Square Off is alien blasting fun

Review of Square Off on XBLIG: Buy
This cartoony side-scroller is an interesting take on the dual-stick shooter genre.

This cartoony side-scroller is an interesting take on the dual-stick shooter genre.

Over the course of reviewing games in the XBLIG: Come Play With Us trailer, I’ve played several dual-stick shooters, so I’m pretty used to the standards of the genre: large rectangular playing field, top-down view, space ships, and an emphasis on loose, free firing.

Square Off turns almost all of this on its head, while still keeping the basic elements of dual-stick shooter.  Level advancement still occurs by killing a certain number of enemies, but the stylized spaceships of Geometry Wars and its progeny are replaced with with cartoony square-headed aliens that remind me of a cross between Futurama and The Oatmeal.  It flips the 2D plane with a side-scrolling view rather than a top-down view.  Gravity also becomes a factor, although since the player has a jetpack, there’s still free movement.  Enemies drop weapons with limited ammo, so blindly firing isn’t always the best solution. Aiming adds an extra wrinkle to the dual-stick formula—the alien automatically aims in the direction he’s going, and aiming with the right thumbstick slows down his move speed. Rather than being open, levels are designed to have restricting corners and choke points.

These changes are a little disorienting at first, since it doesn’t play quite like a side-scroller or a dual-stick shooter upon first picking up the controller.  Gravity is unexpected, and trying to pick off enemies with a weak single-shot pistol is tough.  Larger ships drop weapons powerups, so I found the smart strategy was to focus on these first.  Once armed with a spread gun or a shotgun, I felt a bit more competitive.  Bombs—which attract the flying aliens, but are affected by gravity—also add a last-ditch solution to being surrounded.  The rocket laucher isn’t useful at first since it’s dangerous at close range, but it’s invaluable in later boss fights.

I felt that the scarcity of weapons adds a strategic aspect to the game.  It requires choosing not only the right weapon for the situation, but ensuring the right weapons for the coming boss fight aren’t used up too soon.  Weapons can be swapped out on-the-fly with the right bumper, but is often tricky to accomplish in the midst of battle.  With one button to switch weapons, it was easy to bypass the weapon I was going for, and then have to cycle back around.

The level design added an interesting twist as well.  Most levels are designed to have a few choke points as well as power-up spawn points, so each level has its own strategy.  In addition, each level mixes a 3D background with the 2D art of the game sprites.  The mixture is often surprisingly complex—for example, the last level features a debris field with 3D objects in both the foreground and background.

Square Off earns a Buy.  For 80 points, it’s an engaging game—and that’s just the single player.  The game also features local four-player cooperative and deathmatch play (which I didn’t test for this review).

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