Review: Steel Rain (Steam)

Several months have passed since I played and reviewed a representative of the Shoot ‘Em Up genre (“SHMUP”, if you like abbreviations). I always “fall back” to casual or less so, genres and games after too much strategy or abstract concepts. It’s even better if the new titles I review are also entertaining and bring something new to the table. Sector Six was fun. The game I’m writing about today, has surpassed it though.

You may regard Steel Rain as a spiritual successor to Sky Mercenaries yet truth be told, developer PolarityFlow focused on the SHMUP genre during their debut years without a common plot to link those titles to one another. It’s not bad thing at all, it just shows that they striven to improve their projects as much as I always seek to improve myself and my writing methods.

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A Sci-Fi premise that is becoming increasingly ominous: Humanity has taken Terra’s “development” to the point of no return. Faced with starvation, unbearable pollution and endless war for the few remaining natural resources, a well-funded expedition into the uncertainty of Outer Space seems like the only logical conclusion for the human race’s odds of survival. Three colony ships left Earth in search of a new home.

Only one escaped a deadly encounter with the Xenox, a race of sentient machines which may or may not be related to the Borg or Reapers. They’re bad news, that’s about the only thing that counts. As the numerically superior antagonists, your task is to defeat them by not being outgunned as well. Humanity’s last hope, rests on your shoulder and the skill with which you shall maneuver a modular ship against the Xenox menace.

By modular I mean less like in Sector Six’s case in which players had a direct influence in designing the vessel and more like an advanced catamaran held together by a laser beam, almost like the Podracers from Star Wars. The seemingly weird choice of an aircraft with two distinct hulls is closely tied to the three modes in which the ship may fire at its foes. I’ll be detailing that in the gameplay section but for now, let’s focus more on the storyline.

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It’s surprisingly elaborated, given the genre which more often than not simply points you towards the bad guys and cuts you loose. Space invaders or not, humans will fight against the Xenox over control of habitable planets which may be colonized upon removing the robotic threat. Colonization opens up a world of possibilities related to your own task. New resources which may be invested in upgrading both the ship and its auxiliaries such as support drones and better equipment.

Couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that Steel Rain might be powered by Unity, so I’ll go with my second guess that it might be a proprietary graphics engine. PolarityFlow are perfectly capable of handling that, given their previous experience. The developer acknowledged the use of GameMaker Studios assets and it’s refreshing to see other engines being used by indie games. Unity doesn’t need the entire stage when there are other actors just as deserving, after all. For most of the players, it will truly matter if the game runs stable and has the eye candy to make it stand out from the competition. Yes, on both accounts. No SHMUP should not be enjoyed at less than 60 frames per second and Steel Rain never had a single fps drop or glitch. Booting the game on Windows 10 seems a bit tricky at first, with a black screen “greeting” players.

Alt+Enter and setting the game to Windowed Mode, is a temporary fix but one which didn’t deter me from enjoying the overall experience. I was assured by the developer that a permanent solution to this OS issue, is on the way. The designated Steam Overlay screenshot button doesn’t work, yet pressing F12 seems to be a good alternative to it, if you’re as interested in screenshots as I am.

The pacing of the gameplay is perfectly matched by the soundtrack containing mostly Dubstep and other electronic music subgenres. No voice acting is present, but the narrator’s few lines of dialogue, mostly serve as tutorials and mission briefings. Considering Steel Rain’s genre, I’d say that the sound assets were adequate both in quantity and sheer quality.

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So what is really separating this title from the legion of Steam counterparts? We can all agree that the digital platform has no shortage of Shoot ‘Em Ups. First of all, Steel Rain mixes RPG elements with a linear but still story-driven gameplay. The upgrading system is certainly the main incentive to become better at playing the game. It won’t be easy, but the sense of achievement is well represented. Far from having the reflexes of someone who plays SHMUPs very often, I did found a difficulty that wouldn’t punish me too much in the end.

With all that’s happening on screen once you start the mission, you must have both patience and distributed attention. Both in-game credits and the power-ups which may save you from failing the level float around amidst swarms of enemy ships, homing missiles, mines and laser blasts. It can get quite chaotic and the key to success is switching between the shooting modes which also provide varying defense bonuses.

The mouse scroll allows for rapid switching between “ship formations” as I’ll refer to them. Another interesting concept which is sort of a novelty, are the color coded weaponry and bonus types. Your obvious, first choice for upgrading should be the green skill chain which shall provide the ship with repair drones. You’ll be dying/failing the missions quite often on the first two planets, so it helps to have some form of auto-healing and just focus on avoiding traps while shooting down foes.

Apart from the tutorial planet, there are 8 more to unlock and eventually colonize, thus ensuring humanity’s survival. Grinding is a sad reality if you wish to reach the highest echelons of power in Steel Rain, but at least you don’t have to replay the campaign missions in order to gain more credits. Orbit Patrol and Quests are a nice distraction which also feature visual diversity. Still grinding, but It’s less of a chore than playing on the same backgrounds over and over again.

For a 2015 release no less, Steel Rain is still having very little direct competition on Steam. Only full 3D rendering would improve the existing formula and perhaps PolarityFlow will release a sequel for this game in the future. By featuring both Cards and Achievements, even Steam collectors have a reason to pick this title up.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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