Review: Redux: Dark Matters

Redux: Dark Matters comes from Hucast Games and KTX Software, originally launching for the SEGA Dreamcast at the beginning of this year. Redux is actually the third enhancement of a game originally released as simply DUX, and this was followed by DUX 1.5 which addressed a number of complaints, finally followed by Redux: Dark Matters. Initially exclusive to the Dreamcast hardware as formal packaged release, this series finally reaches out to a wider audience via Steam with the PC version of Redux: Dark Matters. For many this will be a far more practical (not to mention cost effective) means of playing this posthumous Dreamcast shooter.

Redux: Dark Matters draws upon arcade SHMUPs from the ‘90s, with some added innovations of modern bullet-hell formula. In fact, Dark Matters is a tribute to legendary SHMUP R-Type through and through. The design of the main ship in Redux strongly resembles the iconic R-9 from the late ‘80s classic. Familiar locations and level layouts also become evident, and even that little spherical pod– which was so ingeniously implemented in R-Type— accompanies your ship throughout Redux. While the game certainly tries some new ideas, especially with its more defensive style of play, at the end of the day Dark Matters feels more like a R-Type clone than anything else. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but at the end of the day anything that 2014’s Redux: Dark Matters does, 1987’s R-Type still unarguably does much better, right down to the visuals even.

The first thing about Redux that leaves a bad taste are its simplistic visuals. The overall graphical style resembles a slapped together PopCap game in all its trademark cheap tackiness. Artistic appeal is barely present, with environments and enemies presented in the most bland and uninspiring manner.  In fact, the original R-Type with its now outdated graphics engine still exhibits richer and diverse artistic flair than anything that Redux has on display. To put it simply, Dark Matters is a visually uninteresting game, and not even the appealing character artwork on the promo materials can change that.

The visuals also become problematic within the actual game design, where the many different shapes, sizes, and colors of projectiles don’t always mesh well with the backgrounds, making them difficult to spot. To make matters worse, there are these unnecessarily huge gold collectibles that often congest the display and distract players from the action. The visual touches and presentation clash with the overall game design and gameplay, almost  demonstrating a lack of foresight on part of the developers.

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Dark Matters has you navigating levels where the layout is detrimental as you need to maneuver your ship carefully through various paths. This is a page out of arcade shooters from yesteryear, where levels had real layouts instead of an empty screen filled a swarms of enemies as found in modern SHMUPs. The level design is functional with decent variation, but it doesn’t offer anything you haven’t experienced better elsewhere. The bosses at least are nicely put together.

The core shooting action involves a fire button which you can hold down for an uninterrupted stream of bullets. There is a charged shot button which requires you to hold down the button to fill up a meter, resulting in giant projectile a la Mega Man X. Handy sup-weapons also come into the fray to assist dealing with enemies coming from all directions. Finally, the most interesting mechanic comes in the form of a spherical pod which serves as a sponge of sorts. This little sidekick can ease the burden of dodging bullets as putting it in harm’s way will allow it to absorb most (though not all) enemy attacks. This shield device also has a dedicated button which activates a sponging field, allowing the shield to soak in the bullets that fall within the field’s range. Absorbing enemy fire fills up a meter which then can be used to unleash lock-on homing lasers. It’s a smart idea on paper, but the execution feels far too spammy, a huge far cry from the intuitive and clever implementation of a similar mechanic in R-Type. The level design doesn’t always complement these gameplay systems either, but their smart usage is usually more apparent during boss battles.

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The campaign comes in two flavors: Normal and Veteran. Normal has you take control of the primary ship with all its offensive and defensive cogs. Veteran, on the other hand, has you take control of a much different ship, one that comes without the bullet soaking shield. In Veteran mode you go in with a pure shoot and dodge strategy, which makes the shooting experience more traditional. The level structure generally complement these two distinct approaches, but the boss battles were clearly designed for the Normal mode ship, as they do not match very well with the stripped-down ship in Veteran mode.

Perhaps the best thing about this entire package is the soundtrack. The score of Redux: Dark Matters is a hauntingly beautiful arrangement created by Andre Neuman. The chilling sci-fi techno soundtrack also has the musical involvement of German video game composer Chris Huelsbeck, known for his work on the soundtracks of classics like Turrican and… yes… you guessed it, R-Type. The Game Over song in particular is so enchanting that you’ll find yourself staying on the screen just to take it all in, and it almost makes you feel glad to lose.

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Closing Comments:

The main novelty of Redux: Dark Matters was it being a brand new posthumous retail release for the SEGA Dreamcast in 2014. The strong appeal of this gimmick is obviously absent in this Steam release, in which case you can’t help but gauge the title in a much broader context. Even among the Dreamcast’s celebrated library of shooters, Dark Matters was hardly admired beyond collector appeal, as it never offered quality to match its value. As a standard-priced Steam release, however, this version of the game is at least more practical and playable to the wider audience. Redux draws upon shooters from the ‘90s, but at the end of the day it feels like a shell of its inspiration, clearly lacking the same thoughtful and intuitive design. Redux: Dark Matters on Steam isn’t worth getting excited about given the wealth of better alternatives, and even if you’re a Dreamcast collector, there are far better shooter releases for it in recent years. At the very least, though, grab the beautiful soundtrack if you’re into sci-fi synth.