Soldner-X (or more properly, Söldner-X, a German term meaning “mercenary X”) was a side-scrolling bullet hell shoot-em up (“shmup”) game released in 2007 for the PS3. It was fairly well-received, and received a follow-up game, Soldner-X 2:Final Prototype in 2010. Today’s review is the PlayStation Vita port of the game. I suit up, and jump into the cockpit of my fighter ship because my trigger-finger is itchy. Let’s see how well the Vita version stands up on its own, shall we?

The story goes that in 2106 A.D., after the Virus Wars, the galaxy is in danger from a technologically superior alien race known as the D’aarg. Humanity revives the Soldner-X project, improves it, and then unleashes it on the evil aliens, because kicking alien butt is exactly what it’s all about. That, and dodging more bullets than a gang shootout in Downtown Central.

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What makes this game so interesting is that it’s not your ordinary bullet hell shmup. The original point of the bullet hell genre was to drain as many coins from you in the video arcade as possible. Coins aren’t the motivator here, though, since you’ve already paid for the game: challenge is. The days are over, though, when people used to be able to put in the time required to play a bullet hell game to perfection, memorising every nuance of the route through the wall of enemy fire. So Sidequest Studios, the developers of Soldner-X 2, came up with a brilliant solution: dynamic difficulty. The aim of it was to provide you with a pleasant experience, rewarding both clever play and just the sheer ability to survive. It doesn’t really matter how you play it, if you enjoy side-scrolling shooters, odds are you’ll like this. In fact, it’s a far more pleasurable experience than the hardcore bullet hell games like DoDonPachi. Play well, and the difficulty ramps up a bit to match, start faring worse, and it adjusts itself downward again. The problem with doing a review like this in text is that without actually seeing the game in action, it’s difficult to give you an idea of precisely what I mean. Ooh, I know! Here’s a gameplay clip of Soldner-X 2. Watch it and hopefully things will click.

Most shooter games feature a chain multiplier of some variety, and Soldner-X 2’s is somewhat different from other shooters’. Here, you have to collect rings that explode from enemy ships, and simply collecting rings boosts your multiplier. The chain meter ticks downwards as long as you keep firing without collecting these rings, though, so if you’re after high scores, your strategy will be based around this notion. Naturally, enemy ships will also drop power ups, which can do a number of things from increasing the power of your weapons a little, speeding you up, increasing the multiplier, to just giving you points. As well, there are several hidden “keys” in each level, and unlocking the full game requires that you collect all these keys. It’s a brilliant way to both increase replayability, and help increase the player’s skill, since the base game ends at stage five of seven: replay the levels enough to look for the keys, and you’ll doubtless improve your play style.

Even after you’ve conquered the main game itself, there are the challenges to attempt, which pits you against the game’s levels with specific objectives in mind. For example, the first challenge, Survivor, challenges you to complete the first three stages on a single life. It sounds hard because it is. It’s called a challenge for a reason, after all. And there are a ton of them, too, so you’ll have plenty to work through just collecting each challenge. The challenges aren’t just there for the sake of the challenge, though, since completing the challenges earn you different rewards based on the challenge you perform.

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Graphically, the game is beautiful, and the Vita’s wide OLED screen makes it a perfect match for Soldner-X 2. The ship models are crisp, colourful, and eycatching. Even more so are the game’s backgrounds. Each stage has a gorgeously-crafted background which places you in the action. For example, the third stage, my favourite, is set in a forest, and it’s so beautifully animated that you’ll wonder if it were pre-rendered or not. Sadly, the background is nothing more than pretty visuals, and your ship has no real effect on it. Not a terrible loss, since the battle in the foreground is the main attraction here, but I’d love to be able to just watch the background animations fly by without having to worry about enemies. The game’s sound and music has a very arcade-y feel to it, which seems appropriate somehow. Much of the music fades into the background while you blast enemies from the sky, but if you turn the music off, it’s immediately noticeable that something’s missing.

One of the minor annoyances I found was that the game’s main menu remains inactive while it communicates with the server, meaning a small wait before getting into the action. If you happen to turn the wifi off, you’ll face endless prompts while it tries to turn the wifi on again. My issue is that the game doesn’t respect the Vita’s wifi settings–if it’s off, it’s usually because I’m nowhere near my home wifi, and anything that prevents a player from jumping straight into the action is likely to make the player think twice before firing up the game again. Yes, the online high score table is awesome, but not always feasible. The other issue I found is that the tutorial message confirmation button is triangle. When the shoot button is X, it means reaching up past the two superweapon buttons to read the tutorial. I’ve inadvertently activated the wrong weapon a number of times while trying to read the tutorial messages. Perhaps a tap on the rear touch pad might have been a better way to activate these messages.

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Soldner X-2 is still one of the best side-scrolling shooters I’ve played in a long time. I misspent a lot of my youth in the arcades playing the likes of Fantasy Zone, Silkworm, and Gradius (and much of my older life playing the likes of Geometry Wars), so this game definitely appeals. It’s also nice to know that, despite my aging reflexes, the game can make me feel as if I can hold my own against the hordes of aliens (until I see the high-score table, anyhow). Praise should definitely go to the dynamic difficulty, and the fact that playability was put above challenge. If you enjoy your casual shooters, get this. Heck, even if you’re a hardcore shooter fan, get this, because the game will definitely be up to the challenge.

Final Score: 8 Starship Prawns out of 10

Detailed Information:
Developer: Sidequest Studios
Publisher: EastAsiaSoft
Platform: PlayStation Vita (reviewed), PS3
Age Rating: E
RRP: R149 (base game–bundle available)
Website: http://www.soldner-x.com/sx2/