Shooting Down a Star
Survey for a moment the landscape of the GameBoy Advance, and likely you’ll be crushed by tumbleweeds (or a Katamari ball; it is a Namco game we’re talking about, after all) rolling up unwarranted sequels, movie tie-ins, umbrella license products, and all other kinds of digital debris. Above this creatively dry desert is the ambitious (though sloppy) Sigma Star Saga, indeed rising like a celestial shuttle, planned by grand architect Matt Bozon.
His previous darling, Shantae, was a lush romp on the GameBoy Color and found a dedicated enough following to warrant work on a GBA version. Bozon’s art is engaging and warm, an American style that is clearly influenced by anime, though without being overreaching like Teen Titans and Totally Spies. Unfortunately, his acute artistic sensibilities do not provide cover for his limited skill as a game designer.
The game starts out well enough: taking control of Ian Recker and his aircraft, you fly headlong into the alien armada known as the Krill. Afterwards, his agency catches wind of the Krill mobilizing in deep space around mysterious, potentially weapon-wielding planets; Ian is painted as a pissed off Earth exile, sent off to investigate, and quickly accepted into Krill ranks to find out what they’re up to. A comparison to contemporary times is obvious, but Sigma dishes out the analogy with tact. The game never fully indicts or supports the humans or aliens, and with Ian as a double-agent trapped in the middle, the game slowly bleeds into a dilemma-filled grey area, each side consistently topping each other in their heartlessness.
Essentially a modernization of the shooter/RPG hybrid pioneered by NES cult classic The Guardian Legend, the first thing you notice once the action/RPG segments kick in is how beautifully realized the universe is. With luxuriant colors, detailed backdrops, and fluid sprite animation that rival the best Japanese firms, a visual feast is guaranteed on every planet.
And Bozon’s company, WayForward, makes sure you get your fill of their art; the game is zoomed way too closely into the action, like an invasive satellite cam that needs to back the hell up. This is seriously damaging in a number of ways, including making running into enemies a constant worry and as you’re always centimeters apart, gun fighting is rendered plain silly. With such a limited vantage, it’s hard to get your bearings and, like a true exile, you’ll frequently lose direction. WayForward compensates by making the dungeons smaller and more manageable than what you’d find in comparable games which, all things considered, isn’t really a good thing.
On paper, it takes only a few minutes to run through a dungeon, but the game length is artificially pumped up by an absurdly random battle engine. Once Ian becomes an intern Krill, he learns they are mentally linked to their space ships and their distress signal beams Ian into space and the shooter portion of Sigma begins. These battles keep on going until you kill a random number of enemies, with each downed enemy leaving behind a blue experience glob. Pick up enough of these and your ship levels up in strength and defense.
Somehow surviving the quality assurance phase, the game is plagued with a kind of random battle frequency (every 10 to 15 seconds) not seen since the Saturn days, masticated by the fact that battles can last upwards of several minutes. Everyone has a reason to hate the random battle system; by default they’re repetitive and tedious, and when developers don’t bother to build beyond this, they lamely justify it by having some numbers and experience points roll up as a proxy for actual game design. The shooter must be the antithesis of this: wild, shambolic, and based on pure skill, it often touches the quick. To see it reduced to such a clinical existence here is disheartening.
Before you go up in arms and cite Radiant Silvergun as a successful amalgamation of the RPG and shooter genres, keep in mind that it at least had thoughtful level design and enemy placement. Even after you maxed out your ship, you were encouraged to replay and improve your score and time. Here in Sigma, the shooter is simply a means to an end; as long as you don’t die, how well you do between battle start and end is of no importance—and that robs the genre of its allure.
The unwise choice of randomizing the shooter portions takes the control away from WayForward and places it squarely in the player’s hands. As usually happens with random battles, because the game cannot predict how to effectively challenge the player, it goes for the lowest common denominator and in the process makes too many compromises to accommodate everyone. Nary an enemy takes aim or even bothers to shoot. Mostly the content-to-die AI drifts by like kamikaze flotsam.
Looking at how fleshed out the characters are and how strong the plot is, one almost doesn’t want the game to end, except for the fact that you don’t want to play anymore. The characters deserve better treatment, whether it be in the form of a different game, a graphic novel, or even an animated movie. Considering how smooth the animation and writing are, perhaps that kind of future for Sigma Star isn’t as distant as it seems.