While Last Encounter has all of the trappings of a good game, it is unfortunately marred by some pretty heavy drawbacks that drag down the entire experience.
Genre: twin-stick, roguelike
Developer: Exordium Games
Publisher: Exordium Games
Release date: 8 May, 2018
Good ideas, baffling problems
I gotta say… I had a really tough time deciding on a rating for this one. On one hand, it has some fun gameplay elements and a lot of good ideas. But on the other hand, there are some really nasty problems buried in there that tend to get in the way of everything else. Good ideas abound, but for every step forward it takes, the game then seems to step right back again as problems flare up.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for some time now, you probably know the basics of the gameplay already, due to the popularity of the formula in recent years. Roam around big levels comprising procedurally generated rooms, clobbering all foes along the way and looking for items to power yourself up for the later levels. It’s nice and easy to understand, and Last Encounter doesn’t really stray from the formula, which is fine; not every game needs to be at the absolute forefront of innovation. And while many of the concepts on offer here have been seen before, they are good ideas nonetheless.
Last Encounter also puts forth a nice, crisp, attractive visual style that’s easy on the eyes, as well as a good amount of content. There are quite a few pilots to play and ships to fly, plenty of different weapons and weapon mods, and so on. There’s a lot going on. Sounds great, right? Well, maybe not so much. The potential for excellence is here, but in my time playing this I simply found that the things that do get in the way, do so with such frequency that it really drags the entire experience way down.
As far as the absolute basics go, there are only very few problems. The controls are well done, mostly. Your ship is maneuverable and precise, with a speed and flow to it that really works with the pacing of the game. Aiming is easy and works well, at least with the controller that I used.
The one control issue that did seem rather bizarre, though, is that the switching of weapons and mods is done with the D-Pad. This means that when you want to switch those you’ll have to take your thumb off of the left analog stick to do so, preventing you from moving. This presents a rather obvious problem during combat, and I must say that I was moderately baffled that it was done this way. It’s true that the shoulder buttons and triggers already have important functions to fulfill, but the face buttons could also have been used for this. Having to stop firing for a moment to switch isn’t too bad at all, but having to stop moving is a definite issue in a game where lasers and bullets come at you from all directions. But this isn’t the only baffling problem with the game.
Good controls and game concepts are great and all, but everything else needs to be good enough to back them up in order to make for a good game, and in this case, it just doesn’t always work that way.
The main problem comes in the form of the many hazards and enemies that you battle during your quest through the cosmos. These foes have issues — quite a few issues. What’s more, these issues tend to be the sort that are glaringly obvious, frequently causing me to wonder how they made it through the game’s testing phase.
The worst thing is that the game frequently commits what I consider to be the cardinal sin of this type of game: unavoidable attacks. Anyone that’s ever played a shmup before, or anything with shmup-like elements, probably knows that the act of dodging is the key to pretty much the entire experience. Even when roguelike elements are added, that fact remains. The ability to actually avoid enemy attacks is important, so it’s a real shame that it frequently just doesn’t work that well here.
This is partly due to the very designs of the enemies that you face. For instance, one annoyingly common thing you’ll encounter is a stationary baddie that can fire a constant deathray at extreme range. This attack is a proper beam, not a projectile, and thus has no travel time. It simply hits its target point instantly, and the enemy can keep the beam going as long as it needs to. Unfortunately for you, these enemies have no trouble keeping you in their sights, and will constantly turn as needed in order to make sure that happens.
Now, on paper, the concept behind this attack pattern is fairly obvious: an enemy like this can only turn so fast, so the player should get in really close, allowing them to spin around the enemy much faster than it can turn. But that beam’s range is extreme, and the turning speed is fast enough that if you are at moderate to long range from it when it starts its assault, chances are you aren’t going to be able to avoid the damage. Strafe or use your dodge-dash as much as you want; these jerks can frequently keep the beam directly on you regardless. The layout of the levels often makes it even easier for them.
Another good example is an enemy specific to the third zone. This particular foe is one that has no directly damaging abilities, but instead casts a large field that causes you to slow down drastically while you are in it. The problem here is that it’s literally unavoidable, as far as I can tell. The field is simply farted into existence directly around your current position, and it takes some work to get out of it. This may not be a damaging attack, but it is still something that cannot be avoided, in the sort of game where avoiding stuff is usually all-important.
What’s even worse, though, is that elements like these, while bad enough on their own, tend to combine to create even more problems.
Having that slowdown field slapped onto you while you’re in range of the deathray sniper is something that can happen easily and often, as the room design and enemy layout tends to not take problematic enemy combinations into consideration at all. I was very surprised at just how often I felt that the damage I was taking was somehow unfair.
It’s not even just that, though. There are times when damage is technically avoidable, but it sure doesn’t seem like it. For instance, one hazard you’ll run into is a sort of whirlpool thing. Anything that gets too close is sucked in, spun around, and shot back out. Unfortunately, this applies not just to you, but to enemy bullets as well. It can take an otherwise stable enemy attack and turn it into a randomized mess, flinging bullets around with no rhyme or reason. When this sort of thing causes you to get a bullet to the face — and it will — it’s definitely a source of frustration.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there.
Enemy patterns and hazards seem very uninspired. You’ve seen these guys before, just in different forms. You’ve got your many “grunt” foes that come at you with a small burst of super-basic projectiles, your “shotgun” jerks that fire wave-like spreads, and even your bloody annoying enemy spawners that just drag the gameplay to a near halt while you attempt to drill through their minions. There’s just not much creativity on hand here when it comes to the bad guys.
Attack patterns repeat a lot, too. That beam attack I mentioned? You first see it in the very first zone you wander through. But you’ll see it again in Area 3: pretty much the same attack with the same problem, just on an enemy that looks a bit different. Other attack types repeat like this, too. This fact doesn’t really hurt the gameplay at all, but it makes the enemies so much less interesting than they could be.
And then there are the hazards. Hoo, boy. Dangerous hazards are expected in a game like this, but these tend to just be ANNOYING hazards. Like those whirlpools. While they can get you hit, most of the time they’re merely a nuisance, screwing with your movement and driving you out of your mind due to how oddly easy it is to run into them. Or perhaps it’s the pink spikes in Area 2, which jut out of walls the instant you pass by them, skewering your ship. While they’re static traps, they have an extremely easy time hitting you, and can be a bit hard to see due to the way the level looks. These sorts of hazards end up being really irritating and not adding much to the experience as a whole.
Given that a game like this revolves heavily around the things you’ll fight and the places in which you’ll fight them, these problems are not minor ones. They interfere the entire time you play.
Now, that’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its good points, as it definitely does.
One of the standout features of the game is the weapon mods, which can be smashed together to create a variety of loopy effects for each gun, depending on which ones you’ve chosen. There are quite a few possibilities here, though I wasn’t able to show them off too much in the gameplay video.
Similarly good are the pilots and ships from which you can choose, defining the play style for each run. Each pilot brings different passive traits to the table and each ship has its own stats, starting weapon, and special ability. These abilities could be anything from drastically increasing your firing rate, to a bullet-cancelling field, or even a cloaking function. They have a cool down, but it isn’t particularly long so you’ll be able to use these abilities often. As you keep playing, you unlock more pilots and ships over time, as well as opening up more things to research or buy at the base between runs.
The game is also fairly approachable. This isn’t one of those games that throws seemingly insurmountable odds at you while screaming “GIT GUD, SCRUB!” The difficulty curve is fairly smooth, and I found myself getting quite far in the game on my very first run, despite the issues with enemy attacks and hazards. This is not a game that’s likely to frustrate you by simply being brutal, unlike much of the genre.
The different obstacle-filled areas you’ll venture through are, for the most part, pretty well done, too. Space is normally a rather empty place, but not here. Each area is a bit like a miniature labyrinth, with walls and all sorts of special obstacles making your existence that much more complicated, but also offering cover during battles. Each area has a distinct visual theme to it, and I’m glad to say that these themes and the graphics as a whole never get in the way of the game. There are no “what hit me!?” moments here. Everything you need to see is very clearly defined at all times. You’re not going to take hits from a nearly invisible purple bullet on a purple background, or that sort of thing.
As I said, I had a hard time deciding on just what sort of rating to give this one. I’ve had some real fun with it, but the problems are just too big to ignore. Unfortunately, there’s just no denying how pervasive are the game’s problems. These issues appeared constantly throughout each run, and they really are rather baffling. They’re the sorts of problems that wouldn’t be hard to fix with a bit of tweaking, yet there they are just the same, in the full release version of the game. So I’m kinda neutral on this one. It’s fun, but just a bit too flawed.
Is it worth a go? It might be, but I strongly suggest watching some video footage of it first; see for yourself what it’s like. Don’t just rush into a purchase. Instead, consider waiting for a sale if you decide to get it. I’m hoping that this game will get some much-needed tweaks in the future, but for the time being it’s got a lot of rough edges.