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Review: Jamestown

Jamestown is a title rife with bizarre paradoxes: it’s a four player local co-op shmup–on the PC. It’s set in the troubled colonies of the 17th century–on Mars. It’s a 16-bit era bullet hell shooter–released in 2011. One thing that certainly isn’t a paradox, however, is that it offers exceptionally smooth, tight, graceful game mechanics, and it’s a pure delight to play.

Upon booting up Jamestown, you’ll find your eyes assaulted with some of the coolest pixel-art cinematics in recent memory, eloquently recounting the tale of Raleigh, a colonial fleeing execution by the king back home. A few clicks later, and you’re blasting away in a spacecraft in classic overhead scrolling shoot-em-up fashion, taking down robotic threats along with hostile Martians, all while musket-wielding redcoats march along the red roads below, taking fire at the troublesome aliens. The art is simply superb and complements the gameplay well, highlighting threats perfectly while never distracting the player from concentrating on movement and targeting.

Look, Ma, fireworks!

What good is eye candy without solid gameplay? Naught, I say, naught! Fortunately, Jamestown delivers with well-crafted mechanics that make for an intense, dynamic, bullet-ridden affair that goes beyond the genre’s usual level memorization and twitch reflexes. I used the word “dynamic” for a reason: Final Form nailed the often-illusive ebb-and-flow gameplay that so many developers ignore, forcing players into either a wearing, constant high that fatigues and burns out gamers or else a quiet, low-key experience with scarcely a rush in sight.

Let me give you an example of its superb dynamics: my two teammates just went down in flames into the Martian landscape, we’ve got no continues left, I’m holed up in the corner of the screen as the enemy’s guns whip around to finish me off. A torrential rain of bullets and lasers rocket toward my little craft; I’ve got nowhere left to flee to. Miraculously, a gold coin from a spent enemy craft drops toward me, giving me the last bit of juice I need to activate my Vaunt power, a two-second shield with residual damage and point multiplier effects.

Desperately, I slam the Vaunt key, clearing the section of the screen of the scorching lasers, and my craft’s engines roar as I make a last-ditch effort to reach the precious Revive All power-up floating behind enemy lines. I snag it just in time, my wingmen return with guns blazing, though I myself take a fatal hit just as my shield sputters out. The room erupts in cheers and high fives, but just as the enemy count begins to dwindle, a somber, menacing strain begins to play, and a gigantic one-eyed alien monster emerges from the swamp below. That, my friends, is dynamics. I’m getting worked up just typing this. It’s like getting an ubercharge in TF2 right as you rush to take the last point, or taking an adrenaline shot in Left 4 Dead 2 just as you hear a tank began to smash his way toward your team. It’s perfect.

We're attacking the darkness

Don’t think that level memorization doesn’t play a part though. After three or four attempts, you’ll notice your progress improve dramatically as you subconsciously begin to recognize enemy craft & bullet patterns, allowing you to weave in and out with the game’s simple controls. I played with the keyboard, the mouse, and a gamepad, and all three input mechanisms were pretty much flawless, though I probably prefer the mouse. You’ll unlock four types of spacecraft as you earn money for completing main story missions, of which there are five, and an extensive collection of difficult challenges, all playable with up to four people in local co-op.

That co-op play is one area in which Jamestown truly shines, as you strategize with your buddies over which craft will work best in each of the varied environments in the campaign, which will take you deep into the heart of enemy territory across the alternate history Martian landscape. Don’t get me wrong, the single-player is enjoyable and meaty, but for this game to transcend into pure awesome territory, you’ll need to man up and call your friends over. Don’t be scared; I know it’s not the internet play you’re so accustomed to, but consider this a history lesson in how we old-time gamers used to play.

The Martian landscape catches a bad case of the chicken pox

Have I mentioned the soundtrack? Oh boy, the soundtrack! It’s genuinely moving and perfectly matched to each stage. “Moving soundtrack” isn’t something you generally associate with a shmup, but the dramatic, boomy orchestrated tunes mesh with the gorgeous 16-bit visuals to accentuate the action, and to highlight the moody, dark sections of the levels. When you come across the ghastly scene at the abandoned space colony of Roanoke, you’ll see what I’m talking about. The choir’s lofty strains in the final boss battle give way to an upbeat F-Zero-esque guitar solo-laden rock tune that will have your fist pumping in defiance.

Surprisingly, the story is well-written and compelling, another component that tends to get neglected in the genre, even by some of the AAA developers. The over-the-top pixelated cheeseball sci-fi storyboards are brilliant, and the diary-style narration from the protagonist, a perspective which extends even to the missions’ subtitles and start screens, is witty and cleverly done.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAFJ64AdPrQ&w=580]

A run-through of the final mission & boss of Jamestown

In a world of me-too shooters plagued by uninspired presentation and flat gameplay, Jamestown is a standout, a breathtaking experience that not only hearkens back to the golden age of gaming but also smartly offers fresh game mechanics at every turn. Jamestown has rock-solid mechanics, beautiful art direction and depth of content, and it’s a pure joy to play.

Developer: Final Form Games
Genre: Scrolling shoot-em-up
Time: 4-5 hour campaign + challenges
Gripes: There aren’t more games like Jamestown
Get it for the: Goregous presentation, inventive gameplay, intense action, local co-op
Full disclosure: Final Form gave PXOD a copy of Jamestown for reviewing purposes. I completed the campaign and some challenges, both singleplayer and 2-3 player co-op.

4 Comments

  1. Victor Dang says:

    It’s set in the troubled colonies of the 17th century–on Mars.

    BUT HOW DO THEY BREATH

    Now that’s a paradox for you.

    I’ve been itching to play a bullet-hell game for a while, and this looks like the greatest thing to hit me this year. So say, good man, where can this be bought?

  2. […] “In a world of me-too shooters plagued by uninspired presentation and flat gameplay, Jamestown is a standout, a breathtaking experience that not only hearkens back to the golden age of gaming but also smartly offers fresh game mechanics at every turn. Jamestown has rock-solid mechanics, beautiful art direction and depth of content, and it’s a pure joy to play.” – Press X or Die […]

  3. […] sandwiches very seriously. Oh, and Jamestown also happens to be excellent; be sure to check out our full review. Share […]