Review: The Red Star PSP

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Few games in recent memory have had as troubled a history as The Red Star. It was originally supposed to be released back in 2004 for PS2 and Xbox – OPM and OXM featured playable demos back then, and, if memory serves, I even remember a few early reviews popping up in some magazines – but Acclaim, the publisher at the time, went under and the game never made it onto store shelves, even though it was essentially a finished product.

After that, The Red Star was presumed dead, but in 2007 XS Games resurrected the beleaguered title as a PS2 exclusive and it quickly became a cult hit, at least to those who hadn’t forgotten about it as the Xbox 360 and PS3 ushered in the “next-gen” era. Three years later, The Red Star just keeps on ticking, with XS Games readying an iPhone version and recently launching a PSP port via PSN download.

Having seen a short clip of the game running on an iPhone, I’m not overly optimistic about that version. However, having spent the past week and a half glued to it, I can safely tell you that the PSP version is every bit the sleeper gem its PS2 predecessor was and may actually be a better fit for portable play.

For those who have never heard of it before – and I’m sure that’s many of you – The Red Star takes place in a futuristic, alternate-reality Soviet Russia inspired by a graphic novel of the same name. The game itself is an old-school-meets-new-school arcade action game, pulling inspiration from classics like Final Fight, Golden Axe, Contra and Ikaruga to produce a harmonious unification of beat-‘em-up action and fast-paced shootery goodness.

Over 19 arduous missions, The Red Star has you slamming beat-‘em-up bad guy fodder, mid-mission mini-bosses and epic, stage-ending bosses as your choice of two playable characters (plus an unlockable third), each with differing weapon/skill sets and appropriately distinct play styles – Kyuzo is the slow bruiser with his heavy artillery and dual-pronged spear blade good for skewering bad guys (literally), while Makita is more of an acrobatic speedster with her dual-fisted pistols and quick-slashing sickle (Maya, the third character, is a sorceress of sorts with laser weaponry and magical melee strikes). Your performance is graded too, and in between missions you can use points accrued based on your ranking to purchase new weapons (each character has three different gun types) and other upgrades like stronger damage resistance, increased melee damage and quicker cool-down periods for your guns and shields.

Sure to please any hardcore gamer, The Red Star is a very challenging game. However, it’s mostly difficult because it isn’t your typical mindless run-and-gun. Your guns and shields overheat with repeated use, so you can’t haphazardly fill the screen with bullet spray, nor can you hunker down blocking every attack that comes your way like a turtle in its shell. Skill, fast fingers and strategy are a must if you want to excel at this game.

That’s not to say the difficulty pounds you over the head outright. The game does a great job easing you along for the first 10 stages or so, gradually ramping up in difficulty to prepare you for the onslaught to come without discouraging you from the outset. But as you come down the closing stretch, the levels and bosses get pretty brutal, especially as the placement of health packs dwindles. There aren’t any checkpoints either, so if you die you have to restart the whole level, even if you get within a hair’s length of defeating the end boss. Most levels are no longer than 10 minutes, though, so dying and retrying isn’t that painful. Still, be sure to play this one by yourself because you will surely drop plenty of “F-bombs” and other juicy vulgarities before the end.

What’s also so great about The Red Star is how effectively it uses multiple camera perspectives to seamlessly change gameplay. Throughout the game – often within the same level — you’ll experience elements of side-scrolling/isometric beat-‘em-ups, top-down shooters, and scrolling “shmups,” and this ever-shifting perspective keeps each stage lively and unpredictable.

In terms of port quality, The Red Star for PSP is virtually identical to its PS2 counterpart in all phases: gameplay, graphics, audio and content. Occasional lock-on quirks aside, the simple controls feel right at home on the PSP and work wonderfully. For a game with a development history stretching back nearly a decade, it’s also extremely impressive how gracefully the graphics and audio have aged – the textures are flat compared to upper-tier PSP titles, but other than that you’d never know this game dates all the way back to 2002.

All of the PS2 version’s unlockable content is intact as well, including the third playable character, the survival arenas, the “EX” difficulty and the bonus cheats. But one thing the PSP version is missing from the PS2 is the co-op play, which is kind of disappointing since this type of game only gets better when you can bring a friend along for the ride. Having said that, multiplayer isn’t as important for portable play, and frankly, this game is such a complete solo experience that co-op is ultimately irrelevant.

$15 is all that’s separating you from one of the PSP’s finest action games. I’m not kidding – go download it right now!

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Pros:
+ Sweet retro mash-up of beat-’em-ups and shooters
+ High difficulty puts your skills to the test
+ Lengthy campaign with excellent replayability
+ Lots of fun unlockables
+ Polished port quality

Cons:
– Co-op play chopped from PS2 version
– High difficulty may be too daunting for some

Game Info:
Platform: PSP via PSN (previously released on PS2 and also coming to iPhone)
Publisher: XS Games
Developer: Archangel Studios / Union / XS Games
Release Date: 3/18/2010
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!