Waves² has been in Early Access for a while, getting slow but regular updates that have added new features and game modes exactly as one would expect in the development cycle. The original Waves was a great twin-stick shooter and its sequel looked to follow in its footsteps, but despite a host of game modes and changes to progression, it still felt a little much like an expansion pack rather than being a true sequel. The updates have been laying the groundwork for the major changes, though, and now that they’re here Waves² is feeling like a whole new game.
The latest update adds 27 new items to the original loadout with another three on the way, and these are set up in six categories. Primary and secondary weapon, health, utility items, and other modifiers are all available, six options per category, and they have a strong impact on how you play. It’s going to take a bit of explaining of the base systems to understand how it all fits together, though, because while Waves² is a fairly straightforward arena shooter on the surface, it’s got a good number of sub-systems working together to keep your deadly rolling disco ball firing at maximum power.
The action takes place in the usual arena, some wide open and others with columns to negotiate. Enemies spawn and attack, and there’s a good amount of Geometry Wars in their DNA. The player ship and its abilities are where the major differences from Waves‘ inspiration comes from, though, and this is where things start getting lightly complicated. You roll a ball around the arena and there’s a circular HUD surrounding it with two bars, top and bottom, that fill up to power your actions. Move and shoot doesn’t cost a thing, of course, but the extra abilities cost either energy or adrenaline.
Energy is health, and the energy bar refills automatically. When the bar is full all is good with the world, but that power also fuels an ability that can drain it empty fairly quickly. Not to the point of self-destruction, of course, but rather one-hit fragility. In the original Waves the main ability was to slow down time, but Waves² gives you a selection of Utility Items to choose from. Slow motion had been the default up until the update, but now there’s also a teleport, a shockwave flinging enemies away, a two second shield, and my personal favorite of the EMP, which drains all your energy in a single blast but freezes every enemy on the screen. On the one hand it leaves you wide open, but with nothing moving (other than any enemies teleporting in after the blast has completed) it’s not like defense is a necessity.
The other bar is adrenaline, and that’s something to be earned. Killing enemies in quick succession powers up the adrenaline meter, and when full you can unleash a powerful burst attack. The original smart bomb cleared out all enemies within a good sized radius, but now there are homing missiles, a beam laser with ridiculous damage, a three-laser rotating barrage called the Death Blossom (everyone gets the reference, right?), and more. When used to full effect the burst attack can instantly refill the adrenaline gauge, letting you chain together a series of screen-clearing attacks that look impressive even if it only buys you a few seconds worth of peace.
The third item category is for the main weapon, and at the moment it’s the least complete with four of its six options available. The other three categories are for the ball’s body, energy, and adrenaline storage, with different effects for speed, armor, health, and other unique effects. Juggling it all to find the right loadout for your personal play-style is always fun, as is changing up how you play to take advantage of an item you might not normally consider.
The usefulness of the items scales up depending on level, and each game sees you start out at level 1. Every destroyed enemy drops a glowing pip, and once you’ve collected enough a white level-up spot appears somewhere in the arena. Rolling over it grants the upgrade, which has a couple of effects. First off is that the enemies get a little stronger, but this is offset a bit by the other effect of one of your items getting a bit more powerful. Each item can upgrade up to five times, but you max out after 18 upgrades total. 6 items x 6 upgrade spots = 36 so there are some choices you’ll need to make. The first upgrade grants the larges total boost, so maybe it’s best to have everything level up at least once, but at what level and order is your call. Focus on the main gun first, maxing it out? Divide it up in an orderly fashion? Tank up on health, or speed up the burst weapon regeneration options? There are a lot of ways to plot arena domination, and you can save up to eight loadouts with different upgrade orders for each one. Initially all you’ve got is the base weapon and items, and worrying about the details isn’t that important, but as you buy new abilities you’ll be wanting finer control on how they power up.
Unlocking items is done by buying them, but currency isn’t as simple as banking your score. Every game mode has purple data vaults show up in the arena and you’ll need to shoot them open then occupy the target to extract their full value. Just rolling over the spot collects the icon, but you can sit there for up to five seconds to maximize its value. At the end of the current run you get a tally of collected data, added to a running total, and when the progress bar is full you get a nice cash payout. It adds an extra goal to the arena that requires a bit of strategy to collect, especially when taken into consideration with keeping a combo alive. Collect data and sit still, risking either being overwhelmed by enemies or, almost as bad, not shooting them down quickly enough to keep the score multiplier alive? Whatever you choose you’ve only got about a quarter of a second to figure it out, same as any other plan made on the fly in an arena teeming with enemies whose only goal is to make you dead.
While it takes a bit to explain, the action of a good twin-stick shooter is always simple. Shoot, use whatever secondary abilities you’ve got when and as they become available, don’t die. Even if you don’t dive into the new loadout options, Waves² has this down cold, with a huge amount of chaos lighting up the neon-lined arena. The main gameplay mode lets you choose from a series of challenges arranged in a hexagonal grid, with three different goals to chase after per per challenge, and you can practice each gameplay type in the arcade mode. Survival, time attack, Chase (5 seconds until death, rolling over the clock icon resets the timer) and Hyperactive (no main gun, but collecting the coffee icon fills up adrenaline so you can use the burst weapon) switch out often enough on the main grid to keep you on your toes and chasing the high score in Arcade mode also makes for good practice. Waves² has a huge amount of twin-stick action in its enemy-packed arenas and tinkering under the hood to personalize your rolling shooty death-ball just makes the chaos better. It’s taken a bit for Waves² to show what it’s been aiming to be, but now that the latest Early Access update has opened up the options, it’s clear how this is a proper, deeper sequel to the original excellent game.