Ah, good old bullet hell games. They evolved from more standard shmup games back in the 1990s, and players have been dodging bullets ever since. Most of these games are either side or top scroll, but now we have a bullet hell game with full 360 degree movement and a world to explore. Enter Blue Rider, a twin-stick bullet hell shooter that will test your reflexes and your patience.
No story to be had here, Blue Rider is you in your ship vs the hordes of scum that come within sight of your guns. The game is a twin-stick shooter, and enemies can come from all sides. Unlike most bullet hell games, Blue Rider is light on power-ups, although instead of lives you are given a health bar. To pump up the difficult, the game is also light on health recharges. Many of the enemies are virtual bullet sponges, and to cap it all off, if you die, then it’s game over, although any worlds you’ve unlocked remain so. You lose your power-ups, though, so it’s not ALL sunshine and roses.
I was initially a little disappointed to see only nine worlds, but it becomes apparent that nine worlds is plenty, and only the tenacious player will ever see it to the end. It becomes evident VERY quickly that this is not a game for the hasty. As a wise Ent once said, “We must not be hasty”, and trying to go through quickly will get you killed in about the same amount of time. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse. For one, completing a level is an achievement in its own right. But completing each level takes time. And there are no checkpoints, so you can happily take upward of 25 minutes to complete a stage only to be blown to many, many smithereens by the stage boss. And I tell you, those bosses are no joke. Having to complete those 25 plus minutes again to try and figure out a boss pattern becomes old very quickly.
None of this is helped, of course, by the fact that your ship steers in much the same manner as a whale on crutches (Ed: Err..what?). Movement is ponderous, as if your pilot proxy has to translate your instructions into …whatever language it speaks before making a move on the joysticks. The ship takes a little time to start and then a little more time to stop once you’ve released the controls, meaning you often have to do this back-and-forth dance as you try to get an enemy in your line of fire. And in a game where accuracy should be counting, this makes it very hard to be accurate. The shoulder buttons can be used to speed things up slightly, but the speed bump isn’t notable enough to of any decent use, and if anything, offers even less accuracy than without, because this delay in starting and stopping is more pronounced.
Graphically, Blue Rider feels generic. I’m sure I’ve seen those trees in those colors in a handful of other games, for example. It looks very next gen, but that look is also becoming synonymous with mass-produced artwork and textures. This doesn’t stop it from being very pretty, though, and I did like the crazy variation in the bosses and the enemies. In fact, they get more variation than your weapons do. Your weapons are much like men’s shoes: two real choices, and neither much good for mopping up enemies. There was never a point where I felt I was making any progress on powering up the weapons because even some enemy missiles, which are meant to be shot down, can soak up a good few bullets before being destroyed. This isn’t just making things difficult, it’s making them frustrating. You also have a secondary weapon in the form of missiles, but these are a limited resource, and get replenished just a little more often than your health. I usually ended up saving these for the boss fights (and often died before getting to use them. Oh well!).
I attempted to play the game via PS4 Link on the PS Vita, but this turned out somewhat uncomfortable, because the R2 and L2 buttons are mapped to the rear touch pad. There are no control reassignment options to set the “shoot” button to X, so you are far better off playing it on the PS4 directly (or on your PC if you own the Steam version).
I hate to hate on Blue Rider, though, because it does try very hard to be something new in a sea of sameness. Neither the bullet hell genre nor the twin-stick shooter genre are well represented on the PS4 (although there are plenty of both on Steam), and despite the difficulty, it can be fun to play in short bursts. The repetitive nature of it, and the lack of feeling any progress until you’ve learned the layout of the stages and the patterns of fire of the bosses can make for a somewhat frustrating experience. This is further exacerbated by a lack of mid-level checkpointing or a lives system.
I feel as if Blue Rider can’t really decide what it wants to be: an arcade-style hard-as-frig shooter (in which case, shorter, more straightforward, less exploratory levels might have worked better) or an exploratory-style shooter in the style of Pixeljunk Shooter (in which case, a tweak of the power-up system or a drop in the difficulty or the inclusion of an “easy” mode might have worked better). Its appeal at present, however, is fairly niche, and those who appreciate the difficulty and understand where the game is trying to be will find much to love to here.