It isn’t everyday that you get a chance to defeat the final boss of a game less than a minute after you start. Then again, Retro/Grade isn’t exactly what I consider your everyday game. The brainchild of 24 Caret Games, this PSN exclusive meshes the shooter and rhythm genres into a single, explosive experience. It also does it in a manner opposite what you would normally expect too: backwards. That is right, the entire game is played in reverse. Literally.
As a result of your victory over the massive final boss, the space / time continuum has been disrupted and everything sent spiraling backwards. You begin the game as Rick Rocket, facing off against the final boss, who is quickly defeated with a few shots. Shortly after the credits begin rolling, they will immediately start going the other direction. This is where the fun begins.
The crux of the gameplay is quickly introduced as you relive your battle with the final boss in reverse. As things are rolling backwards across the screen, you will need to “retrace” your steps in order to succeed. This means that the all of the shots that you previously fired to destroy enemies will need to be absorbed back into your ship as they trail across the screen. At the same time, your enemies’ shots will make their way back to their ships, returning from the left side of the screen. Even the score moves in reverse; you start off each stage with a high score and as you progress, points will be deducted.
Now that you see the shooter influence, let’s talk about the rhythm aspect. The entire game is played to the rhythm of an original, thumping, electronica / techno soundtrack. Each stage is set to a different track, ten in total, and they are the heart and soul of the Retro/Grade experience. The tracks range from fast paced overtures to pseudo-ballads. The action that you experience mimics the pacing and style of the tracks; the pattern of the shots and enemy waves correspond to the patterns and rhythm of the music. It is an interesting concept that actually works very well. Once you get into the groove, the rhythmic aspect actually makes it a lot easier to navigate the more complicated stages of the game. That isn’t to say that this is an easy game, it can be anything but.
24 Caret Games isn’t blind to the fact that the game’s soundtrack is a gem of its own. The official soundtrack is available alongside the game on the PlayStation Store. It can be purchased separately or bundled with the game at a discount. If you like this genre of music, these are definitely tracks you will want to load up for play outside of your gameplay sessions.
You should know that you don’t have free reign over the playing field as you would in a normal shooter; instead Rick Rocket’s ship is confined to moving up and down across anywhere between 2 and 5 colored “lanes”, depending on the difficulty selected. The color coding is similar to that of the Rock Band or Guitar Hero playing fields. As the shots reach your ship, you will need to press the X button just as it reaches your hull in order to absorb it in an effective manner. The reason this is done like this is that the game is designed to be played with a Rock Band / Guitar Hero guitar controller.
The game judges you both on frequency of the shots you collect and enemies shot / dodge as well as the timing of your button press, just like a music game. The better that you do, the more points that you are awarded. Additional bonuses can be earned by racking up “streaks” and triggering multipliers both by collecting dropped power ups and maintaining your rhythm without any misses. Things start off slow and simple, but before you know it, the screen is literally filled with bullets and enemies and you will be navigating between them all smoothly. At least that is what you are supposed to do.
As with most things, the details can make all of the difference in the world. This is one area that Retro/Grade definitely excels, specifically in the visuals. The game uses a sleek and colorful 2.5 dimensional visual style, which really serves both of the represented genres well. It looks and feels like a natural shmup while providing a very nice playing field for the rhythmic aspect. The colored lanes make it a lot easier to judge distances and pacing, which is greatly appreciated when things get hectic.
One of the simpler details of the game, which I grew to admire extensively, is the fact that Rick bobs his head to the beat of the music in the ship’s cockpit. Sure, this is just a minor visual thing, but it is this attention to detail that sets the bar for the rest of the game. All of the ships and enemies are meticulously animated and detailed, down to individual ship parts. The same can be said for the planetary settings that fly by your ship.
In addition to playing through the 10 stage campaign on six different difficulty levels, gamers will also have their hands full with Retro/Grade’s challenge mode. These specially designed stages, which vary greatly in difficulty, will put your skills in the game to the test in a journey across the proverbial universe. This mode offers challenges that spread out across branching paths depicted as the solar system with well over 100 levels in total. Beating one level or better yet, completing its goal, will open up one or more paths to other challenges / planets.
Challenges include perfecting difficult sections of various stages or perhaps playing with alterations to the controls or standard mechanics of the game. This is meant to both breath new life into the game after the completion of the campaign as well as help train you to be a better player. It definitely succeeds in both; the challenge mode provides you with a chance to get quick fixes in the game world without committing to full stages which can take a while to complete.
Retro/Grades only real downfall comes in terms of the experience’s brevity; not everyone will find extended replay value in the experience. Sure, the challenge mode and multiple difficulty levels breath new life into the game after your first run through, but they won’t keep you coming back once you have completed them. The only thing that will do that, if anything, is the game’s leaderboard support. Like a classic arcade situation, the driving force meant to bring you back time after time is competition amongst your friends; the game’s leaderboards track your scores and achievements against other players all over the world.
Thanks to the various difficulty levels and power ups, there are numerous opportunities to alter your scores, so the competition can get fierce. Of course, that only means something if you are into that sort of thing, which I happen to be. The variation that comes in your score thanks to these powerups is easily reflected on the leaderboards as even a very small change in your score can move you up or down quite a few spots.
In the end, Retro/Grade proves to be an interesting experiment in the combination of two drastically different genres. The formula yields a very potent and enjoyable result, I just am not sure that it’s appeal will last for those who don’t desire the classic arcade-leaderboard style competition. There is plenty to do, thanks to the challenges and multiple difficulties, and not to mention some surprisingly entertaining unlockables that tie in characters from other indie darlings such as Minecraft and Super Meat Boy. Once you see it all though, there isn’t much to drive you back, which is something that games in both these genres need to do. That is, of course, unless you have a friend or two who enjoys it as much as you; then the leaderboard battles could last from here to eternity.