Icarus-X Review: High on polish, short on personality

The vertical shooter is becoming a well-worn staple of the app store and for every worthy entry to the genre, a multitude of disposable titles conspire to bury them. One of the newer and more notable vertical shooters is The Quadsphere‘s Icarus-X.

While many vertical shooters choose to be retro, Icarus-X embraces modern presentation with fluid 3D graphics and vivid colors. And despite packing such visual muscle, the game plays well even on older devices like my iPhone 3G, even when the screen is full of bullets and enemy ships.

Anyone who ever frequented arcades may remember looking over the older kids’ shoulders, in awe of their score amassing powers, studying their techniques, hoping that just some small amount of their skill might rub off on you when your turn came to play. The days of cabinet gaming may be in decline, but Icarus-X features downloadable replays, making it possible to watch other players’ games, much as we used to do in those arcades. So, if you’re in awe of n0name0 and want to see how he managed to achieve his massive score, you can download his game and do just that. Icarus-X also features a Slow-Motion Practice mode, where stages may be played at 100%, 75%, 50% or 25% their usual speed, allowing players to learn attack patterns and counter maneuvers at their own pace, and to hone their skills for the main game. With the vertical shooter genre largely catering to hardcore shooter fans, accessibility features such as these may make the game more appealing to the uninitiated.

Five stages of bullet hell await, in which wave upon wave of enemy ships will pelt your fighter with metal rain. Your ship — the Icarus-X — can be controls using either Direct or Relative touch controls. Direct will keep the ship positioned just above your finger, while Relative controls allow you to touch and swipe anywhere on the screen to move your ship. The Icarus-X will fire automatically whenever your finger is on the screen. Defeating every enemy will allow you to amass score multipliers and also build your combo gauge. Let even a single ship slip past you, however, and your score multiplier will reset. When the combo gauge is full, you can double-tap anywhere on screen to unleash a barrage of missiles against on-screen opponents. Stages are relatively short, but the game encourages you to replay, to perfect your skills and to constantly improve your score.

Likes:

Polish: Icarus-X is extremely well-polished. Controls are tight, the game performs well even on aging devices, and the graphics are crisp and clean. It’s a good looking game, and it feels right to play. The backgrounds get a little repetitive by the end of each stage, but they’re good-looking and never distracting. The accessibility features are well-thought out and implemented. Polish in every facet.

Bosses: The Icarus-X is a good looking ship and the enemy fighters are pretty nice looking as well, but it’s the boss ships that steal the show. They’re big, deadly looking and awesome, and they spew bullets and laser beams with reckless abandon.

Achievements: The game includes a list of achievements, most of which are pretty difficult to achieve. Players going for full completion will have a long and difficult trek ahead of them.

Dislikes:

Generic Feeling: Despite the polish, accessibility features and massive boss ships, Icarus-X still feels a little bit hollow. The soundtrack of generic techno beats doesn’t help matters at all, and there’s no common thread to tie the stages together. A scrap of a story might help, but the game lacks even that. The landscapes for each stage are attractive, but they give no sense of discernible location, and one does not necessarily lead into the next. As an end result, the game feels like a loose amalgam of disparate levels and enemy ships, each having no connection to the others and the fight being waged for ambiguous reasons. You’re doing it for the high scores, I guess. But when you’re ranked so low that you can’t even find yourself on the leaderboards, and harbor no delusions or ambitions about cracking the top 100, who really gives a damn about leaderboards? Hey Game, you’d better find another bone to throw. You’re losing me.

No Local Scoreboards: Once again, I harbor no grand delusions of cracking the top 100 on the global boards. So how about keeping track of just my local scores, just so that I can continually attempt to best myself?

Icarus-X ranks among the better quality vertical shooters on the app store, though it’s not my favorite. For me, the game falls a bit flat in not having a great deal of personality, and in its emphasis on global high scores (which leaves the casual player kind of out in the cold). A little more variety in opposition wouldn’t be a bad thing either. The boss fights can be pretty epic, though, and the game is well-made, with great attention paid to details and accessibility features. The developer has said that the next big update is still being designed, but may include a major alternative way of playing, perhaps with power-ups, and completely reworked background graphics.

Icarus-X is developed by The Quadsphere, and sells for $1.99. Reviewed at version 1.0.1 on an iPhone 3G.

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