Demo Driver 8: Starlaxis Supernova Edition

I mean, when that -lax is right in there...

I’m not the only one who thinks that this game has a title which sounds like a particularly advanced laxative, am I?

So.  Puzzle Quest.  You remember it, right?

It’s been several years since that title hit the market, but for such an odd little title you wouldn’t have expected it to spawn countless imitators.  Yet here we are, and here we are with another variant on the concept.  Starlaxis Supernova Edition is very much a game that owes a great deal to Puzzle Quest, but this time it’s trying to cross the slow burn of strategic gameplay with the puzzle-matching action you find in, well, puzzle games.

Does it work?  After playing the demo for half an hour, I’m not altogether sure.  Certainly it’s an interesting take, and certainly it’s not a bad game.  But unlike some of the more successful genre blends I’ve covered for this feature in the past, the combination is not more than the sum of its parts.  It’s just.. the sum of its parts, and while in some places that makes it a bit more engaging, in others it’s more off-putting.  I feel like the whole thing is a net zero, in other words.

The story for the game that you’re shown for the demo is fairly bland, the sort of thing I see as “college kids trying to write anime to appeal to college kids.”  At far-enough-in-the-future the sun starts going out, lots of humans start going out to try and collect a very specific kind of plot energy to restart it, something is trying to stop them, space battle space battle Earth is saved.  The past few games in this feature have been kind of light in the plot department, haven’t they?  Sorry about that.

All of it’s basically immaterial except insofar as it affects the gameplay.  In short, you are a guy in a spaceship that controls via the most absurd set of rules ever.  You have a box, blocks drop into the box.  Three blocks of the same type and facing will destroy one another.  There are three different types of block, one with four letter faces (A,B,C,D), one with four number faces (1,2,3,4), and one with four directional faces (up, down, left, right).  Simple enough.

Matching three, however, is not your goal.  Instead, your goal is to match these blocks in sequence to form commands.  So B and a left arrow get your ship to move left on the grid beneath your puzzle box.  D and 2 allows you to open fire.  You get the idea.

I'd like to say the graphics look better in play, which is often the case, but...

Careful where you point that thing.

As you clear more and more missions, you can upgrade your various combos to have greater effects if you toss in more blocks.  So C-3-left activates your shield, but C-3-left-left will activate a more powerful shield that can take more hits before fading.  Enemies have HP counters above their heads, and they’re destroyed once those HP counters are reduced to nothing; you, meanwhile, simply lose rows on your puzzle container thingy as your systems get damaged.  It all fits together.

Sounds like something I’d like, yes.  But I’m not sure if it all works together nearly as well as the designers wanted, and it’s not helped by the fact that, well… the game just isn’t pretty.

I feel bad critiquing the art in this game, honestly.  Honestly, a lot of care and thought was put into making it all work.  But the 3D bits feel like they were rescued from a Playstation game circa 1999, and the hand-drawn bits lack a certain degree of polish to them.  Maybe it’s because all of them are unshaded, I don’t know.  The net feeling is just amateurish, rather than stylized.

I’m not the sort of person to heavily critique graphics most of the time, but when those graphics do, in fact, cause issues with the gameplay, that deserves criticism.  It’s often really difficult to tell an opponent’s HP without looking closely at the display and squinting; there’s a starfield background there which makes it really difficult to pick out individual pips.  Facing and directions are also hard to tell, and it’s not helped by the fact that the bland box up above seems to wash out a lot of details.  Nothing feels like it was designed without thought; it just feels like whoever was working the art direction had no eye for making this game about puzzle-matching space battles look exciting.

It's the thing best communicated by stills.

The visual appeal should be a little thing, but… dang.

The actual battles, though, are marred by some technical weirdness.  For example – there’s no way to turn your ship.  You can move in a direction, yes, but you can’t rotate to shoot in a given direction, and you can’t move if you’re blocked off.  Instead, you have to make weirdly circuitous motions that don’t really work.  It feels counterintuitive.

There’s also no clear way of knowing what order things will go off at any give moment; enemies act at regular intervals rather than playing the matching game along with you, but they don’t seem to reliably have a priority compared to your attacks.  This is kind of important when you consider that you really had to decide how and when you’re pacing several of your drops, so that you can know if landing your attack will happen before your enemies attack or if you need to shield first.

None of these things make the game unplayable, mind you.  It’s not even a bad game.  It just feels a bit on the amateurish side, like there are a lot of elements that the game either lacked the time or budget or necessary attention to detail to fix.  Which makes the whole thing feel… well, for lack of a better term, it feels tedious.  There’s a slog to it.

I would be lying if I said there was no fun to be had here.  It’s a pretty solid game, and if you have a hankering for something a bit more strategic than the aforementioned Puzzle Quest it could be a solid diversion.  But rather than being a great blend of different genres, it comes across as a strategy game with a weird control scheme.  That’s not quite enough to light me on fire; Defender’s Quest you are not.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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