Jamestown, with its optional subtitle Legend of the Lost Colony, is a fairly odd name for a game. At first hearing of the title, I assumed it was one of those old CD dictionary/historic/educational "games" that told you about Jamestown. It is in fact, a vertical shmup that takes place on Mars in the 1600s. Have I lost you yet?
The story posits an alternate reality where Jamestown, Roanoke, and other similar colonies from Britain's first forays into North America instead took place on Mars. This includes Martians, flying ships with laser weapons, and colonials. It is one of the odder video game stories I have ever seen but it is an undeniably cool idea. You control Walter Raleigh, a real famous person from the era, as you try to find out what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke. The story unfolds in usual shmup style, with small pieces being doled out in between levels.
Unlike your usual shmup, the game is broken up into five individual levels that don't have to be played back to back (although the option exists if you want it). Instead, you simply pick a level, difficulty, and ship and start the level. Each level gives you three lives per credit with two additional credits and no way to change these numbers. I found this change to be for the better, making it less of a slog trying to make it through several stages on such a small credit count.
The game makes up for it by locking the last two levels off at first. The fourth level requires you to play every prior level at the difficulty just after Normal and the fifth requires you beat every level prior to it at the difficulty just above that. Those levels also don't have the easier difficulties and force you to play at the higher ones. It's an interesting variation on the usual shmup design, giving you a chance to get better at certain levels without having to play through all the ones before it first.
Make no mistake – the game is still challenging enough (at least it was for me, although I don't play many of these games) and can reach bullet hell levels on the higher difficulties. The only level to give me much trouble was the last one but it was a doozy. Thanks to the progression design, I could feel myself getting better as I had to go back and play previous levels on harder difficulties. By the time I finished the game, I felt like the lower difficulties had nothing to offer me anymore. It felt much more rewarding then the usual structure of playing the beginning parts enough times to get good enough just to see the later parts with enough lives to progress.
The game is gorgeous, with a 16-bit artstyle that would have fit perfectly on the SNES. Each level looks like an entirely different place, with extremely layered backgrounds and creative enemy design. The "cutscenes" that take place between missions have their own artstyle, beautiful in its own way.
Now, we come to my favorite part of the entire game – the music. Oh my god, is the music fantastic. Each piece is more epic than the last (a word I hate to use but one that is absolutely deserved here) and I immediately sought out the game's soundtrack and bought it the second I could. It did a better job at making me feel the intensity of the action than any other soundtrack has ever done, an impressive feat for an indie game.
I had a blast with this game. Shmups have always interested me but the lack of content usually puts me off, never seeming to balance with the cost. Jamestown is absolutely worth the $10 Final Form Games asks for it. It is an expertly crafted shmup from people who really seem to care about the genre and can give you several hours of heart-pounding, bullet-dodging action.