Pilots, To Your Ships! – SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance Review
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360
If you’ve been on the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace lately, you’ll notice it’s full of garbage apps and rip-off titles like Who’s the Daddy? 2 and Angry Fish. However, every once in a while a wonderful gem is discovered in the dark-space of XBLIG, that has been crafted with care from an actual development studio, and not some sexist pig hiding in his mother’s basement. Today, I present to you a diamond in the rough: SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance, a four-player co-op, 2D twin-stick space shooter from Brain Shape Games. What makes this a great title, you ask? Well, let’s take a ride into space and find out!
SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance (or simply BSA for short) takes place in the not-so-distant future, where humanity has taken to space thanks to the discovery of the powerful energy known as Dark Matter. After many prosperous years among the stars, without a single trace of extraterrestrial life, our race began to think that we were truly alone among the stars…
But we were wrong. A powerful, hostile race known as the Constituents of Nothing (CoN) suddenly and violently attacked humanity with technology based on Dark Matter. With our weapons failing and Earth under attack, it seemed extinction was imminent. That was until the scientific breakthrough of Blue Energy, which we discovered possessed the power to stop Dark Matter. Using this new technology, humanity started to fight back against the CoN invasion.
Enter the player, who takes the role of a nameless pilot who fights in the human-CoN war. Originally a rookie fighter pilot, you end up being thrown into the frontlines as a first line of both offense and defense. Story in BSA is presented in small bits, through pre-mission briefings and in-round conversations; and while the tale isn’t epic on scale with Mass Effect or Halo, the universe created is a wonderful one, and the casual story fits the more arcade styled gameplay.
Speaking of which, the title’s gameplay is definitely its shining point. As mentioned above, BSA is a 2D twin-stick shooter, meaning one analogue stick controls ship direction while the other is used to fire. Players can fly and gun at the same time and in different directions with no restrictions. Ammo is also unlimited, so you need not worry about conserving rounds. Additionally, gamers have access to shields and two secondary weapons to help survive attacks from CoN forces. Controls are very simple and intuitive, and players of any age and skill will be able to pick up and master the game with little difficulty.
Of quick note is the BSA’s physics, which are surprisingly great. Since you’re in space, you’re not bound by either the laws of gravity or wind resistance, so there isn’t anything to slow down your momentum other than your engines. This means that you need to overcome your inertia to turn, which is in no way instantaneous; the faster you travel, the more energy required to change course. The addition of astrophysics is very welcome, as this not only adds a nice touch of depth to gameplay, but also gives an extra degree of believability to help immerse the gamer into BSA’s universe.
The overall goal in a mission is simple: fight to destroy all the attacking CoN ships while simultaneously defending and repairing one or more shield generators protecting a planet. To do this, players need to pick up salvage dropped by destroyed enemy ships and bring it to your generator. Drones within your ship and the generator automatically pick up and transfer salvage for you when you fly near them. Be careful though, as the more cargo you carry, the harder it is to fly. The extra weight means you have more energy to overcome while turning, limiting you maneuverability.
Gamers may take control of one of four different ships (Rio, Euphrates, Volga, and Protomac), each with their own stats and specialties. For example, the Rio is the fastest, most agile ship, and the Protomac’s maneuverability isn’t affected by the amount of salvage it’s carrying. These crafts are diverse enough for players to adapt their own play styles without issue, and can be mixed and matched as gamers see fit – even allowing all four players to be the same ship if they desire.
As the game progresses, more challenging enemies start to appear from the dark reaches of space. To counter the increasing threat, players are able to use collected salvage from missions to upgrade aspects of their ships. These parameters include top speed, canon strength, maneuverability, armor, extra weapon capacity, and acceleration. Whether you look to further augment a certain ship’s strengths or boost up its weaknesses for balance, you’re free to customize as you see fit, making for very diverse and tailored gameplay.
Something else that makes BSA stand out is its length, as it sports an abundance of missions to play through. Packed into the title are several planets to defend from the CoN invasion, with a handful of missions per planet. After each mission is cleared, players can return to them at any time via the Free Play mode, where their favourite moments can be relived. If you’ve got your eye on pure combat, then the Survival mode is the place to be. Here, you simply need to survive as many waves of increasing CoN forces as possible before being destroyed. Thanks to all these modes, BSA has a staggering amount of content across all its game modes – this isn’t a game you can fly through in an hour.
Overall, the title’s gameplay is highly addictive, diverse, and a whole lot of fun. If you have a full party of friends in a game, you’re in for a definite treat. Playing alone however, while still enjoyable, isn’t nearly as entertaining. When playing by yourself, you’ll notice just how overwhelming the enemy forces can seem, especially when you need to defend two generators at once. The title is definitely still playable and beatable, but the amount of joy in multiplayer makes the title more of a party game. Bottom line is you should never go solo, take a wookiee with you!
Unfortunately though, a couple issues hold the title back a bit. First, and most painful, is the occasional game crash. In some instances, players may encounter a critical error with the game, which causes the system to return to the Dashboard (or Xbox Home as it’s now called). While actually quite rare, the chance for it to happen is there, and when it does happen it breaks all immersion.
The second ding in BSA’s armor is its text size, which in some instances is absolutely straining on the eyes. Mainly in the codex and instruction manual sections, the text size is remarkably tiny and coupled with a robotic-looking font that’s very hard to see. I personally had to squint, or move closer to my TV in order to read it clearly in places. Most players who have HDTVs may need to follow my example, but I fear that anyone still running an SDTV will be flat out unable to read certain segments. Thankfully, this only pertains to additional information, as the storyline text is perfectly legible.
To complement the wonderful gameplay are equally superb graphics, which utilize a very interesting style. All in-game graphics appear as though they were drawn on paper and coloured with markers, then cut out and used as set pieces – a style not unlike that found in South Park. What this does is create a very simple, yet charming, design that appeals to both adults and children alike. This uncomplicated approach is makes for an aesthetically pleasing and glitch free experience.
Also worth praise is the title’s soundtrack, which is nothing short of wonderful. The composer, Sean Beeson, uses driving percussion rhythms underneath long, brooding melodies on brass and strings, with occasional full choir on background chord progressions. Add in a little bright mallet percussion spice here and there, and you have a soundtrack that is truly commendable. This is one composer you’re going to have to watch for in the future!
In closing, SCHAR: Blue Shield Alliance is one of the best Xbox Live Indie Games out there, and is certainly worth your time and Microsoft Points. With entertaining co-op gameplay, simple yet interesting graphics, and a shiver-invoking score, this is a fantastic game to sit down and play with friends and family. Strap into your ship of choice, and start fighting off those CoNs, soldier!
Final Score: 4.5 / 5.0 and a shiny war medal for exemplary service!
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