wanted to do was grab your attention, get you hooked from second one and milk every quarter out of your sweaty, impressionable hands. These games needed to be flashy, colorful, loud, action packed and an assault unto your senses. That’s why I love them so much after all!! Nowadays, games just need to sing you their siren songs of mind boggling stories that don’t get started until hour twenty.
Iro Hero on the other hand, felt no need to boggle your mind, just befuddle it… or maybe numb it. As the main character Iro himself, you and a few of your ragtag friends are on a mission to usurp the Nagyu’s control over how the human race (or universe?) produces energy. From what I can gather the Nagyu are a race of aliens that taught us how to harness electricity from our own “inner energy”?? To be perfectly honest I lost track of where this game’s story was going. I was here for the gameplay anyways, so I wasn’t too broken up about it. And… upon my initial gameplay experience, I was teetering on that edge of moving on to shoot-ier shooters.
Iro Hero started off slow, it didn’t have that hectic mess of colorful bullets, heart pounding techno or explosive sound effects that’ll make your innards become outards. Your ship might as well have been floating in cold molasses and your weapons just felt like you were rolling blue and red highly volatile bowling balls across the screen.
But it’s the relatively stationary enemies, who have very simple movement and bullet patterns, that really got to me. It all seemed too easy and too uninspired. To say I was not impressed at this point would be like saying caramel popcorn is merely “delicious”, a gross and blasphemous understatement.
The Ups and Downs of a Vertical Shooter
Although I was on the verge of giving up on this game, I did see potential. It wasn’t used much in the first stage of the game, but you are given the ability to switch colors (or polarity) on the fly. While you’re blue, you can shoot blue bullets that will kill red enemies and while you’re red, the opposite. It’s a mechanic that resonated with me, it comes as no surprise either, since it also appears in another excellent shoot em’ up Ikaruga. Which Iro Hero definitely draws many inspirations from. Changing colors isn’t just an offensive tactic either. It can be used defensively. While donning one color or the other you can absorb bullets of the same hue protecting you from their damage. Doing this will fill up a gauge at the bottom of your screen that when full you can use to unleash a special ability of sorts used to kill multiple enemies at once. So I guess it still becomes offensive in the end.
All unique mechanics, which we’ve seen in the past, but that was enough for me to press on despite my doubts. And as I progressed from stage to stage, encountered new challenges and clever ways to use these mechanics that feeling of appreciation grew and grew. Things like reflective mirrors were added so you could shoot around corners. And then colorful electrified barriers that required you to change colors to either pass or shoot through.
As I got nearer and nearer to the end of the game it was becoming clear that Iro Hero had more than potential, it was becoming fun and addicting. The more complicated and dangerous the hazards added to the game became, the more rewarding those challenges were to complete. Your knowledge and mastery of the game’s mechanics end up being tested and you really have to think before you shoot. It’s something you typically don’t see in these types of games and I admire that. It’s like a shmup with a dash of puzzle solving.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
What’s a review of a 2D retro inspired game without drooling over it’s pixely goodness. And I can say without too much hesitation, the pixels are pretty darn good. From the enemy sprites to the backgrounds all of it is very well made and beautifully animated. I never encountered any confusion as to what was an enemy or item versus what was in the background. The backgrounds especially are highly detailed and interesting. Not that you’d really have too much opportunity to gawk over it while dodging those shiny bullets.
However, high quality pixel art can only carry you so far, when your character designs are sub-par. For the most part you’ll see the same enemy sprite throughout the entire game, just palette swapped here and there. And the bosses definitely leave much to be desired until you hit the final stretch of the game. That’s where you start to see the artists finally letting some of their creative juices flow. But many of the mid-bosses suffer from the same repeat appearances with slight color changes as well.
The music in Iro Hero did help some, with a few catchy tunes here and there. I did find myself humming them after I turned the game off. But overall the soundtrack wasn’t much to write home about.
Odds, Ends and Shmup Trends
Outside of a few hiccups in the graphics department and a bit of a pacing problem in the beginning, Iro Hero really surprised me. There are still a few odds and ends that I wasn’t too sure about, such as its apparent pointless point system (pun intended). It was really only used for leaderboard shenanigans with no real in-game significance (Come on! No extends at 10000 pts?!). And the fact that you have to spend points to buy extra lives in arcade mode… well, I’ll just leave it at that.
And don’t get me started on the whole trying to unfold the story and dialog in the periphery of the screen during the action. It’s near impossible to pay attention to the side panels as your trying to avoid death. Just give me cutscenes or no story at all! Raiden V tried to do it and it didn’t work there either and that script was also voiced! But I’m more than willing to look over those things for the sake of this diamond in the rough.
So, that begs the question, would I recommend Iro Hero? Yes, but with a few caveats. If you can get past those aforementioned flaws then I think your in for a treat. I may have picked this title’s bones clean, but underneath it all Iro Hero turned out to be a fun and rewarding game. If you’re not a fan of this style of game the devs ease you in enough to make it accessible to novices and experts alike. And if you’re a die hard shmup fan then bear with the slow start, there’s lots of challenge and enjoyment to be had in the later stages.
I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what Artax Games has to offer next.
What are some of your favorite arcade style games? Are you a fan of shoot em’ ups?
If you’d like to see Iro Hero in action you can find my impression video below!
YouTube | https://youtu.be/E_qV4I6xBpg