Super Stardust HD Review

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, arcade style flight-based shooters were a thriving genre on the PC.  In fact you couldn’t call yourself a PC gamer unless you had a joystick hooked up to your sweet Intel 386 (with 64 megabytes of RAM, no less) and I recall spending many happy hours with games like Wing Commander and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.  But it didn’t last… FPS games exploded onto the scene, and suddenly players started shying away from flight games with elaborate control schemes requiring expensive peripherals and mastery over 100+ buttons to play.

Although there have been a few games that tried to rekindle the long dormant flames of arcade flight simulation, the genre is relatively low-key these days.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Microsoft decided to release Square Enix’s Project Sylpheed at a budget price of $40.  Although it doesn’t offer the same degree of depth seen in the PC games of yore, Project Sylpheed doesn’t frustrate players with overwhelming controls either, and as a result is an attractive and accessible experience that should satisfy fans of arcade style-flight sims and newcomers just looking to broaden their palate.

Project Sylpheed has you playing the role of Katana Faraway, a talented rookie pilot fighting for the imperialistic Terra Central Armed Forces (TCAF) against the rebellious ADAN Space Navy (an acronym for the 4 rebel colonies Alberti, Delacroix, Angelico and Nolde).  Apparently, TCAF polices consistently favor the Earth home world, and the colonists inhabiting four of the eleven terraformed worlds in the TCAF decide to revolt after a suspicious accident completely destroyed Archeron, one of the colonies.  Margras, one of Katana’s friends in flight school, grew up on Archeron, and the story begins just as Margras’ decides to defect to the ADAN forces to seek revenge.   ADAN is out to destroy planet earth, but first they have to get through you and the TCAF’s newly developed secret weapon, the Delta Saber fighters, codenamed Project Sylpheed.

At any rate, the story is highly reminiscent of Japanese space operas like Macross and Star Blazers, so although it’s not exactly high art, it does have enough cheesy charm to satisfy Manga fans.  What really stands out, though isn’t Project Sylpheed’s serviceable plot, but rather the gorgeous cut scenes, which are numerous and beautifully constructed throughout the entire game.  It’s no secret that Square Enix is the king of the cut scene, and although the budget for this title was nowhere near as high as Squenix’s beloved Final Fantasy, it’s clear that the in game movies were made with mastery and care.

Just like all Square Enix games, the cutscenes in Project Sylpheed are absolutely gorgeous.

In game visuals are similarly attractive.  The cosmos is colorful and filled with astral anomalies which provide a nice backdrop for the action, and the ships are detailed and just plain cool looking.  All fighters leave colored trails in their wake, (blue for your homies, red for the baddies,) helping you spot the spacecraft and judge their movement on the fly.  And Macross fans will love the gorgeous missile swarms which emulate Japanese Manga perfectly.  Explosions could have been a little better, but all in all, Project Sylpheed is quite a looker.

Unfortunately, things don’t fare as well for Sylpheed in the sound department.  Music is standard Japanese pop-synth, and while it works well some of the time, some tracks will have you opting for silence or a custom soundtrack.  Voice acting doesn’t fare much better, but to be fair, it’s on par with most Japanimae out there.  Weapons sound decent but not great, and although Project Sylpheed’s manual boasts Dolby 5.1 support, you’ll be hard pressed to notice sounds coming from anywhere save the front speakers of your home entertainment setup.

From a game play perspective, Project Sylpheed controls like a dream, especially considering the game’s complexity.  There is a definite learning curve, but fortunately the game comes with a thorough (albeit long) tutorial to get you in fighting shape.  With the tutorial complete, players may still need a few tries to get comfortable with the intimidating number of fighters you will be dog fighting, but once players learn to capitalize on Sylpheed’s cool weapons and special moves, it’s all gravy.  It would have been nice if you had the option of reassigning the buttons, but players should get used to the controls after a mission or two.  The game offers 3 contol schemes for players to choose from, but I preffered the default setting.

All the white lines you see here are your missiles homing in on their targets.

Project Sylpheed throws a lot of fighters at you, and thankfully, managing your targets is a breeze.  You can cycle targets with a press of the A button, and double tapping A targets the enemy closest to the center of your screen.  Holding down A targets the enemy closest to your ship.  One of Sylpheed’s cooler features in the ability to reorient your ship towards your target at any time by hitting A and B simultaneously.  This really helps when chasing enemies, as does the match target speed feature (preformed by hitting R and L at the same time.)  Furthermore, much like in Crimson Skies, you can execute barrel rolls and 180s by holding B and moving the Left Stick in the desired direction.  It all becomes second nature after an hour or so, and you’ll tearing through space shooting down dozens of enemies with ease in no time.

The Delta Saber also empowers players with 3 special moves which are controlled by the Y button.  Hold down Y and a triangular meter appears showing 3 levels of charge, all of which eat up your shield power temporarily.  Release Y during Level 1, and your Saber will fire both active weapons for a few seconds, which is great for targeting ADAN cruisers and swarms of fighters you’re sure to encounter.  Release Y during level 2 and your ship will transfer all shield power to the front and boost you forward, allowing players to ram capital ships and interstellar enemy missiles.  Finally, charge up your special ability all the way to level 3, and time slows down for about 10 seconds, allowing you to target  with greater accuracy or run for cover.  It’s a great system, and it allows players to pull off some really amazing moves that devastate the enemy.

As you progress through the missions, you will earn points based on your performance which are used to buy new weapons for your ship.  These weapons you unlock help you deal with the increasingly hectic space battles, and add some mild RPG elements to Project Sylpheed.  Choosing your load out after listening to your mission briefing gives the game a strategic element: do you choose the swarm missiles that are great against fighters, or do you focus on heavy anti-ship missiles better suited for taking down enemy carriers?  The sheer number of weapon choices available gives the game a great deal of replayability, since you can replay earlier missions at any time using your new armaments.  There is no multiplayer portion in Project Sylpheed, but this caveat is offset by the game’s reasonable price tag.

Although there are only around 10 missions in Project Sylpheed, each of them are lengthy and split up into several parts, (usually consisting of ‘attack this’ or ‘defend that.’)  There is a lot of radio chatter while playing through a mission, and paying attention to it is critical to your success.  Luckily, there is a record of every transmission accessible to players in the pause menus in case you forget what you’re supposed to be doing.

There are 2 basic categories of spacecraft… fighters and capital ships.  The fighters are the most numerous, and range from slow moving bombers to nimble yet lightly armored craft.  The capital ships are also abundant, and have different areas to shoot at in order to disable and destroy them.  It can be challenging to swing around and target a frigate’s shield generator, but by taking it out, you’ll be able to make short work of even the largest of ships with your heavy missiles.

You won’t have to defend Earth all by your lonesome, though.  Your wingman Ellen is always by your side and can hold her own in combat.  By pressing the D pad you can tell Ellen, as well as any other fighters escorting you on a given mission to break away and fight on their own, attack your target, or attack any enemies on your tail.  It’s a simple system that works quite well in the heat of battle, and I never once felt like I had to baby-sit them.  Also supporting you are refueling and repair stations that are present in all missions.  Take too much damage or expend your ammunition, and you can easily withdraw and get yourself back into the fight rejuvenated and fully armed.  It would have been nice if you could swap your weapons out during these mid battle refueling runs, but that’s only a minor gripe.

Overall, Project Sylpheed is a welcome diversion for 360 gamers looking to wander off from the well beaten path of FPS games.  It’s attractive, controls great, and most of all just plain fun to play.  Although it won’t appeal to everyone (it is a Japanese space-themed flight sim, after all) players looking for hectic dogfights and white knuckle capital ship runs are in for a real treat.  The attractive $40 price tag only sweetens the deal.

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