If the idea of a beat ’em up that incorporates RPG elements sounds appealing to you, give The Red Star a chance. It won’t disappoint.
On the surface, you’d be forgiven to think that The Red Star is a game in which you just fight hordes of different enemies in a wide variety of industrial environments. Thankfully, this title combines aspects of close-quarters melee combat with Contra-style shooting and these elements make the game feel old-fashioned yet still somehow fresh and original.
For those unfamiliar, The Red Star is a game based on an eponymous graphic novel created by Christian Gossett. Fans of the franchise will find a lot to like here, but those who have never heard of the comic book series will be able to enjoy the game as well. The story is quite simple: Mayor Maya Antares and Kyuzo have dedicated their lives to the defense of the United Republics of the Red Star, but a new threat has surfaced. They have to face an assassin known as Troika, the Harvester of Souls.
During your first playthrough, you can choose one of two characters: Makita, a nimble Norgorkan rebel who makes use of her speed to defeat enemies or Kyuzo, a strong Elite soldier who wields a huge double-edged sword. Finishing your first playthrough will grant you access to a third character: Maya, a Red Warkaster sorceress who wields a strong laser weapon. Overall, these characters are pretty well-balanced and they adjust to different styles of play. Still, newcomers should take their time to experiment with each character before making a final decision.
At the beginning of each level, the commander gives you a mission briefing via a static screen. Mostly, your objectives consist of defeating countless of underpowered enemies in order to reach the end of the level and fight a boss. At times though, the action becomes more varied than that and some obstacles (walls, boxes and so on) are strategically placed on your path to mix things up a bit. Nevertheless, a few design decisions hinder the experience. For instance, every time you finish a mission, the game immediately sends you to the next briefing screen. Including some tangible rewards for your efforts, such as voice acting or a few elaborate CGI cutscenes, would have definitely helped.
Still, gracefully defeating enemies takes some practice and finesse which makes combat quite enjoyable. The way in which you get rid of enemies is mostly through melee attacks and shooting. As usual in this type of brawlers, there are ground attacks and combos. Using melee attacks charges up a bar that allows you to pull off some special moves. Furthermore, the characters have different special guns at their disposal and here’s when the lock-on system comes into play. It’s worth noting that guns have a heat meter that prevent players from targeting and shooting the whole time, which encourages you to alternate between gun combat and melee attacks. Finally, your character can use a shield that is useful against melee attacks, but weak against projectiles.
The Red Star also incorporates some role-playing game elements. After successfully completing a level, your performance is graded according to multiple variables (how much damage you took, how many health packs you used, how fast you finished the level) and gives you points accordingly. These points are useful to level up attributes such as life drain, armor, gun recharge and melee boost, to name but a few.
Throughout the game, you’ll face a slew of enemies and the fact that most of them require you to use different strategies to defeat them is a welcome addition. Some die in one hit, some have shields that protect them from your projectiles, some charge at you, forcing you to use your shield and so on. Overall, combat encourages you to think about effective ways of dealing with waves of baddies and while The Red Star isn’t the most elaborate beat ’em up around, it’s still a fun one nonetheless.
Sadly, The Red Star isn’t without some serious flaws. First of all, some boss fights are frustratingly difficult. The initial boss encounters are a cakewalk, but soon enough, bosses make use of some cheap strategies such as shooting waves of projectiles that come from all sides. Although the difficulty itself is pretty high, the way in which you approach bosses isn’t that varied. Usually, you focus your gun power on the boss’ secondary weapons. Once those are destroyed, you focus on the main weak point until you destroy that too and that’s pretty much it. Playing with a friend could have made some of the aforementioned encounters much more bearable, but for some reason, the offline cooperative mode that graced the console versions is nowhere to be seen in the PlayStation Portable one.
Another issue is that the game never clearly explains the RPG elements. After playing for a few hours, I had to restart the game with a different character because I had invested all my hard-earned points in all the wrong attributes. The problem is that at no point does the game overtly state which are the ones you should invest on first, so on your first playthrough you have to be careful on how you spend experience points. If you make mistakes, get ready to replay the game all over again.
Furthermore, the lock-on system is an unreliable predicament that leads to some frustrating moments. The problem is that to target specific enemies you need to be facing in their direction, something that proves to be quite difficult when you’re surrounded by projectiles that drain large chunks of your life.
Lastly, a mission that I found particularly engaging was one in which the game adopts a Gradius style of gameplay. Unfortunately, that is the only mission in which you can pilot a small ship and I definitely feel like the game could have used more of these. Even when the action is quite simplistic, these mission provides the game with a nice change of pace, since it involves more than beating up incoming enemy soldiers.
The Red Star is a solidly put together beat ’em up that feels novel and varied. Unfortunately, the title is plagued by multiple issues that mar the experience: the pace is mechanical, some boss encounters are frustratingly difficult, the offline cooperative mode is nowhere to be seen in the PSP version and the lock-on system has its fair share of issues. Nevertheless, levels are short and fun, controls are intuitive and combat is engaging. In the end, if the idea of a beat ’em up that incorporates RPG elements sounds appealing to you, give The Red Star a chance. It won’t disappoint.