Triangle's Shooting Love 200X managed to find a Western release on Xbox 360 recently and that would suggest that while the numbers have certainly dwindled, there are still enough fans of old-school top-down shooters to be found out there. Many developers have tried – with varying levels of success – to breathe life into a genre that has gone very much unchanged over the years. OPQAM is one of them and while their new title may not be one for the purists, Project Root is certainly an interesting take on things.
The first thing you'll notice when firing up Project Root is that it feels like a hybrid. The free-roaming play featuring both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat is reminiscent of the likes of EA's classic Strike series – Jungle Strike, most notably - while the constant rain of neon-infused bullets of all shapes and sizes will put you in mind of the likes of Aero Fighters or Axelay. Added to that is a base level of difficulty that will see even the most hardened of players start to pull their hair out. Our own failures to proceed through even the first level on the easiest difficulty setting were generally enjoyable for sure, but we're sad to say that the cause wasn't just down to a lack of skill or because the game was coming up with innovative attack patterns. It was down to a multitude of poor design decisions.
With most shooting games that tend toward the "bullet hell" style of play, your ship is locked toward the base of the screen and it's a given that enemies will always appear from the top portion of the playing area. This is so that you have at least a chance of seeing what's ahead of you in order to be able to take evasive action or to target your shots. The knock-on effect of this is that while you can usually move in all four directions within the visible on-screen area, you're never controlling the eventual path that the game takes. Project Root allows you to roam wherever you wish, providing a camera control on one stick, with your steering being on the other. Your ship is still locked way too close to the bottom of the screen, however. The problem with this is that while it is initially very freeing and provides a new take on things, you'll end up being blown out of the sky on multiple occasions by things that you can't actually see. If you turn around to take out a tank, there's every chance that you might be turning your back on an enemy which has just started firing homing missiles at you. You can't specifically hear them launching in the heat of battle, so you successfully destroy the tank that you were going for, then spin back round to proceed toward your goal, only to find that five missiles that you couldn't possibly have seen or avoided all hit you at the same time. If that happens early on in a level, it isn't a problem. When you've been playing for 15 minutes and are clinging on to the last dregs of your final life bar, it's somewhat annoying, to say the least.
This is mentioned early on in the review since despite some genuinely fun and enthralling passages of play, frustration is the overwhelming feeling that you'll take away from Project Root. The somewhat lazy enemy aircraft attack patterns that all but require you to just circle strafe to take them out notwithstanding, the game initially threatens to be an absolute corker. We had high review scores in mind with half an hour or so under our belts, for sure. But that slowly ebbed away as we suffered unfair death after unfair death, and saw more flaws that we really could have lived without.
For example, the levelling system introduces some strange difficulty peaks and troughs. Earlier levels are tough, as the ship is incredibly weak and has terrible firepower. You don't even start with a full energy bar until you spend some earned XP on that particular upgrade. You can't upgrade on the fly, and the first proper level after the tutorial will take around 25 minutes to finish, providing you don't have to restart. So before you get any upgrades, you have to somehow fight through and beat hundreds of enemies with your weak guns and even weaker shields. We're not joking (our livestream of the game pretty much stands as testament) when we say that we tried to get through the first level on the easiest difficulty setting eight or nine times before meeting with any success. A quick upgrade to the cannons later, and we went through levels two, three, and four on our first attempt.
This kind of thing is representative of the game as a whole, unfortunately. It's as if things were planned out and going well, but then new parts have been thrown in without the development team truly thinking about how they would affect the way that the game plays.
Plus, while they were doing that, they've overlooked the occasional technical issue. We've run into multiple situations where enemies were caught on cliff faces. They could shoot us, but our bullets couldn't touch them. Sometimes a power-up will be dropped too close to a ledge too, meaning that you can't pick it up. Then there's the storyline. Its fine as a whole, but you'll miss massive chunks of it, due to it being represented at the bottom right of the screen during play in absolutely miniscule text. On the upside, the game does tell you pretty clearly what you need to do next, via a target arrow next to your ship and mission reminders at the top right of the screen. But as to why you're doing it…well…unless you've got your magnifying glass out, you won't know. Then there's the basic balancing of the game. When you're reach a tough section, you won't see a single power-up for five minutes. When you're taking out the odd straggler on your way to the next area though, every single enemy you take down will leave a power-up behind. You can only carry one at a time, so it makes little sense.
We could have lived with those problems. The glitched enemies and the tiny text don't cause that much of an issue in the long run (although the former was responsible for ending our game prematurely more than once.) But what prevents Project Root from being something that we can seriously recommend is something that we've already mentioned – the positioning of the ship. Even if you ignore the oversights and get to the point where you're enjoying things, a guided shot that was fired seemingly an hour ago and which you can't see, will end up taking your ship out for the last time. With no checkpoints to fall back on, and missions that can take 45 minutes each, that's a massive, game-breaking problem. It completely takes away any thoughts of this being a skill-based game, and relegates it to being one where you'll only win if you're lucky.
That just isn't fun.
Project Root has its heart in the right place, but the lack of forethought from the developers – who absolutely must have seen some of the gameplay's design flaws, given that they appear in every single level at least a handful of times – prevents it from ever reaching its potential. When you're not feeling that frustration, you'll likely be bored with circle-strafing your way through every single level. There's scope here for a good game were a bit more work put in, but the smart money says that you'll be way more frustrated with Project Root's patently unfair gameplay than you are impressed by it.