Reviews

Steredenn: Binary Stars

As you may recall, we first covered Steredenn: Binary Stars in our coverage of EGX Rezzed a month or so ago. Today we see a more in-depth review of Pixelnest Studio’s Roguelike SHMUP on the Nintendo Switch, Steredenn: Binary Stars.

As regular readers might know by now, I’m a huge fan of SHMUPs, or for those not in the know Shoot ‘Em Ups. Harking back to the days of my youth, as well as COUNTLESS hours pumped into Ikaruga on the GameCube while I was at university.

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And with the, somewhat, recent popularity of the Roguelike genre and their procedurally generated level designs were always going to find their way into other genres, and Steredenn: Binary Stars is just that; a wonderful mashup of SHMUP and Roguelike gameplay. Gone are the days of trying to memorise enemy patterns and learning how best to avoid their damage and retaliate with glorious violence. Arrived have the days of relying on pure skill, game mechanic knowledge and maybe a little bit of luck to work your way through the levels.

So, what makes Steredenn: Binary Stars different, beyond its procedurally generated levels? In many ways the game mechanics themselves. While many SHMUP tiles either use the “Ikaruga” model (for lack of a better term) where you get no power ups and just play through as best you can with what you’re given from the start or use the option to become more powerful using powerups gained from killing enemies. Steredenn: Binary Stars treats it a lot more like you’d expect from a roguelike game.

You start by picking your ship, which comes with a basic weapon and a special ability. Throughout the levels you’ll see enemies drop alternative weapons which you must decide if you want to pick up or not as you can only carry two weapons at a time. These range from your standard straight-line blaster, to homing missiles and even “bots” that appear where you “shoot” them and then act like a turret. Your weapon choice might be made from a gameplay preference or from whatever might get powered up by your end of level rewards.

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You’ll see that was a beautiful segue into the end of level/stage rewards. As you get to the end of a stage, you’ll face a boss – the design of these bosses seems to be roughly the same, usually bigger versions of basic enemies (to begin with anyway) but their attacks and movement patterns seems to be random each time. Upon killing the boss you’ll get your health refilled, and a selection of power ups will drop. These aren’t different weapons, but buffs to your ship etc. These range from health/armour boosts, combo improving tools, shields or weapon type buffs.

My best run so far was a “Full Bot Run” as I’ve dubbed it. I was in the Slow but Tough ship, and by the end of the first level both of my weapons were Bot style weapons (which was accidental) and after killing the first boss I got a 15% buff to Bot weapons powerup, so I kept running the Bots, and upon killing the second boss I got another Bot powerup, and again on the third boss. Unfortunately, I died before killing the fourth boss, but my little Bot friends were kicking all kinds of ass!

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Which moves me onto the only slight downside I’ve found so far which is that there doesn’t seem to be any level “Seeds”, once you’ve played a game and died, you’ll find you can’t repeat that version of it (that I’ve found anyway). It’s always an excellent feature in other roguelikes such as Binding of Issac, that whenever you find a particularly OP seed, you screenshot or jot down the seed code so you can go back to it and feel good about yourself. I’m possibly being dumb, but I’d have thought this would be an obvious feature to include.

But the end of level/stage powerups can make or break a playthrough, if you start focusing on a weapon type (on purpose or not) and don’t get powerups for it, you’re forced to either try and find the “right” weapon types for your powerups, or to take defensive powerups and play the long game rather than the hyper offensive playstyle. It really keeps you on your toes!

Steredenn: Binary Stars makes excellent use of the, often popular among indie titles, pixel art graphic style. This always suits the small Switch screen – but also scales up nicely on the full-size TV screen as well.

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While Steredenn: Binary Stars is available on multiple platforms, including mobile, at EGX REZZED it was shown off on the Switch, and we jumped at the opportunity to get the game on that very platform. Why? Because it is a perfect game for on-the-go play! Just like other roguelikes and indie titles, Steredenn: Binary Stars is a game that you can pick up and put down for short bursts of play time. Be it between tube stops on your commute, or in my case, during your lunch hour from work. Those kinds of times are where quick and “easy” (more on that later games come into their own on the Switch. Times when you certainly don’t have enough time to get anything of note done in your bigger world titles like Breath of the Wild or Skyrim, but you can have multiple attempts at taking on the baddies in Steredenn: Binary Stars.

And you’ll need multiple attempts! SHMUPS in general can be quite unforgiving, and while I might have performed well on my first attempt at EGX REZZED, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, as a fan of the genre, that I’ve been struggling to get much further since owning the game. The aforementioned “Full Bot Run” is the furthest I’ve got so far, getting to, but not killing the fourth boss. The main game mode, at least, doesn’t have a difficulty setting that I’ve spotted (not that I’ve looked for one as I’m very stubborn). You just keep throwing your time at it until you win or give up for that play session at least until the annoyance that you’ve not killed that fourth boss returns and you go back half an hour later for another go!

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What does work well though is the multiple ship unlocks that there are, each boss you defeat unlocks another ship you can play as. Which really breaks up the game play – you don’t worry too much that you haven’t beaten the game yet, but more that you need to just kill that next boss (having to start from the beginning every time of course) to get that next unlock in the hopes that it’ll work better for your playstyle to then help you beat that next boss. Eventually that “next boss” will be the final boss. That’s the dream!

This has led to my other gripe about the game. Which is the ship speeds. This is one of the variables between ships, of the ones I’ve unlocked so far, it’s the “standard” ship, the “slow but tanky” ship and the “fast but fragile” ship. But both the standard and tanky variants are so slow that you really struggle to dodge enemy attacks – especially in the bullet hell that is common from bosses. Which is a staple of the genre – dodging in and out of attacks and not getting hit. Especially when there is no “healing” between killing bosses.

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I actually find myself doing best in the tanky ship rather than the fast ship which arguably suits the classic SHMUP style, mostly because it can absorb that much more punishment, and its unique ability is that much easier to use. The standard ship seemingly has no use to me, it’s still too slow to dodge anything, but dies faster anyway – so might as well go straight to the tanky ship once its unlocked. I’m hoping the next ship I unlock fits my playstyle better still…

Talking of which, I need to unlock that next ship, so I’ll wrap it up there.

Steredenn: Binary Stars is out now on just about everything you can play games on. Switch, PC, PS4, Xbone and iOS. If you like SHMUPs and/or roguelikes you should take a look at this title, its difficulty is a staple of the genre, and I love it! I see it becoming one of my most frequently played games on our Switch so would highly recommend adding it to your collection.

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