Not many games can make me sob into my can of San Peligrino, holding my head in my hands and quietly whimpering “Why? Just…why?” but Project Root is a game which has managed to do just that.
The game is a very simple twin stick shoot ’em up, where the left stick controls your movement around the map and the right stick controls the rotation of your craft, but in this case it actually revolves the world round you whilst you remain pointing upwards on the screen. You have two weapons, one for airborne craft and the other for ground targets, but in true shoot ’em up form, you have unlimited bullets so it’s a case of holding down both trigger buttons and letting rip.
Destroying enemies reveals a very occasional power up, which are a pretty standard assortment of homing missiles, EMP blasts, health and shields, and there is also a rudimentary XP system – what you actually gain XP for is a little bit of a mystery, though. Gain enough XP and you get a point to spend on speed, handling, standard weapons, special weapons, air frame and defence. For some reason I could only upgrade the first three options, as no matter what I pressed I could never tab over to special weapons, air frame or defence. Not that the upgrades seem to improve your ship too much, with the ship speed increase near imperceptible and the special weapon differences only apparent when fully powered up.
Graphically the game is quite pleasant, and there are different landscapes to fly over and a decent selection of enemy types to destroy. The first two levels are rather unremarkable but by level four, a lava planet, there are many enemy designs and a fiery backdrop to destroy them over. The music is annoyingly repetitive but thankfully you can turn it down, leaving you with sound of your guns and explosions.
The first couple of levels are challenging to say the least, and it takes a while to get the hang of zooming around the world. It doesn’t help that your ship is welded to the bottom of the screen and always pointing up, as while this gives a you a great view of what’s ahead, you can’t see any of the enemies that attack you from behind.
There are, however, a couple of rather large problems, which are almost game breaking at one point and certainly enough to make a grown man cry into his can of overpriced carbonated fruit juice. Each level consists of a number of missions and these are relayed to you in tiny text in the bottom-right corner of the screen, but as this is a bullet hell shooter, you really can’t stop and cast your eyes down and focus on the writing before it vanishes. It means that the plot and mission have usually disappeared before you can read it, which isn’t so bad when your objective is highlighted on the radar, but that isn’t always the case.
The first time this happens is on the second mission, where your radar is jammed and you have to destroy the dish cutting off your signal. Now if the play areas were small then this wouldn’t be too hard, but they’re not, they are massive. Add in the fact you are spinning around faster than Kylie in her hotpants, and the lack of any landmarks, and within seconds you lose any sense of direction or location.
It took me about 30 minutes to locate the dish; 30 minutes of rotating and constantly being attacked by the infinitely spawning aircraft. It was not fun, and when I did eventually find the dish, my next mission was to escape the play area, which takes around another five minutes of zooming through the huge map trying to fend off the huge amount of enemies in my wake.
With the end of level boss finally destroyed, it’s on to level three, and the mission is once again to locate a jammer in the north east of the map. Naturally, it’s not located on the radar. Guiding the craft north east you will find an invisible wall. Then another. Then, after a bit of spinning around, you lose any sense of location which renders “North-East of the map” completely and utterly useless. Unless you can find your original location, your mission instructions are impossible to follow.
I spent over an hour chasing around the huge map trying to find that dratted radar tower, a maddening task that could have been avoided by having a simple map of the entire play area toggled on to one of the many unused buttons. It’s such a simple thing, and one that really should have been picked up during play-testing – a quick view of the credits (which manages to play two pieces of musics at the same time!) has nobody listed in such a role.
As a consequence of me spending far too long in the first couple of levels, I had picked up a lot of XP which perversely made the later levels rather easier than they should have been. After the frustration of level three, the next couple of sections are pure bullet hell joy. With faster movement and more firepower the game comes alive and there are hundreds of bullets flying around the screen. My happiness also increased when I finally found how to access the second set of XP upgrades – rather than push right, which is what any normal sane person would do, you have to go to the bottom left upgrade and push down!
Project Root is a frustrating game because there is a genuinely good shooter hidden under a number of poor design choices. It is rather like a Michael Bay movie in that when it works, it works really well, with explosions going off left, right and centre, hundreds of bullets and a genuine sense of excitement. However, it also shares the same problems and the levels are far too sprawling, the plot is terrible and sometimes you have no idea what is going on. I really hope there will be a sequel and the team do some serious play-testing and refine the game.
Version tested: PS4