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Review: Sin & Punishment: Star Successor

 

 
Rarely does a game encapsulate the best and worst of its genre to the extent of Sin & Punishment: Star Successor. Developer Treasure has a reputation for brutally hard shooters, from Gunstar Heroes to Ikaruga, and Star Successor doesn’t stray from that tradition. But it ends up dishing out moments of well-designed challenge and needless frustration in almost equal measure. This provides an interesting lesson in game design, but it also makes Star Successor tough to recommend to the general public.
 
The game gets off to a good start. Its early moments feel like a love-letter to the entire shooter genre, effortlessly referencing everything from Space Harrier to Contra to the bullet-hell sub-genre that Treasure has helped to popularize. Like Rez, its a 3D shooter with auto-scrolling stages, though you can move your character around on a 2D plane. While later levels play with perspective in some fun ways, early stages largely take place with the camera fixed behind the player’s back, Space Harrier-style. This makes it a little tough to gauge the location of enemy projectiles, but the game compensates for that by giving you a dodge move that essentially renders you invulnerable for a couple of second or so.
 
Aside from their propensity for making really hard games, Treasure is also known for their creative level design and crazy (in both quality and quantity) boss battles. Sin & Punishment delivers on the latter, but not so much on the former. Its best level is an underwater stage that takes the player through a serpentine tunnel en route to an almost psychedelic showdown with a wall full of snake-like sea monsters. Also worth mentioning is a spooky night-time forest level, with a distinct survival horror vibe. Sadly, Star Successor mostly runs out of fresh ideas after that point, and contents itself by filling generic environments with more and more enemies and bullets.
 
Now I actually like bullet-hell shooters, but Sin & Punishment’s imprecise controls and over-long animations aren’t up to that kind of challenge. As mentioned above, it’s hard to tell which projectiles can hit you and which can’t, which leads to taking lots of unnecessary damage. But the game really heaps on the frustration with the lengthy animation routine that your character goes into upon being hit by a more powerful attack. On later stages, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of getting hit, flailing around uncontrollably, then regaining control just in time to get hit again and restart the whole process. The only way to break free is to pound on the dodge button until you get lucky, and hope that it doesn’t land you right in the path of another volley of bullets.
 
There are those who will defend any particularly difficult game by denigrating the skill of anyone who finds fault with it. And there are certainly people who are far more skilled than myself. But I don’t think my problems with Star Successor come from a lack of skill or appreciation for hard games. Demon’s Souls was one of my favorite games of last year, and Ikaruga is one of my favorites of all time. What makes Star Successor a lesser game than those is that it’s easy to lose life after life without knowing why, or for reasons that are almost completely beyond your control.
 
Sin & Punishment: Star Successor features a couple of outstanding levels, and Treasure’s enthusiasm for the shooter genre is as palpable as ever. But it’s not an essential game, not even as a hardcore title on the Wii. Despite the moments of brilliance that found their way into Treasure’s newest offering, there are better shooters available on the Virtual Console for a lot less money.

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