There’s a huge gap between games that look retro and play retro, and games that are faux-retro but play like something modern. Dystoria falls into the latter category, and is a 1st person/3rd person action shooter from developers Tri-Coastal Games. Let’s get our 80s synthwave music going and I’ll meet you at the spaceship for a briefing.
Who remembers the film The Last Starfighter? The excellent novelization by Alan Dean Foster will do, of course, but I really mean the brilliant 1984 Nick Castle film. If you don’t remember (or don’t know), it’s about a teen boy named Alex Rogan who lives in a trailer park in the middle of Nowheresville, USA. Apart from being a typical teen who wants big things, he also happens to be the crack ace at an arcade video game called “Starfighter”. When Alex cracks the high score, he’s promptly abducted by aliens and taken to fight in the war. It turns out that the arcade machine was simply a training and recruitment tool. What does this have to do with Dystoria? Well, it’s eerily similar in its premise, although somewhat different in execution.
The game’s opening video shows a kid being attracted to an arcade machine in a dark alley, but before he actually gets to playing the thing, he’s abducted and whisked off to the mothership. Like Alex, he’s told to participate in the fight, although Dystoria doesn’t give you a glimpse of your abductors. You’re given a ship, a choice of weapons, and off you go. In each stage, you’re required to grab the orbs and get out, although that’s the bare minimum. There are also gems, called “nucleons” to collect—which count as one of the game’s currencies—and enemies to destroy.
The levels themselves can be described as a cross between Starglider, Super Mario Galaxy, Descent, and Tron. Not as much Last Starfighter as I’d hoped, but enough to make me happy. Each stage is a bizarre, 3D shape that you traverse the surface of in search of enemies and crystals that amount to the game’s currency. The ship is far less starfighter and more a shooty hovercraft that sticks to whatever surface you’re on. I really suggest you watch a video to get the idea. It helps to think of it in terms of a ship floating on top of a box: the surface directly below the ship is, to all intents and purposes, the “floor”. However, let the ship go inside the box, and the new “floor” is whatever surface it happens to be stuck to. “Floor”, “Walls” and “Ceiling” are all relative terms in Dystoria.
While initially it may seem a simple task to perform to move around the stages, I found it far trickier in reality. The stages are really well built, and I actually played the first one several times before I’d found everything. It’s equal parts exploration and shooting at things with big guns, both being among my favourite activities. And all this isn’t reckoning with all the hidden spots and secrets. On top of that, each stage is ranked on the percentage of the enemies killed, the percentage of the nucleons found, and your time to complete. I found the time fairly lenient in the early stages, but later on you’re required to know your way around without stopping to figure out how you’re going to get from here to there, even with the map at hand to assist.
Initially, it felt like this was the sort of game that controllers were made for, but I found controller support poorly implemented. I tried both a Dualshock 4 and a standard USB PC controller, and both went horribly. Mouse and keyboard is the preferred method here, it seems, even though the game really does feel like something that would work on console. Controllers just aren’t precise enough to deal with the speed of the action.
A few stages in I ran into what was possibly the most frustrating problem with the game. Picture it, you’re happily zooming about the stage in your shooty hovercraft starship, when you’re hit by an enemy projectile. So you spin around, desperately looking for the fell foe, but it seems that the enemy is somehow in the sky above you. I have a very important question at this time. Do you suppose that there was a way to point the shooty bits of your hovercraft up? Nope! You’re stuck to the two dimensional plane you’re on, and you’ve just been exploded by a floating shoot shoot thingy. It doesn’t help that there’s no reticule to help with your aim, either. So back to the start of the stage with you. You have the option of either trying to find higher ground and blasting it from there, or waiting for the foe to condescend to come within range, but these tactics are only as good as your shields hold out, or as good as your ability to dodge incoming projectiles.
These problems aside, the game is a huge amount of fun to play, and more than that, the soundtrack is absolutely brilliant. There’s been a huge synthwave revival recently, especially in the wake of Netflix’s Stranger Things; Dystoria’s soundtrack is a peppier, upbeat version of that sort of music, but still definitely a treat to listen to. I do wish that there was the option to buy the soundtrack, but as of this review, the developers haven’t made it available.
Graphically, the game feels as retro as its soundtrack but without the blocky pixelated effect that usually accompanies retro. It looks classy, with the game’s environment rendered in a very Tron-like aesthetic, all glowing lines and black. Think of 80s neon signs and you’ve got the idea. That being said, there were fewer graphical options than you’d expect. The minimum specs for the game are fairly low, but it would have been nice to tweak the settings myself instead of being limited to a few preset option.
Another nice to have here would have been some sort of multiplayer deathmatch or nucleon race. The game and its environs look ideal for that sort of gaming, but sadly, this is not to be. Perhaps if this game does well, we’ll see a sequel with the ability to blast others. The whole mechanic of the game being a hovercraft locked onto a surface has the hallmarks of a brilliant multiplayer experience. Ah well.
Dystoria is a surprising amount of fun to play, and the exploration aspect of it was my favourite part, frankly. You’re getting a pretty damn good game, considering that Tri-Coastal Games has a total staff complement of two people, and for the price, you’re getting a most tubular game totally worth playing. There’s plenty of replay value here, since the odds are huge that you’re replaying it because you’re trying to find a place in a given level that you haven’t seen or explore before. And finding some of those places can be worse than trying to find a cassette tape in this day and age. There’s no heavy brainwork to be had here, just some good old nostalgia for a more day-glo and tie-dyed time.
You can pick up Dystoria on Steam at this link here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/516580/