StarDrone Extreme should be a mess: the game has a longer list of influences than an experimental electronica band. But somehow developers Beatshapers and Orb Games have managed to fuse the title’s extensive list of disparate inspirations into a cohesive package, and against all odds produced a tremendously enjoyable action puzzle experience.
Outside of the Extreme moniker, this is largely derivative of last year’s PlayStation Move-powered release. All original 60 device-tossingly difficult levels have been recreated, with a handful of additional Vita exclusive stages thrown in for good measure. Interface enhancements, touch controls and cross-platform compatibility round out the improvements, making it an attractive expansion for newcomers and existing fans.
For those new to the series, StarDrone is an amalgamation of multiple gameplay concepts. At its core, your objective is to guide a wandering spacecraft through a series of intergalactic mazes using the gravitational pull of touch-activated beacons. One of the most intriguing concepts is that you’re never given direct control over the spacecraft itself, just the ability to manipulate its trajectory — a feature which transforms the well-dressed collect-a-thon into a maddeningly moreish test of dexterity.
But such a brief summary barely scratches the surface of StarDrone’s many more complicated concepts. It's heavily influenced by pinball, as evidenced by the inclusion of rails and bumpers which allow you to glide and bounce around stages to satisfying effect. Dimmed stars can be collected to increase fuel – prompting an overdrive mode which converts your humble spacecraft into an armoured war-machine capable of thwarting the threat of nearby enemies. Layer these mechanics on top of combo and timed score multipliers, and you have the basis of an extremely complex game – but one that’s surprisingly easy to learn.
Part of what makes StarDrone so accessible is its outstanding level design. Finding the optimal route through a stage might take a few attempts, but it’s blisteringly satisfying once you uncover it. Objectives range from clearing a maze of enemies to returning a quota of gemstones back to a specific panel – basic stuff enhanced by the intricacy of the maze design and challenge of the core mechanics.
It’s worth noting that StarDrone is an exceedingly fast game. While you can lower the speed in the options – at the expense of reducing your score potential – it’s best experienced at its fastest setting. There’s something tangibly gratifying about tossing your spacecraft around at maximum speeds, and thankfully, save for some very minor frame rate hiccups, it all runs smoothly on Vita.
It controls better on Vita too. While the PS3 version opted for the laser-like precision of the Move motion controller, Extreme benefits from the even more accurate implementation of touch screen controls. This works exceptionally well, allowing you to select the beacons you want your spacecraft to rotate with a simple tap of the screen. The execution is smart and forgiving enough to exactly predict your next move without demanding too much precision; touch in the rough area of a beacon and the game will pull you towards it. It’s a necessary concession for a game that demands quick reactions, and is a far superior mechanism to the finicky Move controls and imprecise DualShock 3 support in the PS3 version.
The controls are hampered by limitations of the touch screen itself, which naturally insists that your finger obscures a portion of the action. In a high-octane arcade experience like StarDrone it becomes problematic as you desperately try to look beyond the finger in contact with the screen. To eschew this issue the developer implemented rear touch input, which allows you to control the action from the back. Unlike so many first-party releases, this intelligently maps an icon on the front of the screen showing the location of your finger when in contact with the rear panel – something all Vita games should do moving forward. Despite this, the front touch controls remain the most precise of the variants. While it’s not flawless, it’s the best of StarDrone’s current control schemes across PS3 and Vita.
The visuals work in Vita’s favour too. The precision of the OLED screen allows the game to run at full speed without the ghosting or image deficiencies that can occur on some LCD panels, and its colourful nature really pops on the system’s smaller screen. The user interface has been given an overhaul too, gradually revealing picture puzzles on the screen as you complete levels. While StarDrone Extreme's not exactly pushing the visual potential of Vita to its limits, the vibrant graphics and addictive audio make it an attractive title.
Less attractive is the 'Skip Level' feature. Touted as one of the selling points of the game, this option appears when it detects you’re struggling on a stage. The problem is, to take advantage of the feature you’re transported to the PlayStation Store and given the option to stump up the cash for a DLC pack which unlocks every level. StarDrone Extreme is a relatively inexpensive game to begin with, so this isn’t quite as offensive as it first appears, but it does seem a bit cheeky in its implementation – though it's certainly not something exclusive to this game.
One of the other big new additions to Extreme is the inclusion of cloud saves and, subsequently, cross-platform compatibility. The implementation isn’t quite as slick as in first-party titles such as MotorStorm RC, but it gets the job done in allowing you to share progress between the console and handheld release relatively easily. Here you need to manually save and load using a button tucked away in each of the games’ Options menus. An automatic save and load feature would have been preferred, but the solution is slick and works well enough to make this a well conceived addition.
Other cross-platform features include shared scoreboards, so Vita players can compete against the highest point tallies on PS3 and vice versa. Naturally this improves replayability, and with a bunch of medals to collect for every stage, StarDrone Extreme is effectively brimming with content.
The accessible format, improved controls and lowered price point make StarDrone Extreme a much more attractive proposition than its already solid PS3 predecessor. Furthermore, it’s launching at a pivotal point in Vita’s lifespan, when the exhaustive launch line-up is starting to feel like a distant memory, and the most exciting new releases are still a few months away. Beatshapers and Orb Games’ high-octane action puzzle title is the perfect antidote to the post-launch blues, and, despite some minor difficulty barriers, is a worthy addition to your growing Vita collection.