Long ago, in the age when the gods were young and the games flowed forth like wine, there existed a legend. A legend the likes of which had been seldom seen before or since. A legend which flawlessly blended Zelda-style action-adventure with some of the greatest vertical-scrolling shooter stages the NES had ever seen. A Guardian Legend.
Now, the team at WayForward have concocted a brew in a similar vein as Compile's venerable classic: Sigma Star Saga. Blending action-RPG exploration with horizontally-scrolling blasting, I found SSS to be a delightful and potent libation. But with every delicious swig I took, a slightly bitter aftertaste soon followed. It's a textbook example of contradicting dichotomy throughout, like a pool player who constantly makes the most mind-boggling shots, but manages to scratch the cue ball. The game demonstrates moments of rare brilliance from start to finish that are checked by flaws dogging it every step of the way.
The game kicks off with a bang: right off the bat I found myself thrust into an aerial battle that would have been right at home in a Darius game: as bombs and giant laser cannons devastated the futuristic metropolis I was desperately defending, my fighter's simple armaments began feeling woefully inadequate against the overwhelming invading force. After taking down the enemy Battleworm, I was completely stoked about what lay ahead. But to my dismay, the subsequent shooter stages never quite lived up to that potential. Drab, with utterly mediocre enemy designs (not to mention drought of outer space environs) they lacked that visual impact that takes the genre over the top. While certainly passable, they felt rushed and stuck out like a sore thumb in contrast to the watermark set at the beginning.
SSS takes gaming's most time-honored, milked-to-death premise -- the interstellar war -- and twists it on its ear. Old-school shmups fans will love how the game embraces the genre's most tired clichés and gives them a new lease on life. I assumed the role of Ian Recker, ace pilot and lying bastard, who is ‘assigned' to work as a double-agent in the Krill Armada. Here I met Psyme, alien femme fatale. Psyme is ambitious, witty, and ruthless- a refreshing break from the ‘sweet-and-submissive' female archetype endemic to RPGs. As cool as the premise is though, it is undermined by the presentation at times.
The plot is conveyed in a terse, no-frills manner through action-RPG stages, during which the player will be summoned at random to any number of spacecraft for battle. While these exploration segments are certainly aesthetically pleasing, I found the organic flavor of the art style to be at odds with the hard sci-fi ambience the game shoots for. Add to the fact that these levels (except for the fantastic ice planet), feel completely run-of-the-mill, and have designs as shallow as the villians that inhabit them. The end result is an atmosphere that can't seem to decide if it's a kick-ass space epic like Battlestar Galactica, or something more along the lines of Buzz Lightyear.
The real problem is that the game ends up an underachier -- a jack of two trades, (and a competent one at that), but master of none. The shooter gameplay, in spite of having what may be the deepest power-up scheme ever unleashed, can't quite hang with the big dogs, nor will the RPG elements ever get it invited to sit at Square Enix's table at lunchtime. It completely drips with potential though, and feels like a bit more time in the oven could have gone a long way.
All in all, Sigma Star Saga is a flawed masterpiece. This isn't like a Shenmue or Rez, where you'll either be all about it or not at all. It has some surface flaws that you'll be cognizant of, but there's still a pearl within its core. And there will certainly be players who can't bite through the Tootsie-Pop to get to the chewy goodness in the center. But those who can will find a game crafted with a real enthusiasm and soul, all-too-seldom seen these days, that will find its way into their handhelds for a long time to come. And besides, when has any other interstellar war given you the chance to see how the other side felt?