The structure of failure in gaming isn't what it used to be. Limited lives and dwindling continues are dying out, instead making way for ever-replenishing health bars and multiple re-spawn points. Simply put, our video games are getting easier. While some titles certainly stray from this convention, for the most part, streamlined experiences have become the new industry standard, and being forced to restart a game due to permadeath just doesn't fit with the flow. Our characters are disproportionally powerful to the hordes of foes they face, and success comes more from determination than memorisation or reflexes. Take away a player's incentive to survive unscathed, and you take away the incentive for mastery.
But that is exactly what StarDrone demands — mastery. The game starts off simply enough, teaching you the basics in some incredibly easy tutorial levels, but by the end of the journey you'll be cursing the controller and playing the same area twenty times over before sussing it out. There is even a trophy awarded for this. It's called “Epic Fail”.
When the game is at its best, it is a masochistic gem. The challenge never quite feels impossible but is still often times infuriating. Yet this is a good thing here, as it is the compilation of all of these epic failings that makes you feel so damn good when you actually master the controls, memorise the layout of a stage and put it to sleep.
The game is comprised of about 50 different levels, each laid out like some gigantic cosmic pinball machine filled with bumpers, hazards and rails. After launching your drone, you have to manipulate its trajectory by grappling onto beacons spread liberally throughout. Attaching to a beacon is performed by pointing the reticule over it and pressing the Move button. Once attached, the drone will swing and attempt to circle the beacon until you release. And that's pretty much it. There is only one button used in gameplay, and the entire title is built around this simple mechanic.
Grabbing onto a beacon will cause your drone to swing in that direction, and to navigate the many turns and twists of a level's layout, you'll need to stagger your grapples back and forth to quickly zig-zag past spikes or avoid enemies. While things start off simple with beacons out in the open, soon you'll have to act fast to avoid nearby walls, enemies, bumpers that reverse your direction and spikes that kill you instantly. The Move controls are fast and responsive here, allowing you to react quickly and make the split-second decisions needed to survive. There's also a handy map in the bottom left corner that lays out the entire stage, showing the position of your drone and various objectives.
There are four level types in all, each with a specific challenge to meet. One has you lighting up every star in the level to finish, while another has you collecting a handful of gems spread throughout the stage and returning them to their rightful spot. The other two task you with either surviving the level and reaching the goal at the end or destroying all the enemies in the stage.
Combat is performed by smashing into patrolling enemy drones – however, doing this in your normal state won't hurt them, causing you to take damage and ricochet off of them. If you deplete your energy to zero, it's game over. To destroy enemies, you need to light up enough stars to build your combo meter and activate "Comet Rush" mode, which transforms you into a faster orange drone capable of smashing through obstacles and enemies. This only lasts temporarily, but can be sustained by lighting up more stars. The combat mechanic enables some clever level design that requires you to manically collect stars while weaving through huge patrols of menacing enemy drones, only to turn the tables at the last second and smash them to bits. Pulling this off is incredibly satisfying, especially the same bad guys previously caused you to start the level over from scratch.
Failing won't spawn you at a check point or task you with only collecting the remaining gems or stars in a level. If you die, you start over from scratch. This means all the enemy drones return, all the gems go back in place and all the obstacles you destroyed return. To get though without repeating the same mistakes, you'll have to do some major memorisation. The game isn't above dropping cheap surprises on you either, so you'd better be able to anticipate the spike-riddled 180 degree turns to avoid sling-shotting yourself into a black hole. The pleasant retro-styled music makes repeating a level more bearable, but for a game with around 50 levels, it could have used a few more tracks on the soundtrack.
The graphics can be a bit repetitive as well, with the same bumpers, structures and enemies to fight repeated throughout. Each level is laid out with identical mines, hazards and spiked walls to avoid, and the two enemy types offer little variety of combat. Even the power-ups, which grant you abilities like automatically smashing through nearby foes, appear so infrequently that they add little to the core gameplay. This makes navigating some levels a bit monotonous, as you are often required to plug through a lengthy, albeit easy sequence to reach that same spot at which you keep dying. Repeating the same simplistic navigation or riding the same series of rails can get old, especially if it's your twenty-fifth time gliding through. Also, the difficulty curve seems at times erratic, and it is not uncommon to be underwhelmed by a simplistic stage right after you toppled a real challenge. The level progression could benefit from a re-shuffling.
Still, even after you complete a stage, the medal system gives you plenty of reason to return. Each area awards you a bronze, silver or gold depending on aspects like completion time, points gathered and stars lit up. There is a fair amount of trophies to be earned, and the addition of online leaderboards ensures there will always be a top score to beat.
StarDrone is a challenge, its hardest stages tasking you with surviving perilous layouts, fighting off drones, managing quick ricochets and swinging past deadly spikes by the skin of your teeth. The range of difficulty seems unbalanced at times, dropping you into easy-as-pie levels after stages of controller-snapping difficulty. It would have been nice if the challenge ramped up earlier on, as the repeated obstacles, hazards and enemies make the easier levels a bit of a snooze. Still, the medal system and leaderboards give you some incentive to revisit these stages and max out your score. Winning requires things like memorisation and repetition, which may turn some players off, but if you're not afraid to die, StarDrone is worth every penny.