Posted by Sammy Barker
Sometimes a game comes out of nowhere and completely blows you away. Coconut Dodge – the first Minis endeavour from Brighton-based studio FuturLab – had that impact upon almost everyone that tried it. Simple in premise, but deviously addictive, the arcade mini-game was a captivating affair that still holds our attention today. Its successor, Velocity, has been a long time in the making, and subsequently can’t rely on the same element of surprise that its forerunner so successfully capitalised on. Yet, even with retuned expectations, Velocity manages to delight in almost exactly the same way as its crab-shelled counterpart. FuturLab has not only beaten the sophomore slump – it has utterly obliterated it.
On first appearance, Velocity is little more than a 90s stylised shooter. The game’s industrial art direction provides a strong throwback feel, and that’s accentuated by the title’s powerful retro soundtrack. But beneath its deceptive visual direction is an experience that’s delightfully original, and brimming with innovative ideas.
At its core, the gameplay is familiar. You control a wonderfully responsive ship tasked with the challenge of rescuing stranded survivors strewn across 50 scrolling mazes. Dancing patterns of alien forces will occasionally attempt to hinder your progress, prompting you to clear a path using your craft’s on-board intergalactic weaponry. As a shooter, Velocity is strong enough to stand up on its own merits and compete with the throngs of other retro blasters already available on the Minis platform. But while most other developers would call that a day, FuturLab is only just getting warmed up.
The acceleration mechanic is the first idea that the studio introduces, allowing you to squeeze the right trigger to increase the scrolling speed of the stage. Each level rewards you with XP bonuses for beating specific quotas, so you’ll want to keep your finger held on the boost button for as long as possible. Of course, this is a risky mentality, primarily because rescuing survivors also lavishes you with XP rewards. As such, it’s all about finding the balance between speed and accuracy in order to achieve the maximum benefits. XP is then used to unlock new levels, and continue your progress through the campaign.
But it’s when you start teleporting that Velocity’s genius really begins to unfold. Holding the Square button triggers a cursor, allowing you to dynamically shift your shuttle between previously inaccessible areas of the maze. The mechanic is introduced slowly, but quickly becomes a necessity, as you dash around the map avoiding enemy attacks and hunting for switches to help you advance through the stage. Couple this with the aforementioned time trial challenges, and it really creates a wonderfully intense experience. But FuturLab still isn’t finished.
Later on you unlock the ability to plant teleportation points anywhere on the level. These can be used to essentially rewind the stage, allowing you to explore branching paths and scoop up even more survivors. Add this to an increasingly complex switch mechanic — which requires you to hit numbered and coloured triggers in specific sequences — and the shooter begins to adopt a puzzle-like mentality. Later stages introduce embedded switch patterns, requiring you to deploy multiple teleportation beacons throughout the level in order to discover brand new routes.
On paper it sounds overwhelmingly complex, but in practice the mechanics work seamlessly. Velocity’s visual communication is great, giving you on-screen prompts when you need to place a teleportation beacon, and also highlighting the next switch in a particular pattern. It perhaps shouldn’t work, but it does, and that’s a testament to the intelligence of the developer more than anything else.
If there’s one area where Velocity falls short, it’s through bomb distribution. The mechanic essentially allows you to send out a powerful attack in four directions (rather than the bog-standard front-facing machine gun), but limitations of PSP’s control set have rendered this somewhat imprecise. If FuturLab was designing the game for just PS3 or Vita, you could imagine this control would be mapped to the right analogue stick, but here it requires you to push in a direction in addition to hitting the Circle button. It certainly works, but at the expense of the control of your craft; while it’s a minor niggle, it can be a frustrating when it costs you a life.
Thankfully, restarts are well-implemented. Checkpoints are fairly spread, and there’s never a loading screen in sight. Like Coconut Dodge, the game’s immediacy gives it an addictive one-more-go flavour. It’s really easy to dive back into a level the moment you die, but it’s similarly simple to continue your progress throughout the campaign when you succeed. Velocity may be designed with portability in mind, but it’s a tough game to put down once you get started.
The art style is fantastic too, with static cut scenes adding some narrative context to the otherwise arcade-focused campaign. This is in addition to a soaring soundtrack produced by Killzone composer Joris de Man. The amount of actual audio variety may be limited, but what’s included is so well executed that you’ll be humming the tunes for weeks.
Above all else though, it’s the tangible love and attention that’s been thrust into Velocity that makes it such a must-own game. The credits screen, for example, prompts a shooting mini-game which rewards you with XP should you destroy enough names. Meanwhile, the in-game pilot’s computer not only includes a clever way to keep track of your progress, but also features a fully functioning version of Minesweeper. Sure, it’s additional fluff, but it all helps to sell the fiction.
Velocity is a truly remarkable achievement: it’s inventive, clever and brimming with ideas. Most impressively, it shows an emerging developer at the very top of its game; one that, based on the evidence of this outing, is destined to do wonderful things in the future.