Back once again for the on-rails space shooter, as Fatboy Slim never sang, here we are with Burning Soldier, an(other) on-rails shooter that plays to the strengths of the 3DO’s video streaming capabilities whilst proving once again that there is a reason why this particular genre didn’t survive the 1990’s.
Having already reviewed Starblade and not being overly impressed, I thought I’d give the genre another go and, having been recommended Burning Soldier, settled down one Saturday afternoon to see what it could offer.
Naturally, there is a story, told by the obligatory introductory FMV. In 2095 the Kaisertian race attacks Earth and conquers the human race. So far, so simple. Then we get a recap stating that tens of thousands of years ago, the Kaisertians came to Earth and built the Mu Empire, subsequently destroyed ten thousand years ago in a natural disaster. They’ve now come back to reconquer the planet and Earth’s defence forces have to rock up and kick these Alien Queen homage’s off Earth. It’s trash, as far as stories go and, you know what, it doesn’t really need anything more to link the 18 stages of Burning Soldier. Still not sure how the name ties in with the game but hey, who cares?
Graphically, this is an early 90’s video overload, from the “period” FMV sequences to the kind of alright sprites superimposed over the video backgrounds. They’re both effective enough, though the various enemies could do with more animation and they look progressively worse the closer they get to the player. Similarly, the explosions don’t look too bad in the distance, if a little small, but again, close up is not pretty. There does seem to be a happy medium here but since most of the on-screen objects are either moving towards or away from you, you’ll not get to see that very often. What is noticeable is the players view – the action is framed by the border of your cockpit, at times well under half of the screen is actually your window to the action. Not game breaking, but takes the shine of things, especially when playing on a 14 inch TV… Incidentally, if you think your ship looks kinda familiar, it’s not a million miles away from Red Dwarf’s Star Bug… let’s call it an homage (again), shall we?
Sound wise, the CD soundtrack is suitably… nineties. From overly happy Japanese guitar music to techno dance riffs, it’s got enough variety and beat to keep up with most of the action but there are missteps. Stage 6’s accompanying music comes straight out of a hotel lift and really does not suit blasting aliens. Neither does Stage 13’s guitar work keep with the aesthetic, more suited as it is to a late night Channel 5 movie… allegedly… The best, however, is saved for last, where a five minute 80’s ballad plays over the credits. Not what I was expecting, but different and rather good.
Sound effects are decent, there’s not much to say about them, but the vocal work is on another level. Like most early CD titles, this is filled with voice overs, the primary one being the narrator/commanding officer. Po-faced and oddly stilted, it’s a prime example of how not to do this kind of presentation. The delivery is flat, there’s no emotion linking the words to events and I’m wondering how stoned the guy was when he did the recording. I mean, the line “I’m going to the front” has all the panache and gravitas of an announcement of going to the loo! The odd repetition of “Disgusting” also raises eyebrows. Is he referring to me or something in the game???
Of course, these presentational quirks would pale into insignificance is the game was brilliant. Which it isn’t. It’s an on rails shooter, meaning that the stages are going to play out until you run out of time, reach the end or die trying. Same with boss fights – don’t score enough hits in the allotted time and it’s instant death. Not that it’s game over, as you have infinite continues and it feels as if this game is begging you to finish it. However, whilst the easiest difficulty level will see you finish the game quite quickly, the highest difficulty will provide a challenge for a lot longer. Whether your thumb will keep up with you is another question. There is no auto fire so you’ll be hammering that A button like nobody’s business. Even the charged shot ability, using B, isn’t much of a rest, given that it can’t target enemy fire. Speaking of controls, the aiming reticule is a pain in the posterior, D-pad aiming being jerky as hell and at least fifty percent of the hits you take will be down to your not being able to smoothly aim at the targets. That’s beyond frustrating at times. Maybe this was considered when designing the game as quite a few of the enemies and a lot of incoming fire seems to occupy a layer in the middle of the screen. Quick tip – outside of boss levels, get to understand what can damage you and ignore everything else on screen.
Still, Burning Soldier is not a long game as those 18 stages can be ran through in less than half an hour. The shortest stage can be done in 30 seconds, the longest in under 90. Yes, 90! Aside from the change in difficulty, there is zero reason to return here unless you want to go for a high score, and once you’ve clocked it on easy, listened to the ballad over the end credits and savoured the artwork and concept gallery that plays after those, you will have literally seen everything. Having said that, I found the game quite tense and exciting to play, especially once I’d taped the controller to the desk and found a comfortable position to use the D-pad and mash that A button. Not sure if it’s a good thing that you can play this game without physically holding the controller though.
There is the option for co-op play, which I didn’t get to try out, and if you are lucky enough to have four pads and three willing accomplices, there is a secret cheat for a four player mode. You have to give them credit for that, at least.
Burning Soldier is not a terrible example of the on-rail shooter genre. Sure, the music is cheesy and the graphics are nothing much to write home about, but it has a certain appeal. However, it lacks depth and re-playability, which is a charge that can be levelled at the genre as a whole, and those control issues do add a level of frustration. I feel this game is one for hardcore genre fans only, and whilst it can be fun and reasonably exciting, the reed-thin gameplay means it is hard for me to recommend to a wider audience. Is it better than Starblade? I would say it’s evens.
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Within the constraints of the genre, Burning Soldier isn’t bad per se, but poor controls and pitiful brevity mean it’s for hardcode fans only.