Review: We Are Doomed (PS4)

It’s amazing how a few changes can make a game feel new again.  We Are Doomed came out for PC last year and, while it may not have set the world on fire, was still more than good enough to earn itself a spot on the consoles.  A little tweaking and polishing, some visual flourishes and a second pass at certain graphic design elements, and of course a whole new game mode, and We Are Doomed feels better than ever.  It’s still got the same mellow, low-pressure heart that paradoxically delights in putting you into high-pressure situations, but now backed up with more and prettier everything.

We Are Doomed is a classic-style twin stick shooter complete with the requisite arena, geometric enemies, colorful explosions, and a fantastically powerful weapon.  What sets this one apart isn’t so much the way it introduces something new to the genre as it is that it invests each element with a unique style.  You’re a little spiky eyeball-thing in a big yellowish/purple-ish arena firing what’s supposed to be a laser but looks more like a white-hot flamethrower.  The gun is limited in range but very high powered, toasting most enemies after a bit more than a tenth of a second second of contact.  Which sounds quick, but really isn’t when you’ve got a few dozen guys homing in on you.

Green and purple jellyfish float around aimlessly, blue triangle-eyes swim in large circles, streams of yellowfish patrol the screen’s edge, and the entire arena acts like an abstract undersea aquarium.  Enemies appear in a burst of bubbles, the top of the arena gently undulates, the background fades from a light yellow up top to purple as you go deeper towards the bottom, and then the imagery breaks down somewhat with drifting asteroids and laser-gates zoning you in.  The initial simpler critters are quickly joined by more deadly ones that you learn to target quick, if they can be destroyed.  The yellow/orange guys who shoot fireballs?  They telegraph their line of fire with a big red warning sign and a nice audio cue before letting loose, giving you plenty of time to either destroy them or dodge.  The asteroids, on the other hand, drift silently across the screen, and your laser passes right through them in exactly the way you don’t.  It’s not that the asteroids are a major threat, being big and obvious, but that they cut down maneuvering room.  Even with a giant flamethrower-laser toasting everything in its path, the screen gets very crowded, very quick.  Eventually the yellowfish trails leave the relatively harmless arena perimeter and start traveling on paths through the screen center, fireball-shooters get more plentiful and carve more lines across the field, laser-gates drift back and forth, and free space gets rarer and more valuable.

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This makes picking up the glowing purple trinkets much harder, and you need to collect them for a couple of reasons.  Each trinket advances the score multiplier meter a bit, which is key not only to earning a nice spot on the leaderboard but also counteracting the way the multiplier is halved every time you take a hit.  Trinkets also add to the Superbeam meter, which is where the real fun kicks in.  The superbeam is the enhanced version of spikey-eyeball’s regular laser, over twice as long and far more powerful.  Unlike most super-weapons you don’t get any level of invulnerability during its activation, and taking a hit ends the destruction-fest early, but with the speed it cuts through everything on the screen you’d need to be fairly careless to lose it.  During the superbeam your score multipler doubles, and any trinkets you pick up not only add to the next time you get to use the big gun but also extend the beam’s life a bit longer.  There’s a bit of down-time between each level, making carrying the beam past the level it’s used on a combination of careful trinket hoarding and a bit of luck, but it’s not impossible to chain levels together for major scoring.  Not to mention how much fun it is to tear through everything that moves with a giant yellow/blue pillar of unstoppable flaming laser.

The ride is going to come to an end at some point, though, not only because super-weapons wear out but also We Are Doomed is deceptively tough.  You get four hits total and that’s it, no more and no less, and no way to earn back a life point once it’s gone.  The standard Waves mode (there’s that ocean imagery again) gives you checkpoints every ten levels, which aren’t much use in a score run but are great for seeing the whole game, but for Endless you’ll have to soldier on through as best you can.

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Waves is the same game as the PC version from last year, a little prettier thanks to some redesigned enemies and effects but with the same level flow.  Each level has enemies spawn in random spots but a predetermined order, meaning you’ll know what you’re going to get but not where.  Clear out all the waves and the background shatter-wipes away, to be replaced a few seconds later with the start of the next encounter.  Endless, on the other hand, doesn’t give a second’s worth of down time.  While you still clear enemy stages, the definition is by no means as clear-cut and the screen gets much busier, much faster.  You quickly give up on clearing everything off screen and concentrate on carving out a nice safe space, until a trinket appears across the screen luring you into danger.  If Waves is normal mode, then Endless is hard, but both have that same frantic/relaxing feel that We Are Doomed somehow manages to pull off.

Most twin-stick shooters go straight for the adrenaline, pumping every possible bit of energy through the player by sheer unstoppable action, screen-shaking explosions, and a pumping techno soundtrack.  We Are Doomed takes another route, though, and while it’s not short on action by any stretch of the imagination, its undersea theme and ambient soundtrack put you in a much calmer place.  Careful positioning and crowd management are every bit as important here as any other arcade shooter, but We Are Doomed wants you to kick back and enjoy the shooting in a different way.  Who knows, with a calmer head and more relaxed attitude it might even help you survive longer.

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Closing Comments:

We Are Doomed was a great twin-stick shooter last year and it’s only gotten better with the year’s worth of upgrades.  The enemy types and challenges are carefully tuned to allow massive destruction, but still require good planning and split-second decisions as the safe areas gradually disappear.  You only get one weapon but it’s a great one to lay waste with, and its superbeam powerup can clear a room in seconds.  You’ll need skill to score-chase, but just kicking back and shooting everything in your path is fun as well.  We Are Doomed is a fantastic take on the twin-stick shooter, showing that you can take the basics of a genre and still make something fresh with enough creativity and style.