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Oftentimes, the tail end of a console's life cycle is when some of the coolest titles come out. This goes without saying, since by then, developers have gotten to know the console hardware inside and out and know how best to exploit its resources. US-based Developer WayForward has a short history of being "WayBackward" in that regard. When the Game Boy Color was all but phased out, WayForward came out with Shantae, one of the best action adventure games I ever played for the Game Boy Color. It was a fun romp with incredible visuals, a charismatic protagonist, and a happy blend of elements akin to games like Castlevania 2, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and even some elements of Dance Dance Revolution thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the Game Boy Advance was hitting its stride at the time and the game was all but ignored.
Cut to 2005. The Game Boy Advance is slowly being phased out in favor of Nintendo's new handheld, the DS. But that didn't stop WayForward from developing Sigma Star Saga for the Game Boy Advance. Sigma Star Saga can best be compared to the 8-bit NES game The Guardian Legend, in that it features on-foot exploration segments as well as spaceship shooter segments. For those who are unfamiliar with The Guardian Legend, think of Sigma Star Saga as Legend of Zelda meets Gradius. From what I understand, a healthy portion of RPG fans out there are also fans of intense shooters so an RPG/shooter hybrid does not seem all that far fetched. In any case, Sigma Star Saga is an ambitious title that has a lot to live up to, especially given how good Shantae was in the eyes of critics and players alike. So, does Sigma Star Saga live up to those lofty expectations? We're about to find out.
Story is one of the major draws of the RPG genre. After all, games like Final Fantasy or Digital Devil Saga typically have far more involved storylines than your average shooter or platformer (i.e. Thunder Force or Mega Man.) Sigma Star Saga's story centers around Ian Recker, an elite fighter pilot who leads a squadron called Team Sigma. Earth has been under attack by an alien race called the Krill for decades, and the game starts out with Recker and his team on a mission to destroy an invading Krill warship. The mission is successful thanks to Recker's heroics, so Commander Tierney has a special mission for him. It seems the Krill have plans for a massive new weapon, and Tierney wants Recker to act as a double agent in the employ of the Krill in order to gain intel on their plans. The Krill have been known to employ humans to gain intel on Earth, so it shouldn't be too hard for Recker to get among their ranks.
Recker accepts the mission and the two share a victory drink. However, the drink Tierney gave Recker was a near-fatal dose of poison. Recker wakes up in the sick bay of a Krill starbase and is told that he was found in a maximum security jail cell on an Earth starbase. Normally, humans in Recker's poisoned condition would be left for dead, but Commander Bloss of this particular Krill starbase insisted that Recker be treated. After all, only the most lethal and misanthropic of Earth's criminals would be drugged and imprisoned as harshly as Recker was; which is why Bloss thinks he'd be a valuable asset to the Krill cause. Recker is then fitted with a Krill symbiote that enhances his physical prowess and allows him to utilize Krill powers, such as being able to interface with Krill starships and later on equip himself with various Krill accessories.
These humble beginnings set into motion a six chapter tale of intrigue that spans multiple worlds. There is some moral ambiguity in that the humans and the Krill are not entirely what they seem, and Recker will find his loyalties repeatedly tested.
The small cast of characters is fairly archetypical, but still quite cool and interesting. One character that doesn't quite fall into typical RPG archetypes is Recker himself. For all intents and purposes, Recker is a jock. He's "team captain" of the Sigma squadron, and though he can be a self-affirmative jackass to his fellow pilots, they still think he's the greatest. You know, archetypical jock. He has a player-coach relationship with Commander Tierney and trusts him completely... but should he? In any case, even when he's cut down from popular jock status on Earth to lowly worm status among the Krill, he maintains his jockish snarkiness. Since most console RPGs come from Japan, their protagonists subscribe more to Japanese archetypes; but since WayForward is a US developer, it was a nice change of pace to play a protagonist bearing a more American one.
The game has two leading ladies (one human and one Krill) and a total of four endings. The game is fairly linear and there aren't any choose-your-own-adventure style choices. In fact, you're never really told if/when your actions will influence an ending, though one of the initial endings you get can give you some hints. From what I understand, a pivotal battle near the end determines which of two endings you can get the first time, and some added content in the New Game Plus mode influences which of the other two endings you can get. The game is pretty short (I beat it in 17 hours) but the replay value and vast amount of side exploration available give you extra hours of play time.
Although the story is good, it's not consistently presented. Plot often comes in chunks, and between chunks of plot you may be involved with long stretches of gameplay that could feel tedious to you. Also, while the writing is generally decent, it can be a bit stiff at times. Despite this, the story is the best part of Sigma Star Saga. It has quite a few twists and turns and wanting to know what would happen next motivated me to play onwards.
Play begins with a longish shooter stage culminating in a boss battle. This is the benchmark. See, if you find this introductory shooter segment frustrating or difficult, then you are going to have a VERY rough time with this game. I didn't find this introductory segment all that difficult, but it did take me a few tries to finish it without dying. Once you're done with this segment, the game gets pretty easy with a steady ramping up of difficulty.
As mentioned before, the game features both on-foot exploration and side-scrolling shooter segments. The on-foot segments work as with any action RPG. Walk around, destroy monsters, and solve puzzles to get from one place to the next. Exploration is aided by the area maps in the menu. Your main weapon is a puny Earth pistol with crummy range. Later on you can get various Krill accessories to use during these segments, such as the Krill Puck - which can destroy some obstacles and work as a ricochet weapon - and the Girl Wings that allow you to fly over small gaps, to name just two. These accessories are essential to gaining access to places on the various planets you could not get to before. You will have plenty of opportunities to revisit the various planets and explore the newly accessible areas, some of which have no bearing on the plot. Oh yeah, the game often doesn't tell you how to use the accessories. While all are pretty self-explanatory, you need to refer to the instruction manual to use the Krill Boots properly. Monsters in these walking segments do not yield experience points. They only yield health packs and smart bombs. Experience is gained during the shooter segments.
The shooter stages occur as random encounters and as boss stages. During planetary exploration, Krill starships patrol around the planet. Since they can't do evasive combat maneuvers on their own, they summon the nearest pilot, via the symbiote, to fly them. This is how the game explains the random encounters. During a random encounter, there is a target counter and once you kill that number of enemies, the battle is over and you're zapped back to where you were exploring on foot. It is during these shooter battles that downed enemies leave behind little orbs of experience for you to collect. Higher levels mean higher attack and defense for any ship you happen to fly. In addition, leveling up refills your life meter. This is great to keep in mind as health packs cannot be obtained during shooter segments.
One thing that makes these random battles even more random is that you never know what kind of ship will summon you. There are a wide variety of Krill ships that all control a bit differently. Some are very twitchy in that the slightest control tap can send you careening into walls; some are big hulking behemoths that fly and handle sluggishly; and others that have average control. It is therefore that you need to be adaptable in this game and utilize every shooter skill you can muster, because you never know what ship you'll get in a random encounter. Control varies widely depending on which ship you get: some control really well while others don't.
The boss stages are much longer than the random encounter maps and are quite well designed. Not only are there enemies attacking you, but there are obstacles, and even some puzzles, that require flying finesse as well as an itchy trigger finger. Random encounters tend to scroll slowly, but some boss stages have sections with fast scrolling. Bosses are generally big, bad, and require strategy, skill, and sometimes patience to take down. And lest I forget to mention it, the ships you get for boss stages always have forgiving handling characteristics.
The most interesting aspect of the gameplay is the collection of Gun Data. Gun Data can be found in any walking environment, and most of it is hidden. Recker can collect data on types of cannons (i.e. 3-way cannon, front/back cannon), types of bullets (i.e. heavy shot, wave shot), and types of impacts (what the bullet does when it hits the enemy.) Some impacts can add an element like fire or water while other impacts do things like make one kill count as two (useful when random encounters get tedious) or increase the experience gleaned from kills. In the menu, you can combine a cannon, bullet, and impact to create a weapon that's best for your playing style or situation. All Gun Data and experience is tied to Recker, so any ship he pilots will be at his level and can use his set Gun Data. Ships also have default weapons that you can switch to, but once you have some decent Gun Data, the ships' default weapons become useless.
The smart bombs you collect during on-foot segments can be very useful in shooter stages. A deployed smart bomb destroys every enemy on the screen. Of course, they are ineffective against bosses. Judicious use of smart bombs saw me through some of the tougher boss stages.
After you beat the game once, you can play again in a New Game Plus mode where your level is reset, but you still have all the Gun Data you gathered in your first playthrough.
Though the gameplay is generally fun and easy to pick up, there are flaws. One flaw is with saving. The game uses a save point system, and sometimes save points can be scarce, though the good thing about them is that they heal you. Given that this game is on a handheld system and games on handhelds should be convenient for gaming on the go, a quick save feature that allows you to save any time you want would have been welcome. Another common complaint is that the random encounter rate is too high, and that there is no way to escape from battles. An escape option would have been nice for those times when you're low on health, desperately seeking a save point, and the land monsters aren't dropping health packs. Health packs during the boss stages would have been nice, especially since they run long and it's often very easy to make mistakes. Crashing into walls takes away a huge chunk of health. The game also has frequent fetch quests and a couple of timed sections, which I know can be showstoppers for many RPGers. In addition, random battles can sometimes get repetitive, but that's par for the course in any RPG.
Since video games are a visual medium, I expect pleasing visuals to accompany my story. WayForward has yet to disappoint me in that area. Shantae had some of the best visuals for a Game Boy Color game, especially with regards to sprite work, and by that same token, Sigma Star Saga has some of the more impressive Game Boy Advance visuals I've seen. Recker's sprite during on-foot segments is large and very detailed. When playing the game on a handheld's small screen, having a large sprite makes things easier on the eyes. The enemy sprites during on-foot segments are also large and quite detailed. The various character sprites are large and have great detailing too. The sprites don't have a lot of animations, though. I must give kudos to Matt Bozon's character designs, as they are quite good. He's certainly influenced by anime, but there's an American flavor in there as well. Just to warn you, it's no secret that Bozon enjoys drawing attractive females in cheesecake attire, and it's certainly evident in this game.
The on-foot environments look good and feature a lot of parallax scrolling. Each world gives off the vibe it's supposed to. For example, the forest world is lush, green, and airy while the volcanic world is foreboding and uninviting with its purple walkways and stark scenery over flowing lava. The colors are all bright and vibrant while still being easy on the eyes.
The shooter segments also feature some nice parallax scrolling. The ships you control vary in size from small to gargantuan, but even the smallest ships are easy to see. The environments look very good, but nothing really jaw-dropping. The enemies, too, are pretty boring to look at. Then again, in a shooter I could care less what an enemy looks like, so long as I can blast it. Speaking of blasting, the bullet and explosion graphics aren't really anything to write home about. I love shooters with spectacular explosions, and this one lacked spectacular explosions. The best graphics are reserved for some of the gigantic bosses, who have large sprites with a nice sheen to them. However, some slowdown does occur during the shooter segments when a lot of activity is happening on the screen.
There are a few times during cutscenes when some fancy layering work is done and a few occasions where cutscenes are presented in the form of still pictures that look like comic book pages. The majority of these stills are reserved for the endgame and look great.
The sound is varied as well. The music is very good. Each composition fits its intended locale and/or story scene. The forest world, for example, features full arrangements for both exploration and shooter music. On the other hand, the music for the ice world is quite sparse. There are even a couple of pieces that incorporate sound effects. The pieces that seemed to grab my ear the most were the ones that featured variations of the same theme; despite using the same melody, one arrangement sounded foreboding and sinister, another sounded sad, and yet another sounded happy and upbeat. The music may not stand too well on its own outside of the game's context, but within the game's context, it's very good. There was not a single music piece I didn't like. The sound effects, on the other hand, were pretty plain vanilla. There was nothing jaw-dropping, but nothing terribly grating either.
All in all, I did like Sigma Star Saga and look forward to what WayForward will come out with next. It certainly had an ambitious concept and it is evident to me that a lot of love was put into this game. The game brought back fond memories of the old-school shooters of my youth, while also filling me with the nostalgia of 16-bit RPGs. That combined warm-fuzziness of multiple nostalgias is perhaps why I enjoyed the game so much, despite the flaws that are sure to turn off many others. It also helped that the story was surprisingly good and thus kept me motivated to slog through the fetch quests.
It's difficult to recommend this game, because it is aimed at a very specific niche. But I will say that if you dislike shooters or aren't very skilled at them, definitely try before you buy. Even veteran shooter fans will surely see the "Game Over" screen a few times. But if you fit into that niche who both love RPGs and shooters, then definitely give Sigma Star Saga a try.
P.S. Be warned that there is a glitch in chapter 5 where if a white, tombstone shaped thing is the last thing you hit during a random battle when your target counter is at "1," you may be thrown into an infinite loop shooter stage, very much like the minus world of Super Mario Bros. I never encountered this glitch in my playthrough, but enough people have mentioned it that I felt it worth noting.